Still outstanding acceleration, 4WD grip, handling dynamics.
We Don't Like:
Some performance loss, questionable styling.
Such has been the Australian love affair with the Impreza WRX it's easy to forget the all-wheel drive pocket-rocket has been around since 1993, astonishing us with its power, poise and value for money. A replacement has been a long time coming. Understandable considering Subaru's limited resources and the need to get the new car right. But the WRX launched here late in 1999 as part of the Impreza sedan and hatch range has received a less than rapturous reception.
First off was the styling. Those goggle-eyed headlamps clashed with the squared-off look of the rest of the car. And while the wheels had gone from 16 to 17-inch alloys, the new 10-spoke design was wimpish and unimpressive compared to the classic five-spokers used previously. The rear of the sedan was less controversial, simply receiving a spoiler-ectomy, the planks of the last few years replaced - on the sedan - by a much more subtle item. Then there was the performance. A fundamentally unchanged turbo horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine provided the same power (160kW) and slightly more torque (292Nm - up 2Nm and produced 400rpm lower at 3600rpm) - but in a 120kg heavier body. Subaru proudly points to the engine's clean-green credentials meeting the European STEP3 legislation, but that doesn't cut too much ice if you're sitting behind the wheel of your new pride and joy watching the disappearing taillights of the old model at a stop-light grand prix. That doesn't mean the WRX is now a softy, but the hard edge has come off the straight-line performance.
On a more positive note, the same can be said for the interior appointments, features and comfort levels. Clamber inside and the first thing you notice - still - are those superb body-hugging sports seats. They suit the intended purpose of the car emphatically, although drivers with "love-handles" may need to diet before becoming truly comfortable. Next is the new leather signature Momo steering wheel, which is a lovely size and terrific to grip with its textured dimples at "10-to-2". The gearlever and handbrake lever also get stitched leather as standard. Look around and you'll see the redesigned and classier-looking controls and centre console. This includes silver surrounds on the three analogue instruments and a metallic finish for the centre console and air vents, all complemented by aluminium pedals.
While Subaru is touting how modern and new all this looks, it is still quite austere in its presentation and functionality remains king. The surfaces are hard and black and the execution a little cheap in places - like the pop-out cupholder that only half pops out. But the controls are absolutely standard Japanese, so it's all logical stuff for the new generation car. An equipment boost is also appropriate considering the price rise. There's a stereo with a six-disc in-dash CD player, cruise control (for the first time in a turbo Subaru), and semi-automatic air-conditioning, to add to dual front airbags, remote central locking and height adjustment on the driver's seat - improved from 30mm to 50mm. We found the stereo to be quite fiddly to use when turning between stations. It may purely be a familiarity issue, but the problem persisted longer than we would have expected. Otherwise, the double-DIN buttons and dials fell easily to hand.
Interior storage space is an improvement on the old car with a centre lidded bin - unlined so whatever goes in there will rattle about - and small door pockets. But no front seat rear pockets. All passengers get a lap-sash seatbelt, which is an improvement. But there's still only limited rear seat space for tall (read adult) passengers and the sedan's functionality has been reduced by the replacement of the old model's split-fold with a ski-port. Of course, there's always the hatchback version if you need more load lugging space. Looking out over the bonnet you'll see that familiar WRX air scoop, but also now Porsche-like rounded sheetmetal on either side shrouding those controversial new headlamps. Look out the back window and the view is uninterrupted thanks to the small rear wing.
Fire the new WRX up and there's the familiar "boxer" engine chug. Press the throttle and it still feels very quick, but the extra weight does make an impact. The old car felt barely under control. You were always reaching for another gear, constantly being thrust back in the seat as the turbo engine delivered lightning response. WRX II is quick, just not as quick - or for that matter as demanding. The ride is much more liveable these days. The go-kart nervouseness which the old car exuded on rougher and pot-holed roads has been significantly reduced, but not eradicated, particularly at speed on bigger bumps. Yet the old strength of inspiring grip levels and "chuckability" remain - all this presumably a direct result of a far stiffer body enabling a softer suspension tune. The steering is incredibly direct and quite precise, although feel is still not its strongest point thanks to the high level of assistance from the power steering. Perhaps the gearchange is the weakest link, remaining notchy although hardly imprecise. Noise is the other familiar and constant companion. There's the aforementioned engine, there's plenty from the 17-inch tyres and there are whirrs from the drivetrain and brakes too. There's also plenty of noise from under car when driving on gravel roads.
On dirt the sheer ability of the chassis really shines through. It drifts nicely and controllably, with the added surety of four-wheel drive to maintain effective power delivery and provide sure grip. The braking performance of the refettled system is impressive too, the ABS system really biting through the top layer of gravel to pull you up fast. On the right winding bitumen it's simply wonderful to drive as well. Get the engine up on song and it's terrific, with meaty urge from 3000rpm to 7000rpm actually making it more flexible than the old WRX. The feel is awesome; it turns in quickly with understeer at the limit, it grips brilliantly and pulls up hard and consistently.
If you think that sounds a lot like its predecessor you're spot on. The stiffness improvements to the body have brought welcome improvements to the sophistication of the ride and made the WRX feel that much more solid. Yet its controversial styling and slightly dulled acceleration mean WRX II is not the hands-down winner the original was. In some ways it is a better car, but not necessarily in a way its audience actually cares about. At around $40,000, however, it remains one of the great performance buys of the current era. Maybe not the greatest though.