Lexington, Kentucky - What's going on here? A Subaru and a Porsche 911 on the same page? In the same test? That's right, Dr. Stuttgart von Zuffenhausen, read it and weep. The scrappy Impreza WRX is finally here, and, as the boxer-gourmand Mike Tyson once quipped, it wants to eat your children.
Not that the 911 and the WRX are competitors, really. Their prices mark two far-flung nodes on the sticker spectrum. Also, one's a coupe and the other's a sedan. Most notably, one's silver and the other's orange. But, in many important ways, these cars are bound together--by the rallying heritage of their all-wheel-drive hardware, by their boxer engines, by their emphasis on handling, and, finally, by their ability to blend refinement with the kind of performance that drains the blood out of your brain.
Even when you examine some of the more intangible aspects of these two, the pairing seems apt. Both are catalysts of male tumescence. Both are basically racing cars for the road. And if you are a rally enthusiast or a PlayStationista, it's fair to say that the WRX holds as much allure as the 911, despite being nearly $50,000 cheaper.
Inasmuch as the Subaru divorces status from price, the WRX is just as revolutionary as the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the Volkswagen New Beetle, or the Mini. Like those fun-buckets, this Subaru is a car you aspire to own not because of its cachet or exclusivity but because of its ability to connect with you on some deep, emotional level. It's an anti-status symbol. Unlike the aforementioned cars, though, the WRX isn't cute, and it isn't from the Target School of Design. You want the Subaru because you've seen what it can do on (rally) stage and (video) screen. Besides, who do you see driving New Beetles and PTs, anyway? That's right, Old People. The WRX is for the young enthusiast. It's a serious car, an all-out performance icon.
The 911 is similarly iconic, with a lineage dating back thirty-six years. Around the time of the car's birth, Ferry Porsche famously said of it: "We have the only car that can go from an East African safari to Le Mans, then to the theater, and then to the streets of New York." The car's protean talents have created a generation of enthusiasts who still ache to own a 911, even if both they and the car are graying at the temples. The Subaru, on the other hand, is a toddler, only just Americanized. WRX models--street versions of the Imprezas girded for World Rally (WRC) battle--have been available only since 1993 and only outside the United States. Since then, Yankee gearheads have been tantalized by the car, especially in its 276-bhp STi version. The first model that comes here in March will be a 227-horsepower WRX, but more powerful iterations are sure to follow.
Still, after our preliminary drive of the 227-horsepower car on its press launch, we thought it was good enough to prove that you don't need big money to buy the kind of handling, performance, and manners heretofore offered only by the greatest of Alpine cruisers. We also noticed something of the Porsche in the way the Subaru went down the road. To test these theses, we put our two high-performance classics--one old, one new--to our favorite bluegrass-lined roads for a flogging. There we asked the question: Are these two cars really in the same league?
Fire up the Porsche, and you hear a soft-rock version of the familiar flat-six opus. The engine note is mellower than in the previous-generation type 993, but it still whirs and flutters as a Porsche should. Similarly, though Porsche makes a big deal of the fact that the 996 is an all-new car, the company's old endurance-racing imperatives have shaped this 911's driver environment, its controls, and, ultimately, its performance. From the Le Mans-inspired key placement to the night-friendly lighting to the steering's sensitivity that keeps the entire driving process lucid after a dozen hours behind the wheel, the Porsche proves that what makes a car great on the race course can also give road drivers an almost heroic sense of control.
On this trip, we encountered an eight-hour storm of sideways rain, ice-caked Kentucky Interstates, and snow up the wazoo. The 911 was wearing summer tires, but it felt, in the words of road test coordinator Monte Doran, "like a bullet train." At one point, though, the car performed a sort of low-speed, balletic lane-change maneuver that was wholly unintended. Doran was able to correct it by simply laying down some throttle and activating the Porsche Stability Management (PSM) skid control that's standard on every all-wheel-drive 911.
The car can be driven in third gear all day, through almost any corner, along highways at double the old 55-mph limit. Power mounts so incrementally that the 911's throttle is as vital a source of control as its steering or its brakes. And, oh, those brakes! They are little pieces of jewelry--cross-drilled and vented and probably as expensive as a Harry Winston engagement ring. They stop the car with precision, seriousness, and a pedal heft no other street car can match.
In fact, seriousness is a key word for the whole car. This is a grown-up sporting machine. All its parts have been worked over and buffed to an almost lapidary smoothness. As a result, the current 911 is mature, relaxed, and self-confident. It nearly never does anything untoward, and its handling behavior is now as predictable as an episode of Scooby-Doo.
If the 911 wears its age on its sleeve, so does the WRX. The Subaru is as light as the 911 is hefty, as impetuous as the Porsche is stable, and as explosive as the 911 is measured. Nevertheless, if you really examine the cars back-to-back, the WRX reveals itself to be simply a less polished version of the 911. The WRX is not quite as refined, not quite as quiet, not quite as developed, but both cars have the same tactile directness born of the same engineering solutions. In fact, it's uncanny how much these cars have in common.
In terms of ride, the WRX and the 911 strike an almost identical balance of soft wheel impacts and stiff, well-controlled body movements. Both cars are extremely rigid, which allows their suspensions (both have strut-type fronts) to damp the wheels and control the body motions instantaneously. And, just as the 911 is known for its long-stroking suspension, the WRX has an amazing eight inches of wheel travel. These cars don't just read the road, they subject it to strict Freudian analysis.
In handling, too, both cars take the same tack. The 911 and the WRX are set up for mild initial understeer that segues to a neutral phase, then, finally, to oversteer. The 911 does the dance in a very progressive manner, with lots of electronic aids to help the driver stay out of the guardrail. But while a WRX slide can be adjusted with careful applications of the throttle, an overeager foot prompts the notorious Swedish Flick of rallying legend.
The Subaru's steering talks loudly and forcefully to its driver, which makes the car's gathering up fairly easy. Eventually, this kind of sideways jackassery becomes intoxicating, even confidence-inspiring: When you know that you can quell the most extreme yaw angles with the available mechanical controls--steering, brakes, throttle--you feel downright invincible.
Same goes for the powerplant. Because the WRX has a goodly amount of turbo lag, a certain familiarity with the gearing and powerband is necessary to harness this car's power fully. Below 3000 rpm, the 2.0-liter four is dead, but just above that critical mark, the power mounts to a 7000-rpm crescendo, just as in the 911. Those pining for the lowdown grunt of the normally aspirated 2.5-liter four of the Impreza 2.5 RS can find solace in the fact that Subaru turbocharged the 2.0 instead of the 2.5 because WRC rules stipulate that the road car must use the same engine block as the rally car. As for why the WRX produces only 227 horsepower from this engine, we figure it's because the car is emissions-constrained in the United States (the WRX wears three catalysts already) and also because a 280-horsepower version would necessitate new heads and plumbing that would push the base price over $30,000. People may eventually pay that for a Subaru, the marketing folks reason, but not yet.
Even with its merely ample power, this car is as close to the old Porsche 944 Turbo as you'll find today. It's a nimble, front-engined handling machine, a tad immature, maybe, but utterly thrilling when driven properly.
Funnily enough, the 911 used to be like this. It was a car you had to learn to control, a car that rewarded good execution. It gave its owners an almost irrational confidence in their driving ability, the unfortunate byproduct of which was the popularity of those horrible Porsche satin jackets in the '80s. Now, the Porsche 911 is too harried by insurance companies to leave its raffishness exposed, but it, like the WRX, retains the short wheelbase that, to the trained eye, means power oversteer.
There are numerous explanations for all these similarities, but none as substantial as the one offered by Mike Shields of noted Subaru tuner SPD Tuning Service. He says: "It is not an accident that only two car companies in the world have maintained long-standing engineering companies separate from their production and marketing organization. One is Porsche/Audi, and the other is Subaru. [There's also Lotus--Ed.] During the 1960s, the Japanese government made plans with the major keiretsu to understand the world's manufacturing leaders. At that time, Nissan engineers studied Germany, while Toyota sent engineers to England and Italy. Both generally dismissed American design aesthetics but paid very careful attention to American engines. If you put a 1968 Datsun 510 on a hoist, it looks exactly like a BMW 2002 but is about 300 pounds lighter. If you take apart its engine, it looks just like a period Mercedes-Benz powerplant, except for the kidney-shaped 327 fuelly Chevrolet combustion chamber and the optional close-ratio five-speed with Porsche synchros in it. This was around the time that Subaru was founded. These Nissan and Toyota engineers trained the Subaru engineers. This was also the time of Porsche's ascendancy to greatness, and, while the great Ferrari-Mercedes-Maserati, Mercedes-Jaguar, Lotus-Ferrari, and Ford-Ferrari battles captured the imagination of this first generation of Japanese engineers, it was the sheer technical mastery and dominance of Porsche that impressed the core Subaru engineering staff. They understood Porsche's message quite clearly. An Otto-cycle engine is a convenient hot-gas generator for a turbine-powered car. Invent the computer-controlled engine-management system, and the rest is history. The Subaru WRX engine is best thought of as two-thirds of a Porsche 956/962 engine."
There is still another, less demonstrable explanation for these cars' spiritual bond. In the cosmic sense, both the 911 and the WRX are icons, and icons--not just cars but people and places, too--tend to exist in a vacuum. Each one has a little bubble of protective space around it, making it impervious to comparison, immune to marketplace competition. Take James Dean, for instance: Who can approach his mythic aura? Or Garfield the Cat: Who could better encapsulate the angst of America's youth than that irascible, pot-bellied tabby? And yet, despite their peerlessness, icons often share certain fundamental similarities. Just as James Dean and Garfield both hail from Fairmount, Indiana, so were these two cars born in the same place. The WRX and the 911 are not competitors, really, but they're very definitely in the same league.