The Good About the Ugly

Subaru makes cars that are good and ugly.

That is high praise, as evidenced by the 2003 Impreza 2.5 RS sedan. It is the ugliest of the ugly in Subaru's lineup. But I love its billowed front fenders, bug-eyed headlamps and discount-store interior. Mostly, I love its soul.

The little car has chutzpah. It runs like a sports car twice its price on dry highways. It zips in and out and around curves with exceptional grace. It is fearless in up to six inches of snow, but it backs away from, or gets stuck in, substantially higher drifts.

That's to be expected. The 2.5 RS clears the ground by 5.9 inches. Do the math. Six inches is shorter than 18, 36 or 53 inches -- the variously reported amounts of snow that fell on the East Coast last week.

I didn't do the math in some neighborhoods. I got stuck, but I managed to work my way out by shifting the all-wheel-drive 2.5 RS into reverse, backing up a bit, and then dropping it into second gear and slowly moving forward.

Success in those episodes made me feel good. But, truth is, I had little to do with the car's extraction from the snow mounds. Credit goes to the car. It's that good, and it's surrounded by a family of equally good, oddly styled models.

In all, there are five cars in the Impreza line -- the 2.5 TS Sport Wagon and Outback Sport, the 2.5 RS sedan, and the unbelievably fast WRX sedan and WRX Sport Wagon. All five models come standard with a Subaru all-wheel-drive system, of which there are three versions available.

In the 165-horsepower 2.5 RS, equipped with a standard five-speed manual transmission, Subaru uses what it calls "continuous all-wheel drive." That system normally provides a 50-50 sharing of drive power between the front and rear wheels. But when the front wheels slip, more power shifts to the rear. When the rear wheels slip, more power shifts to the front. The power transfer is done automatically. The only thing the driver has to do is use common sense. Again: A vehicle with a 5.9-inch ground clearance won't get you through two feet of snow.

Subaru extensively redesigned all of its Impreza cars last year, leaving it with little to do for the 2003 models. So, the company is planning to use marketing muscle to sell those. It has standardized some equipment, such as a keyless vehicle entry system, now sold on the 2.5 RS.

Subaru's 600 U.S. dealers and their aftermarket partners are offering an array of accessories and components designed to dress up the 2.5 RS and its hot-tempered cousin, the WRX, for weekend track races sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America. Those additional or substituted suspension, braking and engine pieces won't make the 2.5 RS sedan look any better. Nor, for that matter, will the cosmetic add-ons do much to enhance the car's physical appearance.

But the people who know and love the 2.5 RS could care less about style. They are performance iconoclasts interested only in making an impression at the finish line -- or on the street at the expense of, say, a BMW 3-Series driver.

Nuts & Bolts

Complaints: Other than styling, or the lack thereof, there's not much bad to say about the 2.5 RS. Subaru could scrap that annoying toy-horn alarm that honks every time you press the remote-control button to lock the car. That's about it.

Praise: This little car is so much fun to drive, you wind up not caring how goofy it looks. You just want to get in it and go! It's the most pocket-rocket fun you'll have outside of driving the 227-horsepower WRX.

Head-turning quotient: In the eye of the beholder. I saw ugly. Economy weekend track warriors looked at it and saw . . . zooommm!

Ride, acceleration and handling: After a week in the 2.5 RS, I'm tempted to say I'd drive it across country -- but not quite. It gets high ma s in acceleration and handling. But the ride remains classic small-car, rather bumpy in the saddle after a long day.

Layout/body style: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive sedan.

Engine/transmissions: The Impreza RS comes with a 2.5-liter, horizontally opposed (boxer), 16-valve four-cylinder engine that develops 165 horsepower at 5,600 revolutions per minute and 166 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. It can be linked to a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission.

Capacities: The 2.5 RS seats five people. Cargo capacity is 11 cubic feet. Fuel capacity is 15.9 gallons. Regular unleaded gasoline, minimum 87 octane, required.

Mileage: I averaged 25 miles per gallon in combined city-highway driving.

Safety: Safer than it looks. Rigid roll-cage construction. A four-wheel anti-lock brake system is standard. Dual-front air bags. Three-point seat belts. Wear the belts. Lower anchors and tethers for children. Use them properly. Check dealer for details.

Price: Base price is $19,195. Dealer invoice price on base model is $17,640. Price as tested is $20,220 including $500 in options (rear deck spoiler and rear differential protector) and a $525 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: A quality cheap thrill. Edges the competition (Ford Focus ZTS, Honda Civic Si, Mitsubishi Galant ES, Volkswagen Jetta 1.8T) with all-wheel drive.