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Subaru Spices Up the Mix


Over here--thanks to those commercials of Crocodile Dundee ducking thugs on dirt roads--Subaru is Australian for getaway car, mate. Subaru is also well entrenched as a builder of subcompact sedans-cum-sport-utility, station wagons-cum-floral-delivery-vans built on the cheap and designed to stay that way.

But over there, throughout Europe and Asia and wherever drivers with Kevlar kidneys dare, Subaru is known as a producer of formidable performance cars and winner of back-to-back world rally championships.

Now Subaru here is borrowing from Subaru there--and the 1998 Impreza 2.5 RS coupe adds a serious sprinkle of Tabasco to a line previously known as pedestrian, but with potential.


The 2.5 RS grunts and skitters like a sport coupe. Work it into a lather and it puffs brake dust and develops mechanical odors and pretends it is a grown-up car.

It is hung with all the right bumps and intakes. Subaru's stylists knew exactly which colors and angles imply restless horsepower even when the object of their design is parked and fast asleep.

Color combinations add a definite sparkle, one in particular that's an aphrodisiac in M&M blue--identical to the bright Dresden used on Subaru's rally cars--with gold-painted five-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels. Low-profile tires enhance the look.

It's the first Impreza to be given a 2.5-liter 16-valve four-cylinder horizontally opposed boxer engine (the layout that has become a Porsche tradition), which builds 165 horsepower and adds quite enough to the zing of summer.

And transplanted with Subaru's efficient all-wheel drive system, which adds much glue to its ground work, this sport coupe seems poised for popularity if only for its spirit of man-boy mischief and the stand-by-me aura that made Paul Hogan who he is today.

But in some areas, the RS presents worrisome signs of posturing. Rather like neighborhood mixed doubles when everybody shows up wearing brand new Fila sneakers.

There's nothing fresh about that 165-horsepower power plant, which is identical to the optional 2.5 of the Subaru Legacy. It would have helped the concept, sales and customer relations immensely if Subaru had at least tweaked and polished or even turbocharged the engine. If only to set the car apart and give it bragging rights beyond other sport coupes in a cluttered class. Such as the turbocharged, 210-horsepower Eagle Talon. Or the Volkswagen GTI.

That gulping hood scoop on the RS is blanked off and does not assist engine breathing. Four flanking air vents blow nowhere. And a huge rear spoiler--given the intermediate performance envelope of the RS--develops no more down force than a wire coat hanger.

So as functional pieces of equipment, their only function is to look cool. Or, in the case of the spoiler, to leave the visually peripheral impression that something is sneaking up on you.

Still, it must be remembered that the legacy of the Impreza is not open-wheel racing. Its essence comes from rallying, a sport of sprints, quick shifts, agility on every surface from loose gravel to Third World asphalt, and scampering like a bunny around tight corners. All the while offering more driving fun than adulthood and suburban responsibilities allow.

And the RS, set to go on sale around Labor Day, certainly has those qualities.

Its five-speed manual--although an automatic is available--has a short, sweet, crisp throw. Seats are grippy buckets and leather covers the steering wheel and shift lever. Anti-lock disc brakes are standard, as are the ground effects bodywork and a suspension tuned for flatness, road feel and the sporting sides of our backsides.

The interior is spartan, back seats actually work, fabrics would vote conservative and see the overall approach as purposeful. Everything from analog dials to steering wheel, hand brake, shifter, light and signal switches seem close without a sense of cramping. Brake and gas pedal are set close for heel-and-toe shifting. Again, it's that rally thing with everything placed easily and quickly to hand because when things are happening fast on poor surfaces and back roads, one doesn't want to be reaching and wondering where everything is.

There is only so much a 2.5-liter four-banger can do, so the RS is not a super-fast car. To keep it hopping, you'll spend a fair amount of time stirring shorter gears at higher revs. After a while, you might even get used to the blat-blat-blat of that horizontally opposed engine with a tone and frequency, horrors, reminiscent of a Volkswagen Eurovan.

Acceleration is biased toward the leisurely from rest, but is focused on a solid concentration of torque in the middle gears to allow elastic exits from slow corners.

And for those quicker curves, as much in wet as in dry, whether it be snowing or littered with marbles, let's not forget Subaru's all-wheel drive system, which contributes so much security to the responses of brakes, steering and power train.

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