- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2001

Subaru of Japan is poised to mimic BMW of Germany.

There are remarkable similarities between the two companies. Fuji Heavy Industries, the parent of Subaru, and BMW both started out as aircraft companies in the early part of the 20th century.

Following World War II, both companies tentatively ventured into the automobile world with tiny cars Subaru's 360 and BMW's Isetta. But the companies followed different roads.

In 1967, BMW introduced its 1600-2, followed closely by the popular 2002 model, which for a decade defined what a sports sedan should be. Then BMW moved upscale, while Subaru tilted toward economy sedans and station wagons.

Subaru also co-opted the legacy of the Volkswagen Beetle by concentrating on the development of horizontally opposed engines, sometimes referred to as boxers. In that design, the cylinders lie flat, feet to feet, instead of standing up as they do in in-line engines like BMW's.

Because its boxer engines were symmetrically suited to the task, Subaru was able to add inexpensive four-wheel-drive systems to its small wagons and sedans. An option for many years, all-wheel drive now is standard throughout the line.

The company even built the Brat, a precursor to today's sport pickup trucks, which featured a couple of outdoor seats in the cargo bed.

Now, in a curious but perhaps inevitable twist of history, Subaru also has a 2002 that it hopes will take it down the gold coast road that has been so well paved by BMW. The car is the 2002 Impreza WRX all-wheel-drive sports sedan, introduced in early 2001.

It's an impressive leap for the Impreza, which has been Subaru's entry-level model. For 2002, however, the company has increased the engine power and decreased the number of models, dropping the low-end versions as it moves upscale.

The new lineup has six models: The WRX sedan and wagon, the RS sedan, the TS wagon and the Outback Sport. The latter three now have the 2.5-liter, 165-horsepower four-cylinder engine from the larger Legacy and Outback models as standard equipment.

But the model that grabs the most attention is the WRX, which gets a smaller but more powerful engine: A turbocharged two-liter four with twin overhead camshafts, 16 valves and a direct ignition system with an individual coil for each cylinder.

The result of all this wizardry is a low-slung engine that delivers a whopping 227 horsepower enough to propel the 3,085-pound WRX to 60 mph in well under seven seconds. That makes it solidly competitive with the likes of the Audi A4 and BMW 3-Series.

There's little waste in getting the power to the pavement. The all-wheel drive is designed to get 55 percent of the power to the rear wheels and 45 percent to the front wheels under normal conditions. When things get slick, the power goes to the wheels with the most traction.

In practice, this gives you a car that can handle just about anything short of a serious off-road situation. On gravel, dirt or other slippery surfaces, it simply squats down, digs in and slingshots around corners.

The standard transmission is a five-speed manual with a tight and accurate shift linkage. A four-speed automatic, with a slotted shift gate similar to that pioneered by Mercedes-Benz, is a $1,000 option.

High-performance tires on 16-inch alloy wheels are standard, and 17-inch wheels are optional. On the sedan the fenders are blistered outward to accommodate a slightly wider track for additional stability. The WRX wagon has slightly different styling without the blister fenders, though it has the same drivetrain.

With a delivered price of $24,490 for the five-speed model, buyers likely will beat down the doors. The price includes a load of standard equipment, including a six-disc in-dash CD player, air conditioning, remote locking, fog lights, side air bags and anti-lock brakes.

Inside, the WRX needs some work before it can compete with the spread of pricier sports sedans. Despite some upscale touches a steering wheel by Ferrari-supplier Momo, sport bucket seats with suedelike trim, a tiny center sun visor, stylized pedals and imitation motorcycle instruments, the interior still has some of the feel of an economy car.

Obviously, there's room for further tweaking as the WRX leads the way for Subaru to continue its orientation toward customers who think outside the box or, perhaps in this case, outside the boxer.


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