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2009 Subaru Impreza WRX

Vancouver, British ColumbiaChanges in the automotive world tend to happen at a snail's pace. It often takes years for manufacturers to recognize and correct the problems that cause would-be customers to walk out of the dealership empty-handed. Not so at Subaru, which pulled the handbrake on its new-for-2008 Impreza WRX, flicked the steering wheel, and executed the quickest one-eighty this side of a rally stage.

Last year's WRX was known in Japan as the S-GT. Subaru thought the market for an enthusiast WRX had evaporated, so it designed the S-GT to be a cushy grand tourer. Subaru of America must have convinced its parent company otherwise, because last year's WRX gets a few extra interior goodies, loses it manual transmission, and wallows its way out of North American dealerships with a "2.5GT" badge on it.

Meanwhile, the rally-inspired, come-beat-me-up WRX is back with a profoundly enhanced suspension, more aggressive exterior styling, and a whole lot more power. Like before, it's available in two body styles: a vaguely Korean-looking four-door sedan and a four-door hatchback. All '09 WRXs receive an STI-like grille and a slathering of spoilers, splitters, and sill extensions. The hatchback gets a rear diffuser, while the sedan boasts a new dual-exhaust treatment. Standard seventeen-inch wheels are now painted gray for a more sinister look, and the cabin gets a few STI touches, too, including metal pedal covers and red stitching on the sport seats and the leather steering wheel.

Turning that steering wheel while cornering at speed no longer results in Buick-style body motions, and the WRX's overall grip has been greatly improved thanks to 225-series summer performance rubber in place of last year's 205-mm-wide all-season tires. The extreme suspension makeover comes courtesy of springs that are more than 40 percent stiffer, revised dampers, and STI front upper strut mounts. The antiroll bars are significantly firmer, too-22 percent stiffer in the front and29 percent in the rear.

Last year, we complained so much about the suspension that we barely mentioned that there was also lots of room for improvement under the hood. Subaru didn't wait for us to bring it to their attention. For '09, the 2.5-liter flat four is force-fed via a larger turbo and produces 41 more hp, for a total of 265 hp. More important, the bigger blower dramatically changes the engine's personality, trading a little extra lag down low for huge gains at high revs. Last year's WRX ran out of breath above five grand, but the new engine pulls like the STI's, yanking the tach needle right into the red with virtually no drop in thrust. Helped by a curb weight that is some 220 pounds less than that of the STI (the WRX lacks the STI's fender flares, front and rear limited-slip diffs, sixth gear, Brembo brakes, eighteen-inch wheels, and driver-adjustable AWD systems), the WRX is only about half a second slower to 60 mph.

The WRX isn't perfect-its five-speed manual transmission is vague and rubbery in its action, which is especially disappointing because the STI's six-speed is superbly precise. It still suffers from occasionally violent steering kickback over midcorner bumps, its brakes fade easily, and like other 2.5-liter turbocharged Subarus, the laggy engine surges noticeably under acceleration. The revised suspension gives the WRX a magic carpet ride, but insufficient rebound damping still lets the car float around when driven quickly.

Nevertheless, the '09 WRX is a vast improvement over the '08-and for about the same price. Few cars in this price range are as capable, quick, or fun. In fact, it seems the only thing faster than the new WRX is Subaru itself.

The SpecsOn sale: Now price: $25,660/$26,160 (sedan/hatch) Engine: 2.5L turbo flat-4, 265 hp, 244 lb-ftDrive: 4-wheel