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2011 Subaru Impreza WRX Road Test and Review

2011 Subaru Impreza WRX (select to view enlarged photo)
2011 Subaru Impreza WRX

MORE: Subaru Specs, Comparisons, Prices and Reviews - Subaru Buyers Guide

A Rally Racer for You and I
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

Subaru won the World Rally Manufacturers Championship three years running in 1995, ’96 and ’97. They haven’t won it since (though they’ve had some driver’s championships to boast about) and dropped out of that hunt at the end of the 2008 season. Contesting one the wildest, most demanding motor sports series on the planet helped put Subaru on the map and gave unquestioned legitimacy to the tough, innovative drive system they call Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive.

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“Rally racing,” our old friend Gene Henderson, Pro Rally guru, used to say “is real cars on real roads going real fast.” Scored on the fastest time though a series of “special stages,” generally the roughest and most challenging roads that could be found, rally racers and rally cars had to be of the sturdiest stock – cars with the most power, balance and traction. The fastest cars had all wheels driving. Subaru used that sport to both develop and promote their cars. The WRX, first introduced in 1992, was named for the World Rally Cup.

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Every Subaru has the Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive System - from the bottom of the line Impreza compact to the Tribeca CUV and the upscale Legacy sedan. While most other all-wheel drive, or 4-wheel drive, systems start with a front or rear wheel drive and add mechanical pieces to engage the other axle, Subaru’s system integrates both axles in series with the engine, thereby eliminating many mechanical components. It is sending all power evenly to all wheels all the time. If one wheel encounters a slippery spot the power ends up with the other wheels.

So the little screamer we’re testing this week, the Impreza WRX, represents the spirit of the World Rally Championship. It just makes sense to put lots of power into the lightest car possible while concentrating on getting that power to the road under maximum control if you are to contest this kind of racing – that is, on gravel, snow, ice, ruts, sand, and whatever other challenging surfaces you can find.

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Our test car is the lesser of two WRX models in the Subaru line. This one is a turbocharged version of the horizontally-opposed, 4-cylinder, 2.5-liter engine that makes 265 horsepower and 244 pound-feet of torque. That’s a lot of power for such a little car, of course. But the WRX-STI makes even more with 305 horsepower. The WRX does zero to 60-mph in a scant 4.7 seconds. Mileage is expected to be around 19-mpg in the city and 25 on the highway. Since it’s turbo charged you ought to be using premium fuel.

On the road it feels like a racecar, once it gets going. We must keep the rpms up - way up – to maximize performance, though. Below 3,000 rpm we feel it struggling and wheezing. The turbo is remarkably slow to spool up but once up provides wonderful thrust. Then right up to red line it feels like it wants to go air born.

I had no race track or gravel road time with the WRX this week, but I found the handling to be crisp and balanced without being too harsh or jumpy. Steering feel and feedback were adequate. Pushing aggressively through paved corners and the few twisties we have around here caused not a hint of consternation. I could have pushed twice as hard with full confidence. I expect the increase in the car’s width has some effect. Were we to go rally racing with it, or even autocrossing, we might want to stiffen the suspension a bit more. As it is, it won’t beat us up in normal driving.

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I expected the interior to feel small and cramped but was pleasantly surprised that a big guy like me fit nicely into the performance style driver’s seat with substantial bolstering. The seats are not overly firm like some performance-oriented cars. The standard drivers seat adjusts six ways manually and the passenger seat moves four ways. Power seats, of course, are optional. I felt like I had lots of head room and shoulder room. It was not particularly quiet inside at speed, but I had no trouble conversing with my passengers.

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The WRX got just a few updates for 2011. First and foremost, it now comes in the 4-door sedan version we are testing here. Formerly, we could only get the WRX in a 5-door hatchback. Cosmetically, we now find bulging fenders front and rear matching the STI from last year, with enough cladding and optional rear wing to make it appear to have been spending lots of time and the gym injecting steroids daily. That look, along with 17-inch wheels (wider by an inch to 8-inchs now), and a 1.3-inch increase in track, make it hard to tell visually the WRX from the WRX-STI.

Trunk space is not bad for such a small car with 11.3 cubic-feet available for our stuff. The 5-door hatchback offers 19 cubic-feet before folding the rear seats. With rear seat backs folded we get up to 44.4 cubic-feet of space.

The WRX starts at $25,495 for the entry level with base price rising to $28,995 for the Limited. If you prefer the hotter STI versions of either expect to spend another 8 grand or so. That seems like a huge premium for another 40 horsepower but you’ll get some other stuff as well, like suspension tweaks, a close-ration 6-speed manual transmission, Brembo brakes, 18-inch wheels, HID headlights, special STI steering wheel, special gauge package and leather interior.

Subaru Safety - Subaru is the only manufacturer with IIHS Top Safety Picks for all models, two years in a row. They say that they don't shy away from crash tests, because safety is at the forefront of Subaru design.

Subaru’s full warranty covers the whole car for 3 years or 36,000 miles and the powertrain for 5 years or 60,000 miles.

For the price you can get bigger cars, fancier cars and cars with more content. But for the price (base WRX, that is) you’ll not find one with much more rip-snortin’ all-terrain, toss-it-around fun than this little rally racer.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved