Small cars don’t have to be boring, as the Subaru Impreza WRX so aptly proves.

The newest generation of this performance-oriented version of Subaru’s compact sedan arrived for 2008, offering a level of excitement somewhat above that of the entry-level Impreza model that competes against cars such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

With its turbocharged, 224-horsepower, 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder engine, the 2008 WRX offered a serious upgrade to the 170-horsepower normally aspirated boxer under the hood of the base Impreza.

But for 2009, Subaru decided 224 horsepower just wasn’t enough for the WRX, and cranked it up to 265 – an 18 percent jump. Torque output was increased as well, to 244 foot-pounds from last year’s 226.

WRX sedan models begin at $24,995 (plus $695 freight). The WRX also is offered in a five-door hatchback version, whose starting price is $25,495 (plus freight). Both the sedan and hatchback come in a “Premium” version, priced at $27,495 for the sedan (the model we tested) and $27,995 for the hatchback.

The WRX engine reaches full horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and peak torque at 4,000 rpm. And even with the big boost in power, EPA ratings are nearly the same as last year’s – 18 mpg city/25 highway versus 19/24 for the ’08 model.

This additional power is largely the result of an increase in the boost from the turbocharger to 13.3 psi from the previous model’s 11.4, along with the use of a larger-diameter exhaust system with reduced backpressure.

What was already pretty cool for an otherwise average-seeming compact sedan has now become quite impressive. Couple that with the tight five-speed manual gearbox – the only transmission offered on the WRX – and you have the recipe for lots of fun.

Oh, did I mention the all-wheel drive? Where vehicles such as the Civic and Corolla are stuck with front-wheel drive, not exactly the optimum arrangement for sport driving, the WRX comes with Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, which actually is standard on all Subaru vehicles sold in the United States (even the base Impreza).

This full-time system includes a viscous-type locking center differential, which normally sends torque equally to front and rear wheels. But when wheel slippage is detected, more power is automatically directed to the wheels with the best traction. No driver input is required.

Of course, this isn’t the most fun you can have with an Impreza. There’s also the WRX STI model, which arguably is a completely different vehicle (although built on the same basic architecture).

The STI (base price $34,995) essentially is a street-legal racecar taken from the rally circuit. It has 305 horsepower and 290 foot-pounds of torque, and is the perfect companion for weekend autocross and track events.

For $10,000 less, though, the regular WRX is pleasing enough for those of us who can’t quite afford the STI, and it outshines just about everything else of its size and class on the road. It’s suitable for those weekend competitions, as well.

And, hey, it’s still a decent little everyday family car. With seating for five, including a back seat that’s able to accommodate even three adults (if they’re not too big), the WRX can handle around-town commuting and weekend highway cruising quite well.

For even less money, the base Impreza sedan with the 170-horsepower engine starts at just $17,495, and it’s no slouch. Remember, it comes with all-wheel drive, as well, and its power is still well above the 140 horsepower of the base Civic and the 132 of the base Corolla.

Even the performance-oriented Civic Si model, a favorite of enthusiasts on a budget, comes with just 197 horsepower out of the box (and a price similar to that of the WRX).

More comparable to the WRX is the MazdaSpeed3, with a 263-horsepower engine and starting price of just above $23,000 (with freight). This one comes only in a hatchback bodystyle, however.

Mitsubishi offers the Lancer Evolution, the supercar version of its compact sedan, but it’s more of a competitor to the WRX STI than to the base WRX. The Evo has 291 horsepower and a starting price of about $33,500.

Among other changes to the WRX for 2009 are a re-tuned suspension; wider 17-inch summer performance tires; an STI-type grille; and the standard aero package.

Premium models come with a power moon roof; projector-beam fog lights; dual-mode, heated front seats; heated outside mirrors; windshield-wiper de-icing system; and an upgraded audio system, which includes a six-disc, in-dash CD changer with MP3/WMA playback, 10 speakers (six in the front doors and four in the rear doors), and surround sound. Also included are steering-wheel audio controls and an auxiliary jack for an iPod or other MP3 player (this should be standard on all cars by now, though).

The entire Impreza line was moved to an all-new platform last year, with a longer wheelbase, a new double-wishbone rear suspension and a wider and deeper trunk. The sedan is 4.5 inches longer than the previous generation model.

A 60/40 split-folding rear seat allows for expansion of the cargo space when the rear seat isn’t needed for passengers.

Our tester came with the standard 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels. The only option on our vehicle was XM satellite radio ($453), which brought the total price, including freight, to $28,643. (Sirius radio is available as well, although now that the two have merged, most of their best programming can be found on either one.)

I can’t say enough about the handling on this car. I gave it a great workout on some fun twisty roads in the hills, and the car hugged the pavement in the turns like a sports car, not a family sedan. Steering is precise and predictable, which allows for some spirited sport driving (within the speed limits, of course).

Subaru says the Impreza’s engine was placed lower in the chassis in this new generation to help lower the center of gravity and improve steering response.

My only regret was that I didn’t have a chance to play with the WRX on a track, as I did with the 2008 model during a Subaru ride-and-drive program in Phoenix.

On the highway, the WRX is remarkably quiet and comfortable, although the ride can be a bit harsh over bumps because of the stiff performance-oriented suspension.

Among standard safety features are electronic stability and traction control, which are included on all Impreza models for 2009; four-wheel antilock disc brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution (with larger front brakes than the base Impreza model); side-curtain air bags for both rows; and seat-mounted side air bags for the front.

The WRX Aero Package that was optional last year is now standard, and includes front and rear under-bumper spoilers, aerodynamic side ground effects, and a low-profile trunk-mounted rear spoiler.

Some interior changes have been made for 2009, as well. There is new WRX-exclusive carbon-black checkered upholstery with red stitching. The red stitching also is used on the leather-wrapped steering wheel. The pedals are covered with aluminum alloy, which also is now applied to the driver’s footrest, as well.

Optional is a navigation/information system ($2,000) with a screen at the top of the dash. The system comes with an auxiliary input jack, as well as RCA-type jacks for portable gaming systems, which show on the navigation screen only when the vehicle is parked.

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at 210-250-3236;

2009 Subaru Impreza WRX

The package: Compact, four- or five-door, five-passenger, turbocharged, four-cylinder, all-wheel-drive performance sedan or hatchback.

Highlights: Redesigned for 2008 and further upgraded for ’09 with 18 percent more power, this is the midlevel version of Subaru’s compact sedan/hatchback platform. It’s great fun to drive, and reasonable priced for what it offers.

Negatives: Ride is a bit harsh because of the performance-oriented suspension; no automatic transmission offered.

Engine: 2.5-liter horizontally-opposed (boxer) four-cylinder.

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Power/torque: 265 HP/244 foot-pounds.

Length: 180.3 inches (sedan); 173.8 inches (hatchback).

Curb weight: 3,174-3,229 pounds.

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.

Cargo volume: 11.3 cubic feet (sedan); 19.0 cubic feet (hatchback).

Side air bags: Front seat-mounted; roof-mounted side-curtain for both rows.

Electronic stability control: Standard.

Fuel capacity/type: 16.9 gallons/unleaded premium recommended (but not required).

EPA fuel economy: 18 city/25 highway.

Major competitors: Honda Civic Si, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.

Base price range: $24,995-$27,995, plus $695 freight.

Price as tested: $28,643, including freight and options (WRX Premium sedan).

On the Road rating: 9.3 (of a possible 10).

Prices shown are manufacturer’s suggested retail; actual selling price may vary.

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