We'll not claim that the WRX will do a hell of a lot in the way of introducing you to members of the opposite, er, party. Because it won't. Unless they're techno-nerds, die-hard foreign-car fans, or members of some clannish Southern California subculture, most Americans like Mustangs better. We'd note this truth time and again, as a representative sampling of the District population, from teenagers to truck drivers, lobbyists to layabouts, pored over our early-production GT, recognizing instantly what it was, and approving, plus or minus three points.
So the WRX isn't the prettier candidate. It has a different worldview and reflects different values from the Mustang, taking a more nuanced yet highly commendable view of freedom. It will not pound roads into submission the way its burly opponent does but will use and giddily subdue them with a viscously coupled four-wheel-drive system and a chuckable, independently sprung chassis. It will give drivers the ability to corner sharply, whatever the weather. The WRX (along with its even more switched-on sibling, the $32,000, 300-hp WRX STi) offers the additional freedom of greater visibility owing to the more upright body style. A redesigned interior for 2005 relieves the hot Subaru of a measure of the econocar drabness that has let it down in the past.
Surprisingly, in terms of accommodation, the Mustang matches or exceeds the WRX in many dimensions, although there's a two-inch rear-legroom deficit and no seatbelt for a theoretical third rear passenger. With seven inches of additional wheelbase compared with the outgoing model, the new Mustang has its largest, most comfortable cabin ever. It also serves up a bigger trunk than the WRX's (12.3 cubic feet versus a minuscule 11.0).
Trading the V-8's wail for the intercooled two-liter turbo four's mad urgency, you access the economic benefit of using less fuel--27 mpg on the highway versus the Mustang's EPA highway figure of 20--and bask in the eternal moral value of lower consumption. And it's only fair to point out that the Mustang's economy drops quickly into the twelves and lower in the city, when you addictively launch the muscle machine away from stoplights with antisocial glee.
The Subaru can get thirsty, too, but is more readily driven in economy mode. With a turbo and just 217 lb-ft of torque, it needs to be caned to get going its fastest. Although the WRX is only a tick slower than the Mustang to 60 mph, at 6.0 seconds, the Ford encourages smoky burnouts, while the Scooby is hands-down chairman of the agility committee. It's a trimmer machine by 420 pounds (3180 pounds versus 3600), which is like carrying a couple of extra lobbyists in your Mustang everywhere you go.
Accordingly, the Mustang remains true to the slow-in, fast-out handling tenets of the pony-car faith. Comporting itself more like a sports car, the WRX stands for a more cerebral kind of driving excitement, held back only by curiously inert steering. The all-season Bridgestone 205/55VR-16 Potenza RE92s might be part of the problem.
Being both strange-looking and boring-looking, attributes that seem to cancel each other out, the WRX is blessed with relative stealth. It blends into crowds better than the Mustang. The aerodynamic wing on its trunk doesn't help, but it's optional, and at least the one on the WRX is less extreme than the one on the WRX STi.
So, which way to go? American traditional? Or original-flavor video-game rally star? Un-doubtedly, more people will cast their lot with the Mustang. It's an American icon and an emotional touchstone for the faithful. The WRX will appeal more to the reality-based community. Fortunately, in the world of cars, we get to choose for ourselves who wins, so differences of opinion can be settled to each person's complete satisfaction. You can even vote twice. What could be more civilized than that?