The WRX remains one of the great unsung performance bargains. For just about $25,000, you get a four-wheel-drive turbocharged compact that blows right past a Volkswagen GTI and will hang with $30,000 Chevrolet Camaros and Ford Mustangs. And now it even looks cool, with styling more like its big brother's and less like an Impreza owned by a college history professor (leaving off the liberal bumper stickers will help, too). It's not just a paper champion, either. The turbocharger provides its power in fat, easy-to-use doses, its whine mixing pleasantly with the boxer engine's growl. The stick shift lacks the tactility that defines the best Honda and Mazda manuals, but it doesn't offend and works well with the nicely weighted clutch. Those in search of hard-core handling would probably tighten up the chassis, but with power going to all four wheels, it will still pull through corners with smile-inducing enthusiasm.
Of course, there are tradeoffs. The interior falls well short of Volkswagen standards and is more basic even than what you'll find in an equivalently priced Mazdaspeed3. There are only five cogs in the transmission, although the smooth four-cylinder never really screams for another gear.
My only real gripe concerns the steering, which, as in the STI, remains numb, vague, and dead on-center. But to get any discernable upgrade without giving up acceleration, you're looking at $30,000 for a Mustang or a Mitsubishi Evo.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor