The Detroit News's view

Our memories of the 1998 Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS are golden – in fact, distressingly so.

The Japanese sporty subcompact stands out in the under-$20,000 class largely because of its gaudy 16-inch gold-color alloy wheels and ground effects bodywork, both of which are guaranteed to get you noticed. The question is, do you want or need all that attention? Because Subaru figured that buyers of the wild Impreza are likely to beat it pretty well, they thoughtfully included features like stone-guard coating and splash guards. The 2.5 RS is the newest member of the Impreza family.

Paul, still in the throes of an adolescent mentality, loved it. Anita would rather own a Neon.

He: When I was a kid, one of my favorite local TV heroes was Ricky the Clown. In fact, I had a dream the other night that Ricky gave me a ride in his new car. Funny, I think it was an Impreza 2.5 RS.

She: I’ve been married to you too long. I know all your little secrets, including the fact that you threw up during a taping of Ricky’s show way back in kindergarten. I, however, felt like throwing up when I was forced to test drive the Impreza 2.5 RS. My two enduring memories of the car: Parking it way down the street so my neighbors wouldn’t suspect it was mine. And a 10-year-old boy chasing me out of the grocery store and asking me ‘Hey, lady – what’s that car? Huh?”

He: Was his name Ricky?

She: No, Paul.

He: Get serious. If you can just get past the goofy wheels, the add-on plastic trim and the extremely tacky-looking hood scoop and louvers, the 2.5 RS is actually a pretty wonderful car. There aren’t many subcompacts for under $20,000 that feature all-independent sport suspension, four-wheel disc brakes with antilock, variable assist power steering and 16-inch all-season radials. And that’s before you factor in one of the most powerful engines in the class, a 165-horsepower, twin-cam 2.5-liter, and what I think is really the key selling feature – full-time four-wheel drive.

She: So you’re saying the Subaru is kind of like a clown with an MBA. Frothy on the outside, but serious on the inside.

He: That wasn’t exactly the metaphor that leaped to mind.

She: It just seemed so impractical. Yes, you get lots of standard equipment, but the driver’s side didn’t even have a cheap unlighted vanity mirror. It had nothing. And I can’t get past the rather steep price tag of $20,756 on our test car once you added extras like a $420 CD player and $225 keyless entry. If one of my boys was shopping in this segment, I’d advise against such an excessive and showy purchase. You can get a nicely equipped Neon coupe for under $15,000 or an Acura Integra for under $17,000. And I would argue that both of those cars have a sporty flair and enough personality for even a motorhead.

He: Let’s backtrack a sec. As far as the standard equipment goes, we’re talking stuff like air conditioning, a power sunroof, and an 80-watt AM/FM stereo wit h cassette. I think I personally could live without the driver’s vanity mirror. Equipment aside, I would definitely take the 2.5 RS over the Neon in a heartbeat because it’s so much more fun to drive and it simply feels like a better car. It’s extremely quick and nimble – a real joy to toss around, even if you’re just running around the neighborhood.

She: I had a few problems with it running around the neighborhood. For example, the huge rear spoiler interferes with your vision out of the rear window. I hated that. Also, I had trouble shifting it. I would rather have the optional automatic transmission, but that costs an extra $800. In fairness, I would own the Impreza if I could strip off all that tacky stuff and start from scratch.

He: Why don’t you offer Subaru an extra $1,000 to peel off all the plastic and repaint the wheels? Of course, Ricky will probably lose all interest then. Without all the gimmicky body work, what you’re really looking at is more of a garden-variety Impreza, along the lines of the little Outback Sport, and I think even younger buyers see that as more of a family vehicle. There must be a happy medium there somewhere.

She: I don’t think younger buyers – especially younger female buyers – are going to lust after the 2.5 RS. They are into looking more sophisticated. Just talk to them. They like slinky black dresses with a touch of Spandex. They smoke. They read Cosmo. How many of them really want to look or act like Jenny McCarthy from MTV? Now there’s a girl I can picture in a 2.5 RS.

He: I’d definitely pay extra for that option. But the bigger question is why Subaru chose to introduce this model in ’98. I suspect someone at the parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, was totally enamored with the Subaru world rally car and decided all that race-car junk would look great on a production model. Wrong.

She: The interior isn’t even all that comfortable. The front bucket seats have pretty aggressive bolsters that almost feel a little too snug. Some of the controls on the instrument panel are raked at an angle and it makes them it bit hard to decipher – and really hard to work with, especially if you’re wearing gloves. Some of the more tasteful touches include a black leather steering wheel and leather shift knob. And on the plus side, the trunk is quite roomy for a subcompact.

He: So who would want to buy an Impreza 2.5 RS?

She: I can picture him. He’s in every high school yearbook. They call him the class clown.

1998 Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS

Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger coupe

Price: Base, $19,195; as tested, $20,756 (inc. $495 destination charge)

What’s new for ’98: New model for ’98

Standard equipment: Four-wheel disc brakes, sport suspension, variable-assist power steering, gold alloy wheels, power sunroof, hood scoop and vents, ground-effects bodywork, rear spoiler, power mirrors, tinted glass, rear defogger, splash guards, stone guard coating, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, map lights, intermittent wipers, air conditioning, power door locks, remote trunk release, 80-watt AM-FM stereo cassette, power windows, 12-volt power outlet, tilt steering column

Safety features: Dual air bags, antilock brakes, height-adjustable front seat belts

Options on test vehicle: CD player ($420); cruise control ($357); keyless entry ($225); floor mats ($64)

EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway

Engine: 2.5-liter O-4; 165-hp at 5600 rpm; 162 lb-ft torque at 4000 rpm

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Competitors: Acura Integra, Chevrolet Cavalier, Dodge/Plymouth Neon, Eagle Talon, Ford Probe, Honda Civic, Hyundai Tiburon, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Nissan 200SX, Pontiac Sunfire, Saturn SC, Toyota Celica.

Specifications: Wheelbase, 99.2 inches; overall length, 172.2 inches; curb weight, 2825 pounds; legroom, 43.1 inches front/32.5 inches rear; headroom, 39.2 inches front/36.7 inches rear; shoulder room, 53.0 inches front/52.4 inches rear.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,083

Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

Where built: Yajima, Japan

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