SEE ALSO: Subaru Buyer's Guide
What do you think of when you think of Subaru? Do images of snow, ice, and mountains come to mind? Vermont in winter? While Subaru has an enviable reputation for making solid, all-wheel drive cars with all-weather capability, the company does have another, wilder side.
Subaru is a major contender in World Championship rallying. We're not talking about gentle time-speed-distance club events here. The type of rallying Subaru has been involved in is closer to the point- to-point races of the early part of the century, and is run over closed, unpaved forest roads. Dirt, gravel, poorly-paved surfaces, and, yes, even snow are optimum proving grounds for all-wheel drive traction. Rallying is perhaps the form of motorsport that is toughest on the machinery involved, for the cars are production vehicles modified only for safety. Subaru has won many world and regional championships using special versions of its Impreza coupe.
Subaru sells a street-legal rally-replica Impreza in Japan. It's called the WRX and has nearly 300 horsepower. I had the chance to drive one a few years ago. With supercar levels of acceleration, braking, and cornering, it was an amazing machine, but X-rated by the EPA and DOT. So Subaru has introduced the Impreza 2.5 RS to the United States for 1998. Think of it as a PG-rated WRX. It's still plenty of fun, but legal.
A recent week at home with a 2.5 RS, and plenty of seat time at the press introduction in Washington state, provided ample opportunity to test the car's response under all conditions from city driving through track time on the abrasive pavement of Seattle International Raceway. It's a winner everywhere, with a wonderfully torquey powerplant for good acceleration, 4-wheel antilock disc brakes for fast stopping, and all-wheel drive handling for surefooted cornering on any surface from forest road to racetrack. And, it holds people and cargo in comfort and goes a long way on a gallon of gas. It looks pretty cool, too.
APPEARANCE: The 2.5 RS is an Impreza coupe. As such, it is a handsomely-proportioned small car, slightly wedge-shaped and rounded at the edges, with a low beltline and large passenger cabin. But, it's an Impreza coupe with an attitude. The small air intake adorned with the corporate logo, wide headlights, and a large hood scoop are common to all Imprezas. The front bumper fascia has a race- car air dam look, also a general Impreza feature these days. But, the 2.5 RS has its own not-so-subtle touches. If the hood scoop doesn't get the performance message across, the monochrome paint scheme, large trunk-mounted spoiler and gold, 5-spoke alloy wheels do. "That's a Subaru? No way! Wow...." was an oft-heard comment from onlookers.
COMFORT: Inside, the Impreza 2.5 RS has an environment tailored for spirited driving. The fully-reclining, cloth-covered sports seats were great on a 5-hour drive through the lava flows of eastern Washington during the press introduction, and had good side bolstering for fast cornering at Seattle International Raceway. They were good for daily-use comfort as well. A thick steering wheel and well-placed shift lever, both leather-covered, add sporty touches and aid driver control. Instrument panel design is functional. Useful storage spaces are strategically placed around the cockpit. The rear seat has more room than most small coupes, and the trunk is larger than that of some midsized sedans. The RS is no base-model short on amenities. Power windows, mirrors, and doorlocks, air conditioning, and a good AM/FM/cassette sound system are all standard equipment.
SAFETY: The 1998 Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS has dual airbags, 3-point harnesses for all outboard passengers, and side-impact protection. Antilock disc brakes are standard, as are headlights that go off with the ignition.
ROADABILITY: All-wheel drive is not just for snow. Subaru has an "active safety" approach to safety. This means that all Subarus are designed to help enable the driver to avoid accidents. The "Subaru All- Wheel Driving System" combines a low center of gravity, all-wheel drive, good brakes, and the fully-independent suspension for maneuverability and good handling characteristics. It's not advertising hype, it works. The 2.5 RS is nimble and maneuverable on twisting roads or in traffic, with a firm but reasonable ride. No bone shaking. The chassis handles a rally car's 300 horsepower with no problem, so the 165 horses here won't get anything out of shape. On the track near its limits, the 2.5 RS is friendly, with no surprises, and enormous fun to drive. Actually, its enormous fun to drive anywhere. All-wheel drive means better handling in all conditions, not just on loose or slippery surfaces. It puts power where it can be used.
PERFORMANCE: Hot-rodding 1A. Subaru has taken the simple road to performance by putting its largest engine in its smallest car. The 2.5- liter twincam flat four also used in the Legacy has 165 horsepower to the 2.2-liter engine's 137. It is particularly healthy in the middle of the rev range, which means good acceleration and less need for shifting. When shifting is called for, it's a pleasure. The 2.5 RS uses a short- throw shift linkage developed for the rally cars, and it works quickly and precisely. The 2.5 RS is no 300-horsepower rally car, but it's plenty quick enough.
CONCLUSIONS: Subaru practicality and all-wheel drive sports coupe fun are not mutually exclusive. See the new Impreza 2.5 RS for details.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 19,195 Price As Tested $ 19,690 Engine Type horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder, dual overhead cam, 16 valves Engine Size 2.5 liters / 150 cu. in. Horsepower 165 @ 5600 Torque (lb-ft) 162 @ 4000 Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 99.2 in. / 172.2 in. Curb Weight 2825 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 17.1 Fuel Capacity 13.2 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular Tires 205/55 HR16 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent MacPherson strut Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 22 / 28 / 24 0 to 60 mph 8.1 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 16.1 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.35 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Destination and Delivery $ 495