Review and road test of the Subaru Impreza Turbo/WRX (1994 - 2007)
THE CULT OF THE PERSONALITY
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
If one car could be said to have spawned an entire motoring cult, it's probably the Subaru Impreza Turbo. No, it wasn't the first four-wheel drive sports car, but it has legitimate claims on being the greatest. Since its introduction to the UK in 1994, the Turbo spawned a whole host of go-faster editions, and has subsequently metamorphosed into the WRX variants. Many thought the rush for this most prolific of Japanese evo-cars would die down after the early sales boom of the mid nineties but years later, turbocharged Imprezas are still hot tickets. There are some used examples about that by now have fallen into the wrong hands. Here's how to steer clear of these rogues.
Models Covered: 2/4 door saloon, 5 door hatchback:
Series 1 1994 - 2.0-litre [Turbo, Terzo, Series McRae, P1, Catalunya] 2.2-litre [22B]
Series 2 2000-2003 [WRX, UK300]
Series 3 2003 - 2006 [WRX, WRX STi, WR1, STi Type-UK]
Series 4 2006- to date [WRX, WRX SL, STi Type-UK]
Although it's hard to believe, the Impreza wasn't an instant hit. When it first arrived in May 1993, the model range was topped by a modest normally aspirated 1.8-litre version. Few who drove it realised what potential lay beneath the lacklustre lines. A year later the Turbo was introduced, available either as a four-door saloon or a rather hunchbacked five-door wagon. With 208bhp on tap it was certainly quick enough but it was the handling more than anything that prompted the motoring press to go into paroxysms of rabid enthusiasm. The car just stuck to the road with such tenacity - wet or dry - that it defied belief. Traction was astonishing and the steering, brakes and ride were also superb. When Colin McRae sped to the World Rally Championship at the wheel of an Impreza, the car's legacy was assured. A Series McRae saloon special edition was released in June 1995 with gold alloys wheels, a big spoiler kit and numbered plaques. The car was an instant success and realising that a market was building up for rarer Impreza versions, Subaru kept them coming.
Two hundred Catalunya Limited Edition saloon models went on sale in May 1997 finished in black with gold wheels, a close ratio gearbox and carbon fibre detailing in the cabin. The Turbo models received an equipment boost in October 1997 with 16-inch wheels fitted as standard along with a four-spoke leather steering wheel and a revised centre console and fascia. The Terzo Limited Edition arrived in March 1998, finished with blue mica paint, air conditioning and grey suede effect trim. By this time crooks had nominated the Impreza their favourite getaway car and the Terzo was fitted with a Cobra alarm and immobiliser unit.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Subaru, a limited run road going WRCar was announced to the unsuspecting world at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show. It would be based on the newly released Version 4 Type R Coupe but would have a larger 2.2-litre engine with more torque and the bodywork would be highly modified to give it the appearance of the current WRC rally cars of then current drivers, Colin McRae and Pierro Liatti. It has been said that when the launch did happen, the allocation of 400 cars sold out within 30 minutes, with over 6000 deposits being taken, and cars were then going for speculative amounts. Subaru Japan dubbed the car the 22B. A total of 425 cars were produced, and although only 399 were officially built for Japan's domestic market another 26 were assembled for overseas distributors. Colin McRae and his co-drive Nicky Grist received a car each and these were both numbered 000/400. There is also a third car with 000/400 which is the development car owned by David Lapworth, Technical Director at Prodrive. Unlucky number 13 was thought not to have been produced but it has now been confirmed this 22B exists as a demonstrator for Subaru USA. Of the "missing" 22, it is known that five off 22B have been imported to Australia as show or competition vehicles, whilst the United Kingdom was awarded 16 off cars to be rebadged 22B-UK. Retailing at £50,000 apiece, this was and still is, the ultimate collector's Impreza.
In March 1998 the standard Impreza received another mini makeover, with wider 205/60 tyres as well as some revisions to the fascia, the fitment of a leather-trimmed Momo steering wheel and handbrake lever as well as the almost obligatory white instrument dials. A more significant change came a year later when power was boosted to 215bhp. The prized RB5 Limited Edition was announced in April 1999 to celebrate Richard Burns' success. With blue steel metallic paint and the option of a 236bhp Prodrive engine upgrade it was the best balanced Impreza to date. The 444 examples available were rapidly snapped up by Impreza cognoscenti. The RB5 was largely overshadowed by the launch of the 277bhp Impreza P1, a two-door saloon with a body kit designed by Peter Stevens and a Prodrive suspension kit.
The Impreza was revised heavily in 2000, the 'classic' Series 1 shape being replaced by the controversial Series 2 or 'bug eyed' car. Although the P1 was still available to special order, the jury was initially out on the Series 2. Whilst the looks took some getting used to, Subaru managed to hit the target with the driving dynamics. The 218bhp WRX saloon and sports wagon were a good deal more composed at higher speeds, even if this did mean that their steering didn't feel quite so alive at less banzai velocities. The UK300 models offered meaner styling and the option of a Prodrive performance kit. Recognising that the bug-eyed car wasn't to everyone's taste, Subaru took relatively swift remedial action and in 2003 a third generation car was offered that was probably the best looking of all. Towards the end of 2004, the WRX STi Type-UK derivative arrived to top the Impreza range.
The 2006 model year facelift brought dramatic changes to the look of the car. The tri-sectioned grille with central 'nostril' raised some eyebrows as did the stretched headlamps that wrap around into the car's front wings. More important, however, was the dropping of the old faithful 2.0-litre turbo engine in favour of a 2.5-litre turbo unit. A 277bhp STI model followed some months later and then came the interesting STI spec D with its more 'discreet' styling and STI underpinnings beneath. An all-new hatchbacked Impreza arrived in September 2007.
What You Get
The first Impreza Turbo models now appear surprisingly crude things compared with their more sophisticated offspring but still serve up the basic formula of rapid fun, surprising practicality, excellent reliability and rather substandard interiors. The dull grey plastics and often uninspiring seating trims made it obvious why the special edition models found such ready takers although Subaru smartened the Series 1 models up towards the end of their lives with high level rear wings and two-tone bucket seats.
As with so many 'evolutionary' models, the Series 2 Impreza range emerges as a better car, although perhaps not quite so exciting as the previous model. It certainly feels a more mature proposition. The interior does at least appear to be built to a far more acceptable standard of quality. The seats will feel slightly narrow for some tastes, but offer great support. In the WRX variant, the leather-trimmed Momo steering wheel and drilled aluminium pedal set certainly complete the sporting picture. The fascia has been livened up with splashes of silver and chrome, and the effect, whilst unlikely to give Audi sleepless nights, is a vast improvement on the old model. Some details still grate, however. The cupholders jam in their slots and there's some untidy finishing, but the interior no longer feels like a cheap and cheerful Korean shopping hatch. All Imprezas are surprisingly practical propositions given their explosive performance. The five-door wagon is especially well suited to trail driving/ski resort duties.
What to Look For
This can be something of a minefield as there are few early cars around that are in an unmolested state, many of them having had essential basic servicing neglected. Look for crash damage and check the condition of the turbocharger. White smoke from the exhaust can herald big bills. Check the owner thoroughly. Do they know much about the car's history? Are they willing to let you thrash the car from cold? You'll also need to find out whether you're looking at a UK car or a grey import. Cars imported from Japan are often prone to rust and there are some very tatty looking models about. Look for kerbed alloys, spongy brakes, worn clutches, sizzled tyres and hamfisted performance upgrades.
Parts are expensive, so tread carefully. If you're looking at an RB5 or a UK300, remember that there were two versions, one with a flashy bodykit and a bog standard 215bhp, the other with a flashy bodykit and a wickedly non-standard engine upgrade. Don't make the mistake of bidding upgrade money for the standard version. You can try to convince a seller that his upgraded car is only worth the same as 'this one you've seen here in the FreeAds' but Impreza owners are, by and large, an informed bunch.
The fact that the Impreza regularly comes at or near the pinnacle of the J D Power surveys is testament to its almost metronomic reliability. Jump from an Audi S3 into an Impreza Turbo or WRX and your first impression would be that the Impreza would be lucky to last all the way to the bottom of your drive, but the Subaru trounces the Audi in terms of actual reliability. The cheap fascia plastics and the exposed wiring in the boot may look like corner cutting, but the bits that matter have had millions of yen of development budget thrown at them.
(2.0 WRX approx.) Subaru parts have a deserved reputation for being expensive. A clutch assembly is around £200. Front brake pads are around £80, and a new alternator is over £400 new. A headlamp is £240 while a cam belt is just over £100. Even a humble fuel filter is £33.
On the Road
The WRX doesn't feel anything like as vivid as the old Impreza Turbo. With the same power, 70kg of extra weight to haul around and a turbo response tuned for torque rather than explosive mid-range punch, this may not be surprising. Like so many other aspects of this latest model, however, if you give it time you'll come round to its reasoning. Take the steering for example. It doesn't possess anything like the feedback of the previous car's but when hammering along a narrow, rutted B-road, you'll be able to carry far more speed with far more composure, as the wheel will now feel calm, direct and perfectly weighted. A standard WRX model can despatch the sprint to 60mph in 5.9 seconds en route to a top speed of 143mph for the saloon and 140 for the estate. The brakes have been improved over the old Turbo, with ventilated discs all round giving an impressively fade-free performance. If you really want to cover ground fast, look for the RB5 or the P1.
The Impreza is a cult car for good reason. Fast, reliable and as tough as old boots, and entire industry has sprung up offering accessories, performance extras and styling addenda for the Impreza. As long as you pick a car that hasn't been horribly cowboyed, you should find a used Impreza a fast track to the sort of motoring fun you thought was a thing of the past. Although it's not a cheap car to run, a used Impreza Turbo or WRX is surprisingly practical and can often be sold to a sceptical other half on the basis that that practicality and Subaru's consistent high placing in JD Power surveys. Cult cars usually come with considerable caveats. Not so the Impreza.
Subaru Impreza Turbo/WRX (1994 - 2007) review by ANDY ENRIGHT