I confess: I am not one of the first-wave faithful. Ten years ago, I didn't stay up nights wondering why Subaru kept holding out on the American public.
I didn't seek out ratty old VHS tapes of Colin McRae launching his car off of European hilltops, and I didn't daydream about wastegate whistle or chuggety flat-fours. And when Subaru finally brought its fat-fendered Impreza WRX to our shores in 2001, I barely batted an eye. Eh, I thought, it sounds like an air-cooled Volkswagen that's lost a plug wire.
None of that matters, however, because I am now a man converted. Over the past six years, I've gained a healthy appreciation for the famed Scooby-Rex. (Its limpetlike grip, old-school character, and abundance of hammer-down-a-dirt-road wheel travel are awfully persuasive.) As a package, the 2001-07 WRX may have been slightly flawed and kind of outdated, but it was also a happy little ball of quirky entertainment. Somehow, the new car isn't.
For 2008, the base Impreza and the Impreza WRX have been redesigned from the ground up, but something seems to have been lost in the transition. For starters, the new car's looks are in no way similar to the old one's. Gone are the frameless door glass and the chunky flared fenders. Gone, too, are the quirkily styled front end and the seemingly tacked-on hood scoop, replaced by far more mature and bland-looking items. Once again, two body styles are available; the four-door sedan returns, but the compact station wagon has been replaced by a five-door hatchback.Both the sedan and the hatchback represent a massive change in direction for Subaru, both aesthetically and philosophically, but the new Impreza and WRX essentially carry over their predecessors' powerplants and transmissions.
The base Impreza's normally aspirated 2.5-liter flat four gets a new intake port design and a new catalyst system and now delivers 170 hp (3 hp less than before) at 6000 rpm and 170 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm (a gain of only4 lb-ft). The WRX's 2.5-liter turbocharged flat four gains no power or torque - output stays at 224 hp and 226 lb-ft - although a new intake manifold and turbocharger and a lighter, more efficient intercooler result in a significant change in how the boxer's thrust is delivered. The WRX's power peak now arrives 400 rpm earlier, at 5200 rpm, and its torque peak comes 800 rpm earlier, at 2800 rpm.
The Impreza was redesigned with an eye toward broadening the car's customer range, so its wheelbase grew by almost four inches, and the sedan's overall length is up by four and a half inches (the hatchback is two inches shorter than before but offers more head- and legroom). The added interior space is evident in both body styles, but you're still not going to confuse the back seats with a stretched-out Barcalounger. Between the added space - why do most manufacturers consistently feel the need to enlarge their small cars? - and the homogenized, could-be-any-company's styling, you're left with the singular impression that Subaru desperately wants to be loved, like Toyota, by the nonenthusiast American masses.
When you're behind the wheel, the Impreza and the WRX initially feel like they've always felt, but they're also much quieter, much calmer, and much easier - the WRX especially so, thanks to its newly flattened torque curve - to drive quickly. This is both a blessing and a curse: you cover ground faster than you would in the old car but with less effort and involvement. A new control-arm rear suspension replaces the strut-type setup, and while it offers both greater composure and wheel control (as well as an increase in luggage capacity thanks to its more compact packaging), it also feels a little too softly sprung for its task. The car is tuned to deliver mild understeer at the limit, and although the steering rack offers decent feedback, it's also slightly overboosted, artificial, and prone to kickback.
There's little doubt that the Impreza and the WRX are better cars, in quantifiable terms, than their predecessors. Build quality is impressive, especially considering the price (the 2008 WRX starts at $24,995, Impreza at $17,640). The materials feel good, and the entire package is both practical and functional. The problem lies in the feedback. We've always loved Subarus for how they make us feel, and not simply because of their raw over-the-road talents. Some of this dilution is understandable, as Subaru surpassed the 200,000 sales mark in the United States for the first time last year. For a carmaker, broader appeal almost invariably brings with it a lessening of focus. On the whole, though, we're not convinced: Since when should a Subaru look and drive like a Toyota - and an ugly one at that?