After a year with our electric-blue Subaru Impreza WRX, our one regret--other than its leaving our tender embrace--is that Subaru of America didn't bring the car to the United States sooner. What on earth were they thinking to deny enthusiasts one of the performance-car icons of the end of the twentieth century?
Fortunately, Subaru came to its senses and brought us the Impreza WRX for the 2002 model year. A paltry 10,000 cars were allocated for the American market, but so great was demand that the number had to be recast. Subaru sold 18,060 WRXs in an eight-month span. Through mid-July of this year, the company had moved 12,590 WRXs out of total Impreza sales of 21,090. So much for some of our esteemed colleagues in the motoring press who stated that Subaru was taking a risk. There's no risk in satisfying pent-up demand, one fueled by tales from Europe and Japan and Australia about the little Scooby-Doo that could--and has (won a few World Rally Championship titles, that is).
When we assembled for the 2002 Automobile of the Year selection process, the WRX was a no-brainer for our top award. But would the Subaru fare as well in our hands in everyday driving as it did on the roads and racetracks of Michigan? Would slight doubts about build quality show up in the long haul? Would the turbocharged thrills of the 2.0-liter, horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine pale when we started lugging the car around town, off boost, searching for gears?
The answer to all of these questions was that the car never lost its place in our affections. Our Four Seasons WRX was genuinely loved by everyone who drove it, whether going from one side of Ann Arbor to the other or traveling from Michigan to Colorado. We opted for the WRX Sport Wagon over the sedan, because the wagon is a more practical proposition for a staff that has lately been procreating like rabbits, even though the sedan's 0.8-inch-wider front track and 1.0-inch-wider rear give it marginally better grip and handling.
Of course, being paid to nitpick, we did so about various aspects of the WRX. First and foremost, the logbook shows that not everyone was enamored of the bug-eyed looks of this latest-generation Impreza. Overall, we prefer the looks of the old Impreza, although the new sedan appears more muscular than our wagon thanks to its chunky fender blisters.
Plenty of people complained about a lack of interior space. Taller drivers, including design director Darin Johnson, felt that they couldn't slide the seat back far enough for a comfortable driving position. Johnson was particularly worried about squashing his adorable daughters, although this could have something to do with the space-hungry design of modern child seats. When the little critters are old enough to sit on booster seats, as mine now are, the rear seat seems a bit more spacious. But this isn't a car for hauling around four full-size adults, except on short journeys.
The WRX isn't that great for hauling huge amounts of cargo, either, for, although the wagon load bay takes 27.9 cubic feet of goodies with the rear seats up and 61.6 cubic feet with them down, the sloping rear window impinges on the type of things you can carry. Road test coordinator Monte Doran had to discard packing materials for a baby seat he had just bought before he could fit it into the WRX.
Several people complained about the weak-feeling synchromesh on first gear, but founder and editor emeritus David E. Davis, Jr., rebutted those comments: "This car shifts beautifully in any sequence of gears." Some of our WRX-owning readers--who positively deluged us with their reactions--found the shift weak and notchy, however.
Along with our readers, we came to the conclusion that the stock Bridgestone Potenza RE92 tires were underwhelming, but we never actually replaced them. Subaru offers two seventeen-inch wheel-and-tire packages--a $1350 setup with cast-aluminum wheels and a $3035 upgrade with glorious, forged-alloy BBS rims--but we felt that the trade-off in noise and ride quality wasn't worth the gain in grip.
Other quibbles concerned the lack of low-down urge and poor lumbar support from the otherwise admirable Recaro-like seats. Strangely enough, our more vertically challenged staff members were concerned by this, but taller drivers didn't seem to notice. Greg Anderson, our six-foot-four-inch-tall online editor, drove the WRX thousands of miles over the Christmas holiday and never whined.
But, as former motor gopher Reilly Brennan noted at the end of a long list of complaints: "Forget all of the nonsense I just wrote. This is a car I've spent nights dreaming of, and it's finally here. And it's fantastic." Indeed it is. Our car came in at a shade over $24,000 with everything you actually need in daily driving, including a standard six-disc CD changer, cruise control, and power locks and windows. We added an aftermarket XM Satellite Radio at a cost of $285 plus a $10 monthly subscription fee, and many of us were glad we did. Just being able to get the BBC World Service's reasoned perspective on the world around us, rather than listening to yet another rabid right-winger on talk radio, was worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, as associate editor Joe DeMatio scrawled, "the tiny buttons and display of the Pioneer XM interface suck big-time."
Also included in the price is serious performance, with a 0-to-60-mph time of just 5.7 seconds allied to a 140-mph top speed. There is some turbo lag, but it sort of enhances the raw, rally-car nature of the beast. You know when you're on it, because there's an explosiveness at about 3500 revs to tell you so.
Yet raw performance numbers don't do the WRX justice. What clinches its status as one of the performance bargains of this (or any) decade is the ability to cover twisty roads very fast, very safely, in all weather conditions. We would wager that on an unfamiliar road that doesn't have long straights, a well-driven WRX would embarrass someone driving a Corvette Z06, a Porsche 911, or a BMW M3.
The steering, as production editor Jennifer Misaros noted, is "perfect, with just the right amount of weight." The handling is terrific, too, if you use lift-throttle oversteer to dial out an initial tendency to run wide in corners. Once you've got the tail slightly out of line and nail the throttle, the Scooby-Doo grips and goes in a nicely balanced drift. Subaru offers an optional performance suspension package--springs, struts, and an anti-roll bar for the wagon ($1500), plus new control arms for the sedan ($1800)--which one of our readers heartily endorsed as a means of banishing understeer. The brakes are pretty good, although the American-spec WRX has two-piston front calipers in place of the four-pot items that the rest of the world gets. Presumably, this was done to help get the car in below the $25,000 price point.
All this entertainment isn't at the expense of civility. The WRX won't be confused with a Buick on the highway, but as Davis said after trekking to New York and back: "Its most astonishing quality is its ride comfort. We expect it to be fast, and we expect it to maneuver with a lot of self-assurance, but we don't expect it to ride like a far more expensive touring sedan. It is really an astonishingly good road car."
Some of our drivers noted that the WRX looks a bit cheap inside (as did our readers), yet nothing broke or fell off in 29,453 miles of heavy service. The interior trim, paint, and alloy wheels all lasted well. It was inexpensive to run for a performance car, with all four scheduled maintenance stops totaling $556.56. The 23-mpg overall fuel consumption was heavier than we expected, however.
So, the Subaru certainly lived up to its Automobile of the Year status. Nothing, but nothing, went wrong with it, and there weren't even any recalls. For people like me--a driving enthusiast who needs practicality and all-season drivability and who doesn't like spending an enormous sum on an everyday car, as opposed to a toy--it's perfect. And it seems that Subaru has found an awful lot of people out there who think the same way.