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.