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Expert Reviews 1 of 10
By Joe Wiesenfelder
January 29, 2008
The Subaru Impreza WRX is the rare type of car that combines year-round drivability, day-to-day livability and reasonable comfort with versatility — and is, all the while, a blast to drive. Along with a change in exterior styling, the 2008 has a better drivetrain, chassis and interior, and they make the WRX more tempting than ever.
Available as a sedan or a four-door hatchback, the WRX is basically the middle between the regular Impreza and the WRX STi, the latter of which is an uncompromising fire-breather that's modeled after Subaru's championship rally car. To see what's changed for 2008, check out a side-by-side comparison. There's also an Impreza Outback Sport, which is like the better-known Outback, a larger model. Exterior & Styling Let's not mince words here: When it comes to styling, Subaru went off the deep end a few years ago and brought us such gems as the B9 Tribeca — later blandified — and a couple models whose grilles were supposed to evoke parent company Fuji Heavy Industry's proud aircraft heritage. That the aircraft in question were the Japanese Zeroes that kamikazied themselves into the U.S. Navy in WWII must not have seemed significant to the Subaru product people. In the end, these designs were also zeroes, and they did more damage to Subaru's reputation than they did to us Yanks.
Along comes the 2008 Impreza WRX, looking still different than any other Subaru and a little odd in the front, but I must say it works better when you see it in person than it does in photos. The tail of my test sedan was more agreeable, recalling the Scion tC and any number of other cars. Its taillights are relatively simple, but at least they're not silver under clear lenses. Sadly, the same can't be said of the hatchback, which prolongs this tired trend that I'm confident history will judge as harshly as I have. The typical automaker sees a sedan as a more conservative choice that's likely to appeal to older buyers. Apparently hatchback buyers are perceived to have bad taste.
One improvement in the model's look is a better-integrated hood scoop, which draws in cooling air. Previously it stuck up higher — and does even more so on the STi. Engine Changes Complete redesigns tend to bring the most dramatic changes, from the styling to the mechanics. A few things have changed in the WRX drivetrain, but I fear it's not enough. The 2008 model seems exactly like the 2007 until you look more closely at the specifications. The engine once again is a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder, and it has the same horsepower and torque specs. There have been some changes in the power distribution over the engine-speed range, though.
Subaru WRX Engine History
turbocharged 2.5-liter H-4
turbocharged 2.5-liter H-4
turbocharged 2.0-liter H-4
Horsepower (@ rpm)
224 @ 5,200
224 @ 5,600
227 @ 6,000
Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
226 @ 2,800
226 @ 3,600
217 @ 4,000
Source: Manufacturer data
The peak horsepower and torque coming 400 and 800 rpm lower, respectively, on the rev range means the engine has more oomph when accelerating from a stop, in addition to climbing up to cruising speed or passing. The car doesn't really take off until close to 4,000 rpm, but it's not anemic beforehand. The greater improvement in this regard came in 2006, when Subaru replaced the original 2.0-liter engine with the 2.5-liter, adding torque and bringing the peak down where it's more accessible. The original WRX, though loads of fun, had rather profound turbo lag. The changes have made it a non-issue, or close to it. One Gear Shy To solve the problem for good, and improve the car markedly, Subaru needs to replace the five-speed manual with a six-speed. So that you know where I'm coming from, I'm not someone who demands six speeds in everything; theoretically it can improve acceleration without sacrificing high-speed cruising, but that doesn't make it a necessity. There are some cars that work just fine with a five-speed manual. The WRX just isn't one of them. The gear ratios are relatively far apart, such that I found myself driving in 1st gear — around parking lots, in slow-and-go traffic, etc. It might not be damaging, but I was taught that 1st gear exists to get you into 2nd gear, where the driving starts. I drove in 1st gear more in the WRX than I have in any other car I can think of.
You can also opt for the four-speed automatic with clutchless-manual mode. Again, four speeds isn't a lot for an automatic these days. I haven't driven it, but I doubt another gear or two would hurt, and it would likely improve gas mileage. The WRX gives up some efficiency compared to the regular Impreza, and the WRX's turbocharger requires premium gas. The highway rating is 25 mpg versus the Impreza 2.5i's 27 mpg. The cars' city ratings are the same at 20 mpg — though the new model's manual transmission costs you another mpg, for 19 mpg. (Remember when manuals were always more efficient?) For what it's worth, the city mileage is up over the previous WRX's 18 mpg.
Four-wheel antilock disc brakes with brake assist are standard where the regular Impreza has rear drums. They perform very well, and they don't require as much pedal pressure as Subarus of the past — a common complaint. All-wheel drive is of course standard, as is an electronic stability system with traction control for added protection. More on the all-wheel drive in the next section. Ride & Handling In the 1990s, Subaru's SVX was a quirky but compelling all-wheel-drive sport coupe, but it wasn't well-known. It's the WRX that woke Americans up to the idea of a Subaru performance car — and of all-wheel drive as more than a feature for tackling foul weather and unpaved roads. All-wheel drive is good on dry pavement for the same reason it excels on the slick stuff: It prevents the wheels from spinning freely, which not only keeps the car moving forward, it makes sideways sliding less likely when you get overly enthusiastic with the accelerator.
The center differential doles out torque to the front and rear axles under orders from a Variable Torque Management system. According to Subaru, VTM barks its orders based on factors no fewer than the throttle position, battery voltage, generator rpm, wheel speed, brake status, lateral g-force and automatic transmission fluid temperature. Obviously the last one there applies only to cars with the optional automatic transmission. Come to think of it, all of the factors apply only to the automatic. As in the previous generation, the manual WRX has — instead of the genius system just described — a dumb viscous coupling. The stability system ensures that the driveline isn't completely brainless, but it is reactive where the VTM version is meant to be proactive.
This sounds like a major bummer, but as I said about the previous generation, I have no problem with the way my manual test car operated. It felt grounded and surefooted in aggressive cornering, and I was even able to rotate the body around and drift a bit when the stability system was off. The hero of my test session was the tires. They were very good at holding the road, and when they lost traction they did so gradually, predictably and relatively quietly. I began to suspect they were summer tires.
To my surprise, the standard tires were all-seasons, Bridgestone Potenza RE92As rated P205/50R17, classified as high-performance all-seasons. The tradeoff, because there always is one, is that they have a relatively low treadwear rating of 260 and the replacement cost is $199 apiece, according to tirerack.com.
From a broader view, I prefer all-wheel drive that sends more torque to the rear wheels as a default, because it gives a more balanced, rear-wheel-drive feel. The WRX's two all-wheel drive setups are more front-wheel-drive-biased, though the automatic's system can throw more power to the rear. This is just a matter of preference.
The WRX's weakest handling attribute is its steering, which is low on steering feedback and doesn't snap back to center when coming out of a turn — without help, that is.
The previous generation's taut ride quality has been tamed somewhat, improving its already reasonable day-to-day livability. Along with the car's significantly quieter cabin, this makes for a more refined experience. The Inside The interior is quiet enough at idle that one time I didn't even realize it was running. That's when I recognized Subaru finally seems to have licked this engine's chronic idle vibration. In this model and others, the turbo four previously exhibited a rough idle that caused the car to bounce gently but irritatingly when waiting at a stoplight.
Even back at the 2007 New York auto show, where we first saw the 2008 WRX, it was clear that its interior had been much improved — enriched and definitely up to date. The sport seats are comfortable and supportive, with modern tight-weave fabric and sky-blue stitching. The dashboard shares its overall design with other newish Subaru models. Though plentiful, the faux-metal trim is inoffensive, maybe even effective. The gauges are bright and supplemented by a centrally positioned display at the base of the windshield that includes stuff like a trip computer and clock. The optional navigation system is right below it — nice and high and with a touch-screen interface. Well done. Livability, Continued Sometimes sport seats sacrifice such things, but this driver's seat has a jack-style height adjustment. There's no cushion angle adjustment, but I was comfortable regardless. A tilt/telescoping steering wheel is standard, along with a center armrest that adjusts forward and up.
Under the armrest is a storage compartment with a 12-volt outlet and, in my car, audio/video input jacks. Its size is only so-so, but the locking glove compartment is decent and its latches are on the sides of the lid, which makes it less likely to damage its contents. Some other nice touches include a lock for the manual trunk and fuel-filler releases along the driver's seat. Backseat Headroom is good in the sedan's backseat, but with the driver's seat fully back my knees pushed well into its soft backrest. With it in my driving position, for full clutch engagement, the backseat gave me knee room to spare. The center floor hump is about ankle-high, and the center seat itself is raised and not at all comfortable. Even so, for most use I'd consider this car a four-seater.
Note that the hatchback has slightly different interior dimensions, including a lower passenger volume of 88 cubic feet versus the sedan's 90 cu. ft. Its front headroom is almost a full inch less than the sedan's. Its rear headroom is 0.6 of an inch less and legroom is 0.7 of an inch less, but its rear hip room is a couple of tenths greater than the sedan's. Safety Still think you can't have it all? Check out the Impreza's crash tests, which at the time of publication are the best in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Small Car class, with top scores for frontal and side-impact collisions. While the Impreza is a Top Safety Pick, which also includes top scores for rear impact, the WRX has different seats that haven't been tested, so the WRX isn't a Top Safety Pick — or at least we can't assume it is.
Standard side-impact torso airbags for the front occupants, plus curtain airbags that cover the side windows completely, are standard and contribute to the model's good scores. Cargo & Towing If you're looking for cargo space, the hatchback is the better choice, as you might have guessed. Volume behind its backseat is 27.9 cu. ft., more than double the sedan's 11-cu.-ft. trunk. With its backseat folded, the hatch's cargo area expands to 66.6 cu. ft. Though a maximum measurement is characteristically not available for the sedan, its rear seats also fold forward, extending the usable cargo space.
The WRX's towing capacity is 2,000 pounds — pretty good for a car, especially of this size. WRX in the Market Though all-wheel drive is proliferating, not much of it has hit the compact-car class, and the WRX finds itself floating around the $25,000 mark — a good $8,000 cheaper than the VW R32 (basically a GTI with all-wheel drive) and $10,000 cheaper than the Quattro version of the Audi A3.
The WRX adds more than $7,000 to the price of an Impreza. Aside from the added performance, what this gets you is automatic climate control, leather on the steering wheel and shifter, a backseat armrest, 17-inch-alloy wheels (instead of 16-inch-steel wheels), rear disc in place of drum brakes, and sport seats, to name the biggies.
The WRX has matured into a refined sporty car that's about as well-rounded as any you'll find. Only you can decide if the WRX has it all, but most other models have a lot less.