A tip to the design gurus at Subaru: Your brand-spanking new Impreza WRX desperately needs one of those construction-zone orange signs plastered to its front end. Consider it a little extra liability insurance.

"WARNING: Sedan in rearview mirror is nowhere near what it appears."

Dropped jaws, strange glances and wide smiles don't cover the range of emotions the unassuming little Impreza produced during 200 miles of wind-in-your-hair fun.

One mile in the redesigned 2002 Impreza is enough to confirm this: The WRX is a fraud. It rolls into town shaped like a loaf of bread. It slices the competition at the turn of a key.

It comes with a turbo and 227 ponies under the hood. It comes with a hood scoop!

Did somebody say Subaru?

It's been a long time since the Japanese car company with a flair for four-wheel drive produced a sports-sedan heart pounder that rides like a heat-seeking missile. In the WRX (the "WR" stands for "World Rally" after Subaru's European road races) it combines both.

Worried about rain or snow? The Impreza's all-wheel-drive is all over it. Concerned about beating a BMW off the stoplight? Got it. Want one even better? It might be the most affordable rocket on the road.

With that much pull out of a 2.0liter, flat four-cylinder engine, with such little curb weight - at 3,000 pounds it has more horsepower per pound than an Audi S4 or BMW 330xi - and with a crisp shifter, pinpoint handling and roller coaster acceleration, you expect BMW prices. What you pay is $24,000.

Sneaky Impreza. What you see isn't nearly what you get.

And let's talk about what you see.

If the Impreza were a beauty contestant, she wouldn't make it to the swimsuit competition.

It's not that the WRX is ugly. Just boxy. When Subaru decided it wanted to bring its high-power sports sedan from overseas to America, it forgot that style is sometimes as important as substance - especially for Madison Avenue or buyers in Madison, Wis.

Square and snub-nosed, the WRX won't earn whistles from the corner - it looks more like a suppedup, squared-off Dodge Neon - but it will earn you bragging rights over your Porsche and Audi friends.

Mash the pedal and watch them in the rearview mirror. Thanks to a five-speed manual and that turbo that loves to rev, the Impreza does 0-to-60 mph in under six seconds and the quarter mile in under 15. In layman's terms: Faster than a Porsche Boxster. And a BMW Z3. And an Audi A4 2.8 Quattro. And on . . . and on . . . and on.

There is some turbo lag from first to second gear - a slight pause in pure acceleration before the turbo starts spinning and whining - but it's worth the wait. Hit 2,4000 rpm and the torque really grabs you. Hit 4k and it swells up and hurtles you back into the Impreza's racing-inspired bucket seats.

Car enthusiasts, line up to the left.

But an important note: You've got to be one to truly love this machine.

This is no Caddy in disguise. With its cloth seats, racy drilled-aluminum pedals and functional layout, everything is first-rate - but not 5star. Faux wood, leather lumbar and a luxury-liner ride are not included with the price.

Interior materials are above the subcompact norm, but don't expect a sunroof, rear-deck spoiler or highfi stereo. Based on an affordable frame, body construction is not for the faint of heart. Doors are light and rattle when slammed shut. The trunk lid seems thin.

For Subaru, it's all about body weight.

With all that power, and not a lot of tow, the Impreza is meant to be driven. Period. With a short wheelbase, handling is razor-tight, steering is nicely weighted and the suspension is stiff. The shifter is also seamless with short, sure throws reminiscent of a Honda S2000. And the all-wheel-drive gives you piece of mind when you hit some rough spots in the road.

Sixteen-inch Bridgestone Potenza tires cary four-wheel disc brakes with t in-piston front calipers giving you the potential for some rally-esque driving, balance and stick without too much rubber. Stability and traction control give you security.

Back seat room, you'll have to fight over.

Where the Impreza scores in the fun quotient it lags in family hauling. Rear-seat room is at a premium in the WRX - more cramped than comfy. And although there is plenty of head and leg room up front, rear door openings are tight and space is limited.

Standard equipment includes power windows and locks, anti-lock brakes, front and side airbags, an indash, six-disc CD player and a rearseat pass-through for long cargo, like skis.

And for $24,520 topped out, this is a performer that should provide plenty of extra cash for those wintery vacations north - a unique sport sedan value in a valley of lookalikes.

Affordable, safe, understated yet fun.

Consider yourself warned.

2002 Subaru Impreza WRX

Vehicle type: All-wheel-drive, front engine, four-door, five-passenger sports sedan.

Standard equipment: Air conditioning; four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes; limited-slip differential; front and side air bags; fog lights; 16-inch alloy wheels; AM/FM/cassette/six-CD audio; cruise control; power locks, mirrors and windows; remote keyless entry; daytime running lights.

Competition: Acura Integra Type R, Volkswagen GTI, Toyota Celica GT-S

Engine: 227 horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder

Torque: 217 foot-lbs. @ 4,000 rpm

Wheelbase: 99.4 inches

Length: 173.4 inches

MPG rating: 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway

Manufactured: Japan

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; the drivetrain is five years/60,000 miles; body corrosion is five years/unlimited miles and roadside assistance is three years/36,000 miles.

Base price: $23,995

Price as tested (including options, destination and delivery): $24,520