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Subaru Impreza WRX Sedan (2002)

SEE ALSO: Subaru Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

If you know what "WRC" means, you already know about this car. If you don't, know that Subaru's reputation in the United States is about to undergo a major change. The WRX is finally here and, for those who will drive it, all the world's a special stage.

Here in the United States, Subaru has been best known for its line of Outback "sport-utility wagons" and sedans. In some other parts of the world, Subaru has a reputation for serious performance, as best exemplified by its success in the World Rally Championship (WRC). WRC rallies consist of travel sections, run at legal speeds over regular public roads, and special stages, which may be run on asphalt, dirt, or gravel roads, and in any weather conditions. Unlike ultra-specialized race cars, a WRC rally car must be able to deal with any road surface and any weather condition. WRC rally conditions are just like the real world, only more so.

If it seems that WRC rallying could be an excellent way to prove the mettle of a car, Subaru agrees. It has been competing in the WRC for many years, most recently with special versions of the Impreza. The street version is called "WRX," and has become the stuff of legend, especially in markets like the U.S. where it has been unavailable. The Impreza 2.5RS, a WRX lookalike, is as close as we've gotten. Until now.

Sedan and wagon versions of the latest WRX are now here as part of the 2002 Subaru Impreza lineup. Like most previous WRX models, the new ones use a 2.0-liter turbocharged, intercooled horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine. But this is an all-new engine, designed with American emissions standards in mind. The old WRX was frowned upon by the EPA; this one has 50-state LEV (low emissions vehicle) status. Its 227 horsepower is a good step up from the 2.5 RS's 165, and compares favorably with limited-production versions of some competitors. Unlike its competition, but like all Subarus, the WRX has the advantage of all-wheel drive.

I've just spent a week with a 2002 Impreza WRX sedan. It's a wonderfully entertaining and versatile car that combines serious sports performance and handling with good ride comfort and the interior space of a sedan. It's not a weekend toy, and most definitely, with all-wheel drive traction and reasonable ground clearance, not just a summer car. There are few cars like it in the world, and none directly comparable available in the U.S.

APPEARANCE: The new Impreza sedan look is shared by the WRX and the 2.5 RS. It is, at a quick glance, a small, sedan with generally conservative, clean lines in silhouette. A closer look reveals fender blisters that look race-ready and front styling similar to that of the previous 2.5RS, with a large, upside-down trapezoidal grille, flat air dam with driving lights and an auxiliary air intake, and interesting "split-level" elliptical headlights. The passenger cabin is similar in shape to that of the previous- generation Impreza. A Subaru public relations person once said of the hood scoop on that earlier Impreza "Of course it's functional. Its function is to look cool." The scoop the 2.5RS still fulfills that function; the one on the WRX does a bit more - peer inside and you will be greeted by the intercooler, just like in the WRC cars. Despite that, the WRX is fairly low-key for a performance car, with no large wing or oversize exhaust tip.

COMFORT: One look inside of the WRX and its mission is clear. The front seats look like classic '80s Recaros, and are comfortable and supportive; the steering wheel is a genuine Momo. Metal-look plastic trim brightens the instrument panel without creating distraction, and simulated drilled-metal pedals (like most such, they're metal with anti-slip rubber inserts) add a contemporary sport touch. The controls are placed well for serious driving, and leather the covering on the steering wheel, shift knob, and parking brake adds to comfort and control. It's not a stripped-down race-replica, all of the amenities expected at its price point are included. The rear seat is roomy for the size of the car, with a center ski passthrough. There is a good amount of interior storage, and a usefully-large trunk. The Subaru Impreza WRX is a practical small sedan...with a serious drivetrain.

SAFETY: The new Impreza is designed for active and passive safety. Passive safety is enhanced by the "Ring Shaped Reinforcement Frame" chassis structure, which contains the passenger compartment in a safety cage, with front and rear crumple zones. All seating positions have three-point safety belts, and the front airbags are supplemented by side airbags. All-wheel drive, nimble handling, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes are just some of the WRX's active safety features.

ROADABILITY: The new Impreza chassis structure benefits handling as well as safety, with its increased rigidity providing more precise control by the fully-independent suspension. In the manner of a rally car, suspension travel is longer than the norm for sports cars, and the damping is a little softer. Ground clearance, at 6.1 inches, is greater than usual for a sports sedan, to better deal with road hazards. The result is good ride comfort and excellent handling, aided by confidence-inspiring all-wheel drive traction. In normal conditions, power is split 50/50 between the front and rear wheels. A limited-slip center viscous coupling ensures that the wheels that can best use the engine's power get it, and a limited-slip rear differential further improves handling and traction.

PERFORMANCE: No more sand in the face for Subaru. A few years ago I had the opportunity to drive the hot example of the previous WRX, the STi. With 275 horsepower (300 with the water injection system on!), it was truly awesome. Zero to sixty in around 4.5 seconds, geared low, and mechanically busy, it was a serious enthusiast machine, but reasonably easy to drive - for a right-hand drive, left-shift car. Our new version of the WRX "only" makes 227 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 217 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. Call it jalapeno to the STi's habanero, but don't call it underpowered. Despite the high specific output, it is as docile in traffic and as easy to drive anywhere as any Subaru, with a very useful spread of power. It is neither high-strung nor quirky. The standard five-speed manual gearbox has good gearing for the real world, combining excellent acceleration abilities with economical highway cruising.

CONCLUSIONS: The WRX is a unique machine that combines the all-weather, all-road abilities associated with a sport-utility with the space and versatility of a sedan and the performance of a sports car.

2002 Subaru Impreza WRX Sedan

Base Price              $ 23,995
Price As Tested         $ 24,520
Engine Type             turbocharged, dual overhead cam,
                          16-valve horizontally-opposed 
Engine Size             2.0 liters / 122cu. in.
Horsepower              227 @ 6000rpm
Torque (lb-ft)          217@ 4000 rpm
Transmission            5-speed manual
                         (4-speed auto available)
Wheelbase / Length      99.4 in. / n/a in.
Curb Weight             3085 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower   13.6
Fuel Capacity           15.9 gal.
Fuel Requirement        unleaded premium,
                          91 octane minimum
Tires                   P205/55 VR16 Bridgestone Potenza RE92
Brakes, front/rear      vented disc / solid disc,
                          antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear  independent MacPherson strut all around
Drivetrain              front engine, all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      n/a / n/a / 20
0 to 60 mph            6.1  sec (mfg)

Destination charge         $ 525