Ann Arbor - You already know about the Subaru Impreza WRX, the 227-hp, turbocharged wondersedan and -wagon that are the hottest Subarus to come to America since . . . well, ever. But we've unearthed another shiny nugget in the new-for-'02 Impreza lineup: the 2.5 RS. Although denied its headline-grabbing sibling's turbocharged engine, the 2.5 RS is otherwise so akin to the WRX that it emerges as a standout sport compact itself.
First of all, the 2.5 RS apes the WRX look, sporting the same son-of-a-rally-car fender bulges and massive front air dam and wearing identical sixteen-inch alloy wheels and 55-series Bridgestone Potenza RE92 tires (although the WRX can be had with seventeen-inch wheels, which are not offered here). Opt for the rear spoiler and front fog lights, and the two cars are near twins.
Inside, it's much the same story, as the 2.5 RS has the same aggressive sport seats (but without side air bags); silver-accented dash (with gray, not silver, gauges); and black-leather-trimmed shifter, handbrake, and steering wheel (only it's not a Momo wheel).
More telling than looks, though, is the way the 2.5 RS mimics the WRX's driving dynamics. The chassis feel is nearly identical, with firm suspension tuning and plenty of body control. Despite its all-wheel drive, the 2.5 RS has a degree of playful, throttle-controlled adjustability in corners. Of course, all-wheel drive also negates any torque-induced steering weirdness, while the steering itself offers proper effort and real feel.
For motivation, the 2.5 RS uses Subaru's 2.5-liter four, which is more gritty than free-revving but does muster a gutsy 165 hp and 166 lb-ft of torque, all while emitting that familiar boxer growl. Although this engine doesn't pack the wallop of the WRX's turbo, its response is far more linear, and it moves the 2.5 RS eagerly through traffic. Ultimate acceleration is hindered somewhat by the Impreza's slight porkiness (it's just shy of 3000 pounds), but some of those pounds can be traced to the all-wheel drive, which has compensating benefits in sticking to slippery pavement.
The 2.5 RS and the WRX are the only Impreza sedans; there is no snore-inducing base model, and the old 142-hp, 2.2-liter engine has been banished. The price-leader Impreza is now the 2.5 TS wagon; there's also the Outback Sport wagon. That the 2.5 RS--the de facto base Impreza sedan--competes handily with top-of-the-range sport compacts such as the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V and the Volkswagen Golf GLS 1.8T makes a statement about Subaru: The WRX is no anomaly.