- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

Any auto-racing fan who gets a kick out of watching gutsy World Rally Championship drivers roar down dirt roads and do hand-brake turns had better circle March on the calendar.

That's when Subaru brings its rally-inspired, 2002 Impreza WRX to U.S. car dealers.

The WRX is a sportier breed than the family oriented Legacy Outback wagon and the Forester hybrid of wagon and sport utility that Subaru is best known for.

With its 227-horsepower, turbo-charged and intercooled four-cylinder engine, the WRX models can blast forward like a pocket rocket.

The performance-tuned chassis makes the small, 3,000-plus-pound WRX unflappable in many aggressive driving maneuvers. Its Subaru all-wheel-drive traction gives the WRX a real "don't stop now" personality when it's being pushed hard.

Officials at Subaru of America Inc. say the introduction of this new Impreza's racing-inspired WRX models is designed to boost Subaru's image for making rugged performance cars.

Subaru's parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., has more than a decade's experience on the World Rally Championship circuit and won the WRC title for three straight years from 1995-97.

"The WRX is truly a driver's car," said Mike Whelan, senior manager of product public relations at Subaru of America. "It's not just going from one place to another. It gives you this joy of getting to where you're going."

Added Bill Cyphers, vice president of marketing: "These people want to get to their destination, but they want to enjoy the drive. … Driving performance will increasingly define our brand."

Only a few people noticed the WRX on my test drive, although it came months before the WRX will arrive in showrooms, where it will carry a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price plus destination charge of $24,490 for a five-speed manual transmission model. A WRX with four-speed automatic starts at $25,490.

The car isn't flashy in a sports car way despite a noticeable and functional air scoop on the hood. The WRX looks rather like an all-purpose small car with big round headlamps reminiscent of cars in the 1960s.

But the real attraction of the WRX is in the driving, preferably fast and hard.

This is an amazingly capable car, holding its composure in all sorts of maneuvers. It feels agile and nimble, with body motions that are well controlled and predictable.

The track on the WRX is more than 58 inches, front and rear. The car rides on an independent MacPherson strut suspension, front and rear, that's sport tuned.

The all-wheel-drive system is on all the time and requires no action from the driver.

The two-liter, double overhead cam four-cylinder in the WRX is Subaru's typical horizontally opposed design. But it's turbo-charged and intercooled, too, producing 227 horsepower and 217 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.

It was mated to a five-speed manual in the test car and worked eagerly, giving me ready power for passing on city streets and the highway.

I enjoyed zipping off from a stoplight and leaving BMWs in my wake. You could almost hear the other drivers thinking, "I paid how much for this car and just got beat by a Subaru?"

Sadly, there's no turbo-boost gauge inside the WRX, so while I certainly felt the turbo kick in, I couldn't relish the turbo needle jumping into action on the instrument panel. Subaru said the gauge will be offered as part of the WRX accessories at dealerships.

Riders do hear the engine at work a lot of the time. It's part of the rally experience, after all, but makes for a noisy ride inside. I also noticed a tendency for the WRX to take big road bumps with a loud, harsh thump.

The WRX brakes have large rotors for strong stopping power. Standard tires are 16-inchers, but Subaru plans to offer 17-inch tires as accessory items.

Visibility is good, with a low hood and window pillars that aren't big and blocky. The manual driver's seat height adjuster is nifty you lift or lower yourself by pumping up or down with a good-sized lever.

Steering is crisp and responsive. Don't miss the standard steering wheel by Momo, a well-known supplier of sport steering wheels to racing teams.

The brake, accelerator and clutch pedals in the WRX are sporty looking, too. They are fitted with silver-colored, alloy pedal covers with rubber grips.

As expected, the front bucket seats are very supportive, and good bolsters help hold the driver in place. The dead pedal is prominent and well-positioned, too, to make for a confident seat position in those aggressive driving maneuvers.

Daytime running lamps are standard on the WRX. So, too, are side air bags. The WRX also is the first Impreza with front seat belt pre-tensioners with force limiters, and there's a ring-shaped body reinforcement for structural safety.

Note that all three rear seats have three-point belts. But it is a tight squeeze for three adults back there, and rear-seat legroom of 33 inches is on par with other subcompact sedans.

The WRX trunk, however, is eminently usable and has a wide opening. But the trunk lid sounds a bit tinny when you close the trunk, and I noticed on the test car that the remote keyless entry didn't include a button for opening the trunk.

The WRX will be offered as both a sedan and wagon the coupe is being dropped from the 2002 Impreza line.

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