- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

Having sold roughly twice as many WRX versions of its Imprezza than expected during its first year, Subaru found itself on the receiving end of the current tuner craze that got its start in Southern California before sweeping east to the Atlantic Coast.

Although a surprising number of young females are both showing and racing their tuners, the scene is primarily twentysomething males. The cars of choice are typically Japanese — mostly Hondas, Mitsubishis and Nissans — with a few Korean, domestic and even a European or two tossed in for good measure. Subaru hadn’t really been much of a player in this movement until it introduced the 2002 Imprezza WRX. Now, not only is Subaru a player, the WRX is often considered an aspirational car among these present-day customizers.

Good news for those who can remember New Year’s Eves without Dick Clark: You don’t have to be a twentysomething to enjoy the WRX. Despite its appeal among younger buyers, anyone can feel quite at home in it — that is, if high performance is the primary goal.

High performance is the key here. Virtually every aspect of the WRX screams performance. From the highly contoured sport seats and perforated aluminum pedals inside to the turbocharged engine, tuned suspension and all-wheel drive listed among its mechanicals, the WRX is about performance. If what you seek is transportation, look at the Imprezza RS. If added utility is what you want, give the Imprezza Outback a go. (Both also feature AWD.) Nope, whether you are 25 or 55, the WRX is about acceleration, handling and fun. It comes in the form of a sedan or wagon. Subaru provided a wagon for this evaluation.

A few exterior cues clue us in that the WRX is different from its tamer brethren. Easiest to spot is the big, functional hood scoop. The 16-inch alloy wheels are another giveaway.

What sets the WRX apart under the hood from its Imprezza siblings is its turbocharged 2.0-liter flat-four four-cylinder engine. The flat-four comes from the fact that the cylinders are horizontally opposed, giving the engine a lower profile (and the car a lower center of gravity). Other Imprezza models also have a four-cylinder with a flat-four configuration, but it is a normally aspirated 2.5-liter. While the 2.5-liter delivers 165 horsepower, the turbocharged 2.0-liter generates 227 horsepower. It also makes 217 foot-pounds of torque. A five-speed manual transmission hands off the engine’s output to all four wheels. To optimize shifting speed, a short-throw shifter is available as a $345 option. Even in the face of the extra weight of the AWD system, the WRX sprints from stop to 60 mph in about six seconds.

While fuel economy isn’t what might be hoped for from a small wagon, it’s acceptable for a performance wagon. The Environmental Protection Agency rates it at 20 miles per gallon in city traffic and 27 on the highway.

In addition to the extra stability the AWD system provides, the WRX suspension is tauter than on the RS or Outback versions. Cornering is uneventful. Although a little body roll is noticeable under hard cornering, it is well within the parameters of acceptability. The steering is precise and responsive. From a purely performance standpoint, the all-season radial tires are the only real compromise.

All-season rubber tends to provide less stick than tires intended to perform year-round. Most tuners will replace the wheels and tires anyway, while the rest of us probably won’t push this little wagon hard enough for tire type to make a difference.

Braking is shouldered by power-assisted discs on all four wheels. A four-channel, four-sensor antilock system provides steering control during panic stops. Electronic brake-force distribution is part of the package. Other safety features include side-impact air bags, daytime running lights and pedals designed to collapse in a crash.

Beyond the sport seats and drilled pedals, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the WRX interior. It is practical and neatly arranged. The simple-to-use audio controls are conveniently placed higher up in the center stack. Three large round dials control the ventilation functions. The fit and finish in our test wagon was very good. Although rear seat space is tight, it’s usable. Up front there is plenty of leg, head and shoulder room. The wagon can carry 28 cubic feet of cargo. Fold down the rear seat and this more than doubles to in excess of 61 cubic feet.

Primarily because of the expense of AWD, the WRX wagon is a little pricey when compared to other small wagons. However, when considering the added performance of both AWD and the turbocharged engine, the price tag is not nearly so daunting. With destination charges, the base sticker is $24,545.

In addition to already-mentioned standard features, this price includes air conditioning, six-disc CD changer, cruise control and a leather-wrapped Momo steering wheel.

Whether you are twentysomething or just feel that way, the WRX wagon is a rare blend of performance, utility and affordability.

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