We'll let you in on a little secret: the all-new-for-2008 Subaru Impreza WRX wasn't actually a WRX. It seems that Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru's parent company, decided at some point during the new car's development that WRX buyers had matured and now wanted something softer, quieter, and more mature. They renamed the WRX the S-GT for the home market and tuned its suspension to drive like a Toyota Camry.
Here in North America, though, the car arrived with WRX badges - and a lot of complaints from both journalists and Subaru fans. Subaru reps assure us that the car sold reasonably well - but to a dramatically different (read: older and less enthusiast) buyer. In an effort to recapture the WRX buyer - the tuner guy - Subaru pulled a rally-style 180 for 2009.
The 2009 WRX can proudly wear its name badge again - this is definitely not a Subaru-style Camry. First things first: the suspension has been fixed, with springs that are 43 percent stiffer in the front and 42 in the rear. The anti-roll bars have been increased in size by 22 percent in the front and 29 percent at the rear. The dampers have been recalibrated, and the front upper strut mounts are straight off the STI. Last year's 205-width all-season tires have been replaced by 225-mm-wide summer performance tires.
All 2009 WRXs receive an STI-style grille and a standard aero package, which includes a front lip spoiler, side ground effects, front and rear bumper extensions, and a rear spoiler. Five-door versions receive a rear diffuser; four-doors receive a new dual exhaust. The seventeen-inch wheels are now painted gray for a more sinister look, and the interior gets a few sporty touches such as metal pedal covers and red stitching.
The 2.5-liter flat-four continues on, now force-fed at 13.3 psi (up from 11.4 psi) courtesy of a larger turbocharger similar to the STI's. Peak power jumps from 224 to 265 hp, torque from 226 to 244 lb-ft.
Oh, but those peak numbers tell only part of the story. From behind the wheel, the new engine's manic pull to redline feels nothing like last year's asthmatic lump. Whereas that engine fell on its face suddenly over 5500 rpm, the new engine pulls hard right to its 6400-rpm fuel-cut, STI-style. The difference is monumental - the new engine makes more than 70 hp and 60 lb-ft of torque more than the old one at redline. Although its power peak is well short of the STI's 305 hp, the WRX weighs some 220 pounds less than the STI, and it feels almost as quick.
Of course, the STI is still the king of the Impreza line. The WRX makes do without the STI's flared fenders, nineteen-inch wheels, limited-slip differential, DCCD and SI-Drive driver-adjustable systems, six-speed manual (the WRX has only five forward gears), or Brembo brakes. Then again, the STI is available as a five-door only; if you want a conventional sedan, the WRX is your only choice.
Well, not quite - last year's WRX continues on for 2009, now called the Impreza 2.5 GT. It comes with a slow-shifting, decidedly unsporty four-speed automatic transmission that admittedly fits the car's personality. It uses last year's WRX engine and suspension. The resulting 2009 Impreza lineup makes much more sense - the base, normally aspirated 2.5i model complementing the 2.5 GT for non-sporty drivers; and the WRX and WRX STI for the kids (or kids at heart) who want some fun.
The WRX isn't perfect - the sedan in particular is not easy on the eyes. The five-speed manual is a little vague in its action, which is particularly disappointing because the STI's six-speed is bolt-action precise. The WRXdam still suffers from occasionally violent steering kickback over midcorner bumps, and its brakes fade quickly on back roads. Like all 2.5-liter Subarus we've tested, the engine is surge-y and suffers from significant turbo lag. The revised suspension rides wonderfully, but insufficient rebound dampening leads to wallowing during spirited driving. As a package, though, the WRX is finally back to what it always was - a fun, quick, and nimble four-wheel-drive compact car. And it remains an inexpensive one: we expect the WRX to start at less than $25,000, only a modest price increase for a major increase in personality.