Editor’s note: This review was written in July 2009 about the 2009 Subaru Impreza WRX. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2010, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The Subaru Impreza WRX is a great example of a sports car designed for the real world. It’s quick, fun and practical. It’ll carry groceries and your friends, and it won’t attract the attention of every law enforcement officer out there, provided you drive like an adult.
Sporty cars are often a compromise because their size or shape require you to leave something or someone behind, or they’re so stiffly sprung — to give you good cornering — that they’re downright painful to drive on slightly imperfect roads. Then there are the dreaded “sporty” cars that only look the part, but in reality are nothing more than normal, practical cars with some fancy body pieces. That’s not the case with the WRX. What it offers is true sports performance plus real world practicality.
The WRX doesn’t perform both roles perfectly, but if you’re looking for something that’s really fun to drive and doesn’t make you give up everything in your life or drive only butter-smooth roads, this could be the car for you.
Going, Stopping & Turning
Does this thing ever go. The Impreza WRX isn’t the most powerful car I’ve driven, but it’s less about the pure amount of power the engine produces and more about the way it uses it.
The WRX’s turbocharged, 2.5-liter, horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine makes 265 horsepower and 244 pounds-feet of torque running on required premium gas. It’s connected to a five-speed manual transmission; the regular Impreza offers an optional automatic transmission, but the WRX doesn’t. The key here is the “turbocharged” bit. What that means is that when you accelerate, you start moving, then — whoosh! The turbo kicks in and you start moving. You’ll be pushed firmly back into your seat, then it’ll be time to shift and boom! More boost, more power and more getting pushed back into your seat. Time to shift again, and blam! Before you know it, you’re in 5th gear.
The waiting and whooshing is technically called turbo lag, because there’s not a lot of torque below 3,000 rpm. I enjoyed it in this case; it’s what gives you a moment’s anticipation before the WRX accelerates like mad. Still, one person’s addictive acceleration is another person’s annoying turbo lag. You’ve been warned.
The flipside to the turbo is that if you want to drive like an adult and just cruise everywhere, you can do that. Just go easy on the throttle, shift early and, presto, you’re coasting down the road to the grocery store like everybody else — nothing to see here, officer. It also delivers a respectable 18/25 mpg city/highway, according to EPA estimates.
Stopping, too, is a treat. The braking response is predictable and offers confidence-inspiring stopping power. There’s no sense of, “Is it me, or are we not stopping as quickly as we should?”
The steering requires a bit of effort when turning in parking lots, but that lightens up once you get above, say, 15 mph. After that, all you notice is that when you turn the wheel, the car responds immediately. There was no play or sloppiness, and that’s a welcome thing. Thanks to the all-wheel drive, you can feel all four wheels grabbing the road and pulling you through turns like claws into the asphalt.
Now, the important thing to remember in all of the above is that I drove the Impreza WRX in the real world, not on a track, but I was still looking for any excuse to drive it, just for the heck of it. That doesn’t always happen with the cars I test.
As much as I enjoyed the car’s real-world performance, there are real-world caveats, too. The Impreza WRX has very supportive — but not constraining — seats, but they’re manually adjustable, so if you have to share this car you might miss the convenience of a memory seat feature. It’s not a big deal to me, but it might be to you.
Speaking of seats, if you’re on the taller side, backseat room is very, very tight. I had the driver’s seat nearly all the way back to drive, and I couldn’t sit comfortably in the backseat with it that way.
Visibility is largely OK, but with one glaring flaw: Despite the fact that there’s a cutout in the rear roof pillar, eliminating a potential blind spot, the rear spoiler interferes with your view. When I first looked in the rearview mirror, I thought someone had opened the trunk. Maybe it’s the sort of thing you get used to? After my week with the car, though, I still did not like that spoiler.
The trunk is odd, too. There’s a flat section in front, but then it slants upward toward the front of the car, marginally impinging on your space. Also, the trunklid itself has the old-school hinges that come down into the cargo area. If you’re the sort who likes to fill your trunk to the brim, you will have to account for that. Or you could spend an additional $500 for the hatchback version of the WRX and avoid the whole trunk issue altogether.
Some final issues — let’s call them “quirks” — with the WRX include the interaction of the clutch, tall gearing and turbo lag. For one thing, this car is easier to stall than most manuals, as other drivers also noticed. Because of the turbo, it doesn’t make a lot of power at low revs, and 1st gear is relatively high. This means you have to slip the clutch more than you would in many cars (which can lend the clutch a heavy feel and increase driver fatigue in stop-and-go traffic). A six-speed transmission could provide a shorter 1st gear and easier launches.
As I’ve said, this is a very comfortable car. One passenger even remarked as much — unprompted. It’s not just the seats, either; I never winced when going over bumps on Chicago’s horrible roads, and expansion joints on the interstate didn’t bash my spine. I was, however, able to sense when the pavement changed, through the steering wheel. I don’t know how Subaru managed to make the WRX provide feedback to the driver, offer sporty handling and still provide a smooth ride, but I’m glad it did.
In the same vein, Subaru managed to build a car that lets you hear the sounds you want while isolating you from the sounds you don’t. If you find yourself sitting next to a heavy-duty diesel clattering away while you wait for the light to turn green, roll up the window and the noise vanishes. Accelerate away from the light with the window up, and you hear the driveline and turbo whine, accompanied by an acceptable bit of noise from the engine. It’s even better on the highway: Cruise along in 5th, or especially 4th gear, and you can hear not only the driveline, but also a mix of muted road noise, engine growl and whine from the turbo. Trust me, that’s a good thing. You owe it to yourself to go for a long drive with the radio off to appreciate it.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates regular Impreza models Good (the highest score) in both its frontal and side-impact crash tests. The Impreza WRX comes with standard antilock brakes, an electronic stability system and side-impact and side curtain airbags. See the full list of safety features here.
WRX in the Market
Our test model was a Premium trim, which is a step above the base model, and it stickered at $28,835 (including options and $695 for delivery). Turbocharged versions of the WRX have a history of average reliability, slightly below non-turbo Imprezas, which are above average.
When you factor in its all-wheel drive, the Impreza WRX sits in a pretty rare spot in the market — only the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart has roughly the same price and performance.
The key difference to me is the WRX’s all-wheel drive. It makes the Impreza WRX handle so differently, behave so well, that none of the many sporty front- or rear-wheel-drive sedans out there can compare. Yes, there are other sporty all-wheel-drive cars, like the BMW 3 Series, but their price disqualifies them for many buyers.
Many of the cars I like, I have to qualify: “It’s an all right car for a small hatchback,” or, “If you like minivans, it’s OK.” This is one where I can just say it’s a good, fun car — period.
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