This isn’t my kind of vehicle. It’s a subcompact, and I’m not; it’s kicky and youthful, and I’m not; it likes exercise and I don’t; it enjoys getting muddy, and I don’t, and it’s in-your-face brash, whereas I prefer subtle understatement. But, just like a pound puppy, the Subaru Impreza RS once again won me over, even before it wagged its tail. I was as sorry to see it go as I’ve been with far more expensive iron, not least because we had a bit of snow and ice at the time.

The front and rear spoiler treatment, as well as the nonfunctional hood scoop and intake vents, are pure eyewash, although . . . in the case of Subaru perhaps they can be defended as homage to its illustrious World Rally Championship heritage. (Where rallying means getting from Point A to Point Z in the shortest time, with extra points for leaving the ground and smashing into trees and spectators. It’s more of a Scandinavian thing ­ their TV isn’t as good as ours.)

New for the 2000 model year is a four-door configuration. I don’t know why they call it a sedan – that term is anathema to under-30s. Here’s a freebie for the ad department – call it the Impreza quattroporte. It sounds totally Tuscan, and by the time buyers have figured out what it means, they’ll be hooked on its practicality. The four-door version of the machine costs the same as the coupe ($19,295 base) and the extra portals are complemented by a low-profile rear spoiler, unlike the more prominent Dukes of Hazzard appendage the coupe gets. The more integrated one is less obtrusive in the rearview mirror and does just as much good at legal speeds. Besides, it allows the other styling excesses to shine more brightly. For what else can we call a scoop that doesn’t scoop? In ancient times, a scoop served a purpose – it opened up a direct path to the carburetors under heavy throttle so a big hairy V-8 could get enough air to wash down the gas it was guzzling. Sometimes the valving mechanism malfunctioned, and that was a lot of fun in the rain.

I’ll let you in on a little secret Subaru won’t trumpet – the sedan actually affords a teensy bit LESS room for hips and shoulders in the back seat than does the two-door . . . but what there is, is SO much more accessible. It would be hard to cram three adults in the back, of course, but considering the target age group for a car like this, two daters might consider it ideal. The really fun place to be, though, is behind the wheel. Of the obvious competitors enumerated above, only one – the A4, optionally – has what the Impreza has: all-wheel drive.

Actually, Subaru offers two different types of AWD, depending on whether you choose a manual or automatic transmission. With the automatic, it’s an electronically-controlled system Subaru calls Active AWD. Normally, 90 percent of the power is directed to the front wheels. A variable transfer clutch in the transaxle redirects power to the rear when an array of sensors tells the control unit th at it’s appropriate, as under acceleration on dry pavement as the car’s weight shifts to the rear. With the speed of silicon, the mechanism can anticipate the car’s (driver’s) needs. On manual cars, the familiar viscous coupling center differential is employed. In this case, normal operation sends the power equally to front and rear axles. As one axle begins to spin faster than the other, indicating slippage, the fluid heats a bit and thickens, which causes power to be diverted to the slower axle until equilibrium is again achieved.

This is similar to Audi’s torque-sensing mechanism, and it works extremely well on both high- and low-friction surfaces. I had this version of the RS, and it climbed a snow-and-ice-encrusted slope as if it were a hot summer’s day. The same grade at the same time foiled a front-drive car with traction control. (These tests get me out of shoveling – luckily The Commandant has a 4WD herself.) New this year with both versions of theAWD is another visco fferential in the rear. So, as in the slope-climbing example cited, a majority of power is sent aft, and then the rear wheels work it out as to who can use more.

The only thing that’s lacking, and after all, this is a sedan, not an off-road horse, is a low range, which is useful not only for pulling stumps or creeping over boulders but also for providing enhanced engine braking, as for descending a low-friction hill where you don’t want to engage the brakes. The RS has antilock standard, and it helps a lot, but like all such units, allows the brakes to lock up at very low speeds – 3 to 5 mph. I tested the antilock on both snow- and water-slicked roads. It did its job faithfully and with merely a purr and virtually no pedal feedback.

With all the good stuff underneath, the Impreza RS is fairly hefty for a subcompact, coming in at 2,835 pounds with the manual trans, 2,880 with auto. Happily, the tried-and-true flat four 2.5-liter engine, biggest in the class, is up to the task assigned. Last year, Subaru changed the design of the all-aluminum powerplant from double-overhead-cam to single-, so as to improve low-end torque at the expense of a little top-end horsepower. It was a good move.

Each cylinder still has four valves, and the engine creates 165 horsepower (@5,600 rpm) and 166 foot-pounds of torque (@4,000). The latter figure makes it sound peaky, but it’s not. There’s considerable oomph available from 1,500 rpm on up, with a perceptible bulge around four grand. Running it out to nearly 6,000, I zoomed from 0 to 60 in just over eight seconds. The throttle is tightly-wired and fast-acting, so the car feels even spunkier than the numbers suggest. While this engine is compact and efficient, it isn’t very quiet. Its nasty rasp seems right at home, however, in a pseudo-rally car and isn’t unduly prominent when the throttle is partly closed. The Impreza RS’s ride is very good, although it gets a little bouncy on washboardy roads, as a consequence of its diminutive 99-inch wheelbase.

Handling is a delight, as one would expect from an AWD car. Drive it anywhere within the zone of reasonable and it’s an obliging appliance. Push it unduly hard, and it’s predictably fun. A four-wheel power drift is one of life’s great pleasures, as long as there’s no precipice or traffic. Steering is fast and fairly light, making the car totally tossable, once you persuade the meaty 205/55/16 rubber to loosen its grip. Scrubbing off momentum is done rather briskly, with largish discs brakes all around and antilock’s added assurance. The front brakes are ventilated for fade resistance and have twin calipers. The combo produced pleasingly short stops time after time from elevated velocities, with good pedal feel. The antilock purred rather loudly when I forced it to intervene on icy roads, but did its job and produced no disturbing feedback through the brake pedal.

The RS comes with an 80-watt, four-speaker AM-FM-cassette stereo. Its tona lity was fair, power ample, tuner sensitivity average and overall sound quality about average. The Impreza is made in Japan, with good attention to detail and quality ingredients. EPA estimates are 21 mpg city and 28 highway. I logged 23.2, using the recommended regular unleaded and driving exuberantly over lonely country roads. Overall, the RS, senior member of the Impreza family (there’s a much less appealing L series), is well-equipped, with air conditoning, stereo, power steering, windows, mirrors and brakes, power moonroof, alloy wheels, antilock, outsized fog lights and dual front air bags standard.

The tester had only a CD player ($350) and carpeted floor mats ($74) added. With freight, the total was $20,214. If you can handle the attention-grabbing wrapper, this car affords an extremely high fun: dollar quotient.

“The Gannett News Service”

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