Lost in the flashier news of the resurgence of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler -- and the fast-rising profile of Hyundai and Kia -- is the story of Subaru, the small Japanese company which has long marched to a different drummer.
About 10 years ago, Subaru began to narrow its focus, and abandoned any desire to become Honda, Toyota or Nissan. Company executives took aim at a target market -- customers who value utility and reliability over all else -- and pulled the trigger.
When almost all other manufacturers were struggling to stay afloat a few years ago, Subaru continued to post modest gains, and some months was the only mainstream manufacturer to do so. And Subaru quality kept improving. In the April issue of Consumer Reports, the magazine's annual car issue, editors graded the automakers: Honda scored highest with an overall score of 74, but Subaru was second with 73.
While Subaru built its reputation largely on conservative, practical vehicles, the company has an endearing wild side. The Impreza WRX and WRX STi can compete with most any smaller high-performance car on the market, and actually do race in off-road rally series. They are favorites with younger drivers, something proven by the test car, a 2011 Impreza WRX, which drew more than its share of under-25 attention.
The Impreza line begins modestly with the 2.5i, priced at just $17,495 ($18,220 with shipping), and it includes Subaru's trademark all-wheel-drive, air conditioning and the same inventory of safety features found on the top-of-the-line, $38,000 Impreza STi Limited.
All Imprezas, which are available as a sedan or a hatchback, have the same engine -- a 2.5-liter four-cylinder. It's a "horizontally opposed" layout, meaning two cylinders lie flat on one side, two on the other. It's a durable design and easy to package, but Subarus have never been known for their fuel mileage or their smooth, quiet idle, and the test WRX was no exception.
In the Impreza, that engine pumps out 170 horsepower. For our WRX, that engine is turbocharged, and has 265 horses. In the STi, it's further massaged to produce 305 horsepower.
Last year, the WRX just looked like a hot-rodded Impreza, but this year, it gets the STi's two-inch-wider body, flared fenders, bigger tires and wheels and a lot more attitude. The WRX starts at $25,495, which is $7,500less than the base STi. Our Limited edition sedan, which has leather upholstery and plenty of other premium features, starts at $28,995. With an optional $2,000navigation system and shipping, the total cost was $31,270.
The WRX has a 5-speed manual transmission, and the STi a 6-speed. No automatic is available, except in the base Impreza models. It would have been nice to have had that extra gear, but the 5-speed in the WRX shifts precisely, and gear ratios are nicely matched to the potent engine. Fuel mileage, at 19mpg city, 25 mpg highway isn't great, but given the performance, acceptable. Handling is superb -- the STi's handling is a bit better because of a stiffer suspension, but the ride is stiffer, too. The WRX strikes a near-ideal balance.
Inside, all the luxury features were there, though I'd pass on the mediocre $2,000 nav system. Subaru has some work to do in interior design and quality -- aside from the excellent front bucket seats, this did not look or feel like the inside of a car costing almost $32,000.
The rear seat is roomy enough for two adults, and trunk space, at 11.3 cubic feet, is adequate. Though the ride isn't bad at all, it may still be too jarring for some customers -- if you test drive one, find a bumpy road and make sure the ride is tolerable.
It is for me, and then some. With its new look, the WRX is one of my favorite cars, especially at that $25,495 base price level. The ride and handling is what sells me, and I'd pass on the Limited's $5,500 or so add-ons, and I'd be just as happy.
2011 Subaru Impreza WRX Limited
Base price: $25,495
Price as tested: $31,720
EPA rating: 19 mpg city driving, 25 mpg highway
Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged, 265-horsepower four-cylinder
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Length: 180.3 inches
Wheelbase: 103.3 inches
In a nutshell: Big fun, small flaws.
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