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Scooby WRX sedan tested

2009-09-11 07:33
Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Subaru
Model WRX
Engine 2.5l, flat-four turbo
Power 195kW @ 5 600r/min
Torque 343Nm @
Transmission Five-speed manual
Zero To Hundred 5.3 sec
Top Speed 233km/h
Fuel Tank 60l
Fuel Consumption 14l/100km
Weight 1 410kg
Boot Size 420l
ABS Yes, with
Airbags Dual; front, side-impact & curtain
Tyres 225/45 R17
Front Suspension MacPherson strut with lower wishbone
Rear Suspension Double-wishbone, multi-link
Warranty 3 year/100 000km
Price R359 000
Rivals S3 Sportback

Lance Branquinho

Subaru Impreza WRXs are supposed to have either two or four doors – never, ever, under no circumstances five. The fabled WRX brand heritage was never meant to be diluted by hot hatch fare.

Unfortunately somebody in Subaru’s product planning division (or was it a Toyota transplant perhaps?) struck upon the idea of a WRX hatchback. Suffice to say, this was a rather terrible moment of inspiration.

Launched two years ago to the chagrin of WRX acolytes, these Impreza hatches, even the trick STI version, could not endear themselves to the market or fans of the brand.

It looked too ungainly (even for a Subaru, which is quite something), bootspace was virtually non-existent (bit of a issue for a hatchback) and basically, it was an affront to some awesome machinery which had gone before it in the Impreza line of heritage.

A quarry is not really the terrain you'd expect a 195kW performance car to be at home in. WRX copes admirably with Dunlop SP Sport 01 tyres an apt all-weather compromise.

After phenomenal performance cars such as the two-door 22B and P1, not to mention the four-door RB5, established Impreza’s reputation for giant-killing performance in the 1990s, things went slightly awry in the new millennium.

A configuration change of the Impreza from sedan to hatch in 2007 was seen as the tipping point when the brand’s cachet was undone in a moment of marketing madness. It sure wasn’t customer driven. Nobody ever hinted at the need for a hatchback STI…

Fortunately, cars retail in a free market (of sorts) and we all know free markets correct themselves (eventually). In June this year Subaru reverted back to the four-door format for its WRX, with only a single hatchback remaining available locally - the alarmingly expensive STI.

So, is this latest WRX sedan a faithful blend of traditional Impreza WRX values and contemporary detailing or does it come off as a cheap STI parts-bin anomaly?

Styled… by somebody, apparently

Subaru’s Impreza range has a caricatured (some would argue well deserved) reputation for being a rather awkward-looking.

Functional? Yes. Fluid in terms of form? Most certainly not.

Although the new four-door WRX sports a similar wheelbase to its hatchback forebear (5 mm shorter than the current STI if you’re a pedantic stickler for detail), it’s 165mm more substantial bumper-to-bumper.

Tracking widths are 35mm narrower fore and 40mm slighter aft compared to the STI yet, more importantly, the four-door WRX is 95kg lighter than the flagship hatchback, despite having sprouted a boot…

I like having a boot on an Impreza. It adds symmetry to the styling, which is Eurocentric in its aspirations (note the smoothed nose profile) yet unapologetically Japanese in execution (note the regulation bonnet scoop).

A boot gives the WRX a remnant of practicality too, being able to accommodate 420l of luggage, a vast 185l more than the STI hatch. This truncated loadability, where one can barely stow a bag of shopping and case of beer before the fifth door struggles shut, is one of the STI's oddities.

Quality is superb, ergonomics generally, too. Only two issues here: one is the hateful infotainment system, the other a driver's seat that does not adjust low enough for 1.8m+ drivers.

The cabin is standard Impreza fare with limited mid passenger rear legroom thanks to the all-wheel drive actuating transmission tunnel and plenty of shiny silver fascia plastics.

Seats are semi-buckets, unlike the STI’s superb Recaros, and you make do without some of the STI’s other trinkets too, mostly model designation badges and some Alcantara trim – nothing critical.

On the centre console Impreza WRX doesn’t feature any of the SI-drive centre-differential adjustment trickery. WRX runs a stock locking centre and torque sensing Torsen slippy rear differential combination, doing without the STI’s electronically aided fore and aft limited-slip diffs.

The stick-shifter has one ratio less engraved into the shift-guide too, and where the VDC button is supposed to be, there is just a black plastic cover. Naughty, very naughty...

The interior's bugbear is the infotainment system.

The interface is unfathomable and volume controls (both the satellite and and dash varieties) are inexplicably calibrated, streaming in a dozen bars of indicated volume too much or none at all. It's made by Kenwood, which is disconcerting, as they were responsible for the original McLaren F1’s excellent radio/CD interface.

As it stands though, WRX's audio and SatNav interface is quite simply, well, rubbish.

Satellite audio controls either ignore your touch inputs or wake-up the neighborhood with overzealous volume interpretations. A surgeon's dexterity is required.

Old-school turbo lag

Mechanically the WRX is a curious thing. I mean, Subaru is retailing – with an apparently clear conscience – a car with 195kW on tap and no vehicle stability systems to speak of bar ABS brakes.

This can mean one of only two things – either Subaru has tremendous faith in the driving abilities of their local customers or this WRX is one particularly sorted car. I’ll postulate it’s the latter.

When you study the WRX’s cutaway engineering drawings it makes perfect sense.

Who needs traction control when you have a viscous coupled all-wheel drive system? It’s not like the WRX is trying to channel 195kW through the front wheels…

Traction off the line is prodigious, and with the all-wheel drive system able to tame as much of the 343Nm peak rotational force as possible, real-world 0-100km/h runs under six seconds are effortlessly repeatable.

Our test car was fitted with a booming optional performance exhaust system, which amplifies the horizontally opposed 2.5l engine’s pseudo 993-series Porsche Turbo acoustics to perfection.

The exhaust boom could be suicide-inducing if you’re nursing a slight migraine, though. At full tilt, the traditional WRX customer profile should be well pleased with it.

Power peaks at a rather low 5 600r/min. Plenty of hooligan antics to be had between 4 000- and 6 000r/min though. Runs competitive 0-100km/h times in the low 5-second bracket. Consumption averages out to 14l/100km, but you knew that already...

The engine itself is tremendously laggy, alarmingly so by contemporary standards where sequential and dual turbocharging systems have become essentially seamless in operation.

I loved it though. Besides, a 2.5l swept capacity, even off-boost, has enough rotational force available to navigate traffic without much hassle.

Accelerative verve arrives with the suddenness of an avalanche, with very little happening below 3 400r/min. When the WRX’s turbo does spool up to peak operation speed, it’s accompanied by meaningful forced induction which translates to serious performance car baiting urge.

Power is channeled via a five-speed manual transmission, which might appear curiously out of step with modern performance car wisdom, yet WRX is none the worse for it – with the five-speed gearbox’s third gear proving a perfect mountain pass carving ratio. Not particularly quick through the gate, the shifter retains a solid feel, although the pre-loading is a bit odd.

Theoretically the WRX tops out at 233km/h. In reality it’s governed to 210km/h off the showroom floor, but you can have it derestricted or cheat via the cruise control.

Haters will point to the lack of top speed credibility as a failing. Honestly though, would you rather have crushing third gear acceleration or an extra 17km/h at the far end to inherit 250km/h bragging rights? Exactly.

Bonnet-scoop hardly subtle, flat sheetmetal surfacing very much like shareholder Toyota's products. Four-door configuration reflects proper WRX heritage though - unlike the five-door Imprezas.

The best part of the new WRX’s dynamic blend is undoubtedly its ride/handling compromise.

Independently suspended at all four wheel corners (sporting double-wishbones at the rear), the Subaru chassis engineers have happened upon an inexplicably perfect blend of grip and suspension travel.

They’ve added 1mm thicker anti-roll bars, increased the fore and aft spring rates and furnished the strut top with highly rigid STI top mounts. The results though, are remarkable.

Ride quality, for something wearing low-profile rubber on 17-inch wheels (and capable of significant speeds), is simply otherworldly.

If you have a two-year old in the baby seat, he/she will only be kept awake on an extended journey by the booming exhaust, not road surface imperfections – they’re too well absorbed to be troublesome.

Yes, there is quite a lot of bodyroll, yet when the lateral forces have transferred from one side of the WRX to the other, the all-wheel grip balances things out expertly.

Steering is still a touch on the light side, like all Imprezas, despite the presence of a steering damper to reduce kickback on broken surfaces.

If you’re on the ragged edge, terminal understeer is the last thing you’ll experience before ploughing into some roadside scenery and having to phone your insurance broker. The limits which have to be broached to break grip completely are beyond the gambit of even highly spirited road driving though.

As a package, the new four-door WRX is meticulously faithful to the Impreza legacy of unparalleled A-to-B cross country ability.

I was absolutely smitten with it after hustling the raucous Japanese sedan over both the Helshoogte and Franschhoek passes en route to a Boland wedding I was terribly late for one Saturday afternoon.

Third gear kept boost on the boil, whilst the brakes stayed true despite fearsome punishment - especially coming down Franschhoek pass.

Perhaps the most credible factor in this performance equation was that I never felt nervous about driving a non-VDC equipped car at speed – and I was properly trying to make up time, with even a few courteous superbike riders waving me past.

In the wet, the WRX's symmetrical all-wheel drive system remains peerless. In the dry, if you factor the bodyroll as a non-issue (remember, the flat-four engine’s low mass centre-point is keeping you anchored) WRX is capable of hooligrin inducing pace, with remarkable poise.


Better looking than the hatch WRX, although still not a thing of great beauty though, with the feminine nose styling and blunt rear (boot notwithstanding) completely at odds with each other. Anthracite multi-spoke wheels look neat and mask brake dust very well - easing the car washing burden.


Formidable build quality, strikingly simple ergonomics (check out the centre console housing only three dials) and comfy, yet dynamically supportive, seats are let down by the worst SatNav/infotainment system in the known universe.


Rides like only an all-round independently suspended car can.

Phenomenal grip and laughably lagging power delivery require a change in driving style, though. Early on the brakes, early turn-in, let the weight transfer and chassis load up, then (counter-intuitively) dial in the power early, too. Trust us, it works beautifully.


For R359 000, the Impreza WRX, with its graceless styling, fearsome turbo-lag and hooligan image seems a preposterous indulgence.

Tally the facts though, and it’s nearly as quick, whilst being infinitely more practical and hugely cheaper, than the headline WRX STI. It manages to be a massively better car than the hatchback WRX it replaces too.

You could buy an Audi S3 Sportback, but it's quite a bit dearer...

I loved the WRX's five-speed transmission’s real-world gearing. The turbo-lag and lack of vehicle stability control, which makes you a lot more selective of which roads you actually choose to engage at pace, purifies the driving experience.

For the money, it’s essentially peerless as a four-door, all-weather performance car.

The late misters Burns and McRae would almost certainly have approved…


Forbidding flat-four beat

Third gear-acceleration when on boost

Vice-free ride quality and lateral force restraining grip


Looks will appeal to a specific target market only

SanNav/infotainment system is akin to Dante’s ninth circle of hell

Watching the fuel gauge fall in real-time if you’re a boost junkie


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