I can't say that the first photographs I saw of Subaru's new automotive face on the Impreza exactly grabbed me.
The three-element grille treatment looked a little like an add-on, not an integrated part of the car's styling. The camera may not lie, as the old saying goes, but it can deceive.
See the 2006 Impreza in the metal, and the front end redesign starts to make sense.
Subaru is adopting the three-element grille as a signature feature of its cars, but not across the board. It will use it only on cars that suit it, and obviously Subaru believes it suits the Impreza.
After my initial reservations, I'm inclined to agree. The more steeply angled bonnet and the sleeker front-end lines give the 2006 Impreza a strongly defined character, and a more athletic look.
Not, of course, that the Impreza has ever lacked athleticism. The best part of a week driving the 2006 Impreza WRX left us in no doubt about that. It's a superb performance car, with finely-tuned handling, great agility and lightning-sharp reflexes.
The styling isn't the only change for the 2006 model year. The turbocharged 2.0-litre boxer engine has given way to a 2500, and it's a change for the better.
The bigger motor is less peaky and delivers a strong dose of torque that makes the car easier to drive, with less need for gear changing.
The WRX is the junior partner in Subaru's two-model high-performance line-up. But there's nothing junior about its power delivery. The Double Overhead Camshaft 2457cc flat four (boxer) engine delivers 169kW of maximum power at 5600rpm. Peak torque of 320Nm is developed at 3600rpm.
They combine to provide potent acceleration, the car sprinting to 100km/h in around six seconds, and running the standing 400 metres in a shade over 14.
So it's quick, though the acceleration is not as brutal as that delivered by the senior partner in the high-performance Impreza stable, the 206kW/392Nm WRX STi.
But the WRX certainly gets your attention, especially on a winding road where corner follows corner. The punch, especially in second gear out of tight corners, is exhilarating. But then it always was.
The big difference with the 2006 WRX is the torque delivery. Though it peaks at 3600rpm, there's plenty on tap lower in the rev range. That translates to a meaty feeling of power as you accelerate out of corners, and it also means you can take corners up a gear. Second is needed only for the tightest corners or when you want to give yourself a shot of adrenalin.
At a prod of the electronic throttle. the WRX will accelerate strongly from even quite tight corners in third gear, and there's enough acceleration available in fourth gear to make a shift down to third no longer necessary in moderate corners.
Putting all this satisfying torque on to the road is the superbly-tuned chassis. Subaru's all-wheel drive (permanent four-wheel drive system) delivers unflappable grip, whether the road is wet or dry.
The steering is accurate and nicely-weighted and the turn-in to corners is sharp and fluid.
The WRX chassis is more supple than the STi's and though the ride remains firmish it's not harsh. The suspension copes with bumps well and the high-speed ride is excellent.
There's more sense of suspension travel and a hint of bodyroll that you won't encounter in the STi, but that's not to detract from the WRX.
We like its blend of handling precision and chassis suppleness, and of the feeling of roll oversteer that you get when you nail the throttle hard on the exit from a second gear corner. The rear end doesn't actually let go, but there's a nice feeling of the car showing some attitude.
It was particularly fun in a series of second gear corners; so good, in fact, that we went back for some more, And, essentially, that's the point of the Subaru Impreza WRX. It's a car in which fun is not merely a factor but its reason for being.
No-one who loves driving could walk away from a WRX with anything less than an ear-to-ear grin. Fuel economy? Well, if you use the performance, you're not going to get a hell of a lot more than 320 kilometres out of the 60-litre tank.
Of course, you can do much better than that, but there's something about driving a WRX that makes you put fun ahead of economy - until you realise you've got less than a quarter of a tank and you're more than 50km away from the nearest gas station.
The WRX has a five-speed manual gearbox (big brother STi has a six-speeder). It shifts fast and cleanly, with a satisfying precision, and the gear ratios are nicely matched to the engine.
The car will happily potter around town in fifth gear, though you need to drop down to fourth if you need a burst of acceleration at urban speeds.
Manual gearbox cars aren't your weapons of choice for Auckland commuter traffic but then 2006 WRC was much better than we had expected in stop/start crawling.
The gearshift is light and clean, and the clutch isn't heavy. Subaru clutches and I frequently don't get on too well, but the WRX's took up smoothly and was no hassle during the daily commute.
We'd like to see snugger seats with more lateral support. The WRX seats have prominent bolstering, bothy on the cushion and the seatback, but there's a little too much give at shoulder level when you're pressing on. A car with this level of chassis grip really cries out for seats that hold driver and front seat passenger firmly. We say front seat passenger because we don't imagine anyone enjoying themselves sitting in the rear seat of a WRX that was being driven hard on winding roads. Devotees of outright power may consider the WRX puny against its mega-muscled stablemate, the STi.
But few drivers would feel short-changed by the WRX. The acceleration is vivid, the sprints between corners exhilarating, the level of grip astonishing and the handling predictable and forgiving.
It's hard to imagine a more competent and enjoyable performance car at such a good price ($44,990).
The WRX has a deserved reputation as one of the world's finest sporting cars; the 2.5-litre 2006 model can only enhance that reputation.
It's the best WRX yet.
What you get
Standard equipment includes climate-control air-conditioning; cruise control; a single disc Compact Disc sound system; engine immobiliser, and data dot anti-theft security.
There are front foglights; height-adjustable driver's seat; remote control central door-locking; anti-theft alarm; aluminium pedals; leather-wrapped Momo steering wheel; sports body kit; sports seats and interior kit; and seven-spoke, 17-inch diameter alloy wheels.
There's a good range of safety equipment, adding to the high safety level delivered by the all-wheel drive system, superb chassis balance and grip, and forgiving handling.
There are driver and front passenger front and side airbags (the STi doesn't get side airbags because Subaru says they can't be fitted into the sports seats); an ABS anti-lock braking system; three-point seatbelts for all five passengers.
The front disc brakes have four-pot callipers. The rears have two-pot.
The 2006 Impreza WRX retails for $44,990.
Subaru Impreza WRX specifications
Type Four-door sedan or five-door hatchback
Engine Turbocharged DOHC 2457cc flat four (boxer). Four valves per cylinder. Multi-point sequential fuel injection. Maximum power, 169kW at 5600rpm. Peak torque, 320Nm at 3600rpm
Transmission All-wheel drive. Five-speed manual gearbox
Suspension Front and rear, MacPherson struts and coil springs
Brakes Front, ventilated discs with four-pot callipers. Rear, ventilated discs with two-pot callipers. ABS anti-lock system
Wheels 17-inch diameter, seven-spoke alloy
Tyres 215/45 R17 Bridgestone Potenza
Performance 0-100km/h, 5.95 seconds. Standing 400 metres, 14.17 seconds. Both times set by Australian rally champion Cody Crocker at Eastern Creek, New South Wales, and supplied by Subaru Australia. Top speed, 210km/h (electronically limited). Turning circle, 11 metres. Towing capacity, 900kg with braked trailer; 500kg, unbraked
Fuel economy 10.9 litres/100km. Combined cycle (Subaru figures)
Dimensions Length, 4465mm. Width, 1740mm. Height, 1440mm. Wheelbase, 2525mm. Front track, 1485mm Rear track, 1480mm. Ground clearance, 155mm. Kerb weight, 1420kg. Fuel tank capacity, 60 litres (95 octane)