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Subaru Impreza WRX


If you've driven one you might be excused for wondering whether Subaru's potent Impreza WRX really needed any more power.

In real terms it probably didn't.

In a time of increasingly heavily-enforced 100km/h speed limits it probably doesn't matter whether an Impreza does 232kmh or a mere 225 flat-out.

But there's something rather nice about knowing your new car is ultimately faster than the previous model even if you never put it to the test.

Top speed, though, isn't the real key to the Impreza WRX's appeal. It's the way the car gets to, say, 100km/h - or even the way it blasts off the line and hits 50 - that brings a smile to your face. No, more of a grin than a smile. More of a chuckle than a grin. More of a loud roar of approval than a chuckle.

It's a reaction that transcends ages. Older guys like me who like their automotive power to come from high-performance V8s are still blown away by the sheer exhilaration of a Subaru WRX accelerating with lungs wide open and the turbocharger spinning furiously.

Guys in their 20s can't get enough of it. Schoolboys dream about driving one.

Early WRXs were pretty crude beasts with chunky gearshifts, brutal acceleration and bone-jarring ride. I recall a journey to cover the Ohakune Rally in one. I loved it, revelling in the grip and the potent performance. The regular passenger found it all very trying - the g-forces in cornering and under acceleration and the wearisome, wearying ride. She produced fewer complaints when we made the same trip the following year in a Ford Courier 4WD, a vehicle not noted for its cosseting ride.

WRXs have become increasingly more refined and I found the recently outmoded version to be a superb open road car. Still a little hard-riding, still a little abrupt in its throttles response but still a very desirable package at a reasonable price.

That was the one with the controversial goggle-eyed styling with those gawky front lights and an overall resemblance to the unloved and equally gawky old model Toyota Corolla sedan (though I have to admit I love Toyota's current bland and characterless Corolla even less than the previous model).

Now I didn't think that WRX was all that bad to look at, and as they say you can't see the car's styling when you're driving it. And driving them is what WRXs are all about.

Enter the 2003 WRX, introduced to New Zealand in January. They've cleaned up the styling. It looks neater, more integrated.

The headlights are now sleek and blend with the revised bonnet styling. The frontal styling is more rounded. Distinctive crease lines start on the bonnet and sweep around the headlights.

No longer do the lights look goggle-eyed. The grille is more discreet too, less like a fish swimming open-mouthed. The saucer-like driving lights have been replaced by smaller units recessed into the restyled front bumper.

The taillight clusters have been redesigned to blend more harmoniously with the body's lines. On the sedan that results in a much tidier look.

Subaru has made improvements to the manual gearshift, tweaked the suspension, improved the ride and retuned the motor.

The flat four 2.0-litre engine has more power and gets variable valve timing which smoothes the power delivery.

The engine is five percent more powerful at 168kW. Peak torque is 300Nm. The compression ratio rises from 8.0:1 to 9.0:1 to give better engine response at low revs. The aerodynamic engine air scoop on the bonnet has been redesigned and enlarged for greater efficiency.

The changes turn the WRX into a smoother, sweeter-performing car.

There's still plenty of urge.

Subaru says the 2003 WRX will hit 100km/h in 5.69 seconds compared with 6.43s for the 2002 car.

That's a significant improvement and the performance is delivered in a much smoother, infinitely more pleasant manner.

There's still enough accelerative oomph to pin you back in your seat but the power delivery not as crude or fierce-feeling as it was in older WRXs.

Getting from 0-100km/h in a WRX is still a grin-inducing blast.

The suspension re-tuning results in crisper turn-in: the WRX is much less of an understeerer than it was.

On favoured roads the car was beautifully poised - relaxed and unflappable and with instant reflexes.

The big thing about the permanent four-wheel drive Impreza WRX is that it will generate similar levels of grip on streaming wet roads as it will in the dry. And that's confidence-building.

The race car-style bucket seats provide excellent lateral support and add to the driving enjoyment.

The gearshift is now smoother and the steering is precise and well-weighted.

Ride has been smoothed out. The 2003 WRX has dropped the bone-shaker character entirely.

Creature comforts are adequate: air-conditioning, Compact Disc sound system, power windows and mirrors.

Instrumentation is comprehensive and legible.

The test WRX was the attractive hatchback whose looks we prefer to the sedans. The tailgate itself closes with a nice solid "thunk" unlike the tinny clang of the sedan's bootlid.

When Imprezas first appeared here as puny, unadorned, front-wheel drive weaklings the hatchback looked awkward and...well, dull.

Now with the styling revisions, discreet spoiler and those big alloys and low-profile tyres filling its wheelarches it looks decidedly handsome.

To improve the cars' resistance to theft, all WRX and STi Imprezas now have a double locking system on the doors and tailgate door key barrels have been removed from the hatchbacks.

The 2003 Impreza is a much more refined car than its predecessor which was impressive in its own right. The engine, chassis and gearshift improvements, though individually small, add up into a big leap forward.

Subaru's new-look WRX sedan and hatchback both sell for $49,990 with manual gearbox.

A version fitted with the Sportshift automatic arrives in May at $51,990 for sedan or hatch.

Story and photographs by Mike Stock.

Auto Trader New Zealand