A Real Driver's Car on an Everyman's Budget

2009 Subaru Impreza WRX
2009 Subaru Impreza WRX (Photo courtesy of Subaru)

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By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009

CORNWALL, N.Y. -- Getting it right in the car business is no easy thing. Cars are emotional. Emotions vary with externalities. And externalities -- fuel pricing and availability, driving climate, credit conditions and government regulations -- are wildly variable.

Making the right car for the right customer at the right price -- the price at which that customer will buy and feel good about buying -- is, thus, something of a magic trick. In the case of its 2009 Impreza WRX sedan with navigation, Subaru is to be congratulated for pulling one off.

The Impreza, on sale since the early 1990s, has always been an ugly duckling. But its appearance was a quirk that sold, especially when Subaru hopped it up with WRX (World Rally Championship) performance in its later years.

Early Impreza WRX cars lacked aids and creature comforts such as onboard navigation and premium sound systems. But they were wonderfully fast and nimble -- probably the best performance cars you could get for the money.

And because they were reasonably fuel-efficient, the early Impreza WRX models were perfect for buyers who valued speed and handling, but not at the social price of being condemned for owning and driving a gas-guzzler.

Still, Subaru thought it could do more to improve the Impreza WRX's appeal. So, last year, the company brought out a softer version, more mainstream in external design and, unfortunately, more mainstream in performance.

Reshaping the Impreza WRX's body proved controversial enough. Hard-core fans, who actually follow World Rally Championship races and who sometimes participate in them, hated the change. People who wanted an Impreza WRX badge, and nothing else, loved the new look.

But changing the car from a hot, hard runner into something more akin to the performance a Toyota Corolla economy trotter turned off both driving enthusiasts and image wimps.

But it looks like Subaru got it exactly right for 2009. External appearance is quirky with attitude -- ugly for people who regard mainstream family sedan styling as the epitome of automotive design, but edgy enough to attract those who value funk. The front end looks like a triple-lipped bug with an air-intake slit below the front bumper, another above the bumper and a functional air scoop atop the hood.

The side panel lines just beneath the windows -- "hip lines" in auto industry parlance -- slant upward. Viewed from the front in conjunction with the triple-lipped face, the look is delightfully menacing, sort of like the Impreza WRX is smiling in preparation for consuming something lower in the food chain.

The cabin has been gentrified. The new Impreza WRX looks and feels more like a car than a go-cart. Onboard navigation is now available; and there's even seat heat.

But all of that would have been for naught had Subaru not reinstalled the Impreza WRX's performance DNA, its original hot-rod genome. Equipped with a flat four-cylinder, 2.5-liter, turbocharged, 265-horsepower engine and a suspension to handle it all, this baby can run!

The new Impreza WRX gets nearly 25 miles per gallon on the highway and about 18 miles per gallon in the city. That's nothing to cheer about, especially not in a car that requires premium unleaded fuel. But at today's low pump prices, it won't drive you into bankruptcy. But it will drive you.

The 310-mile run here from my house in Northern Virginia was a total joy, even with the complication of intermittent snow and ice on mountain roads. The all-wheel-drive system in the Impreza WRX handled the mess with ease. Straightaway runs on dry roads were nothing short of exhilarating.

An Impreza WRX with decent looks, a comfortable interior and genuine Impreza WRX performance, available at a base price below $25,000 -- yeah, Subaru has a winner here.

ON WHEELS WITH WARREN BROWN Listen from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesdays on WMET World Radio (1160 AM) or http://www.wmet1160.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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