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FIRST DRIVE

Impreza's appeal may not be obvious to everyone

It takes a car enthusiast to appreciate how Subaru packed power into the WRX STi.

October 08, 2003|Warren Brown | Washington Post

I once angered some readers by saying a car enthusiast was anyone who buys a car. After all, paying thousands of dollars for anything requires a certain amount of passion and commitment.

Still, I was wrong.

An ordinary car buyer would neither understand nor appreciate the 2004 Subaru Impreza WRX STi. A regular car person would not ring my doorbell in the middle of the afternoon and ask me to come out, begging, "Rev the engine, please. Just once, can you rev the engine for us?"

Three teenage boys did that. I complied. They were thrilled. Some of you might nod and ask, "What else can you expect from teenagers?"

Well, I'm no teenager. I have gray hair and 55 years' worth of joys and woes. But I absolutely love the WRX STi, love it with its ugly hood scoop and view- obstructing rear spoiler. It has everything to do with speed, movement, balance. It's the exhilarating feeling of being at risk yet remaining in control. Not everyone understands that. Most car enthusiasts do.

They are the people who know why Japan's Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., maker of Subaru automobiles, built the WRX STi without a standard radio or CD player. They know why the car comes without floor mats and why there are few luxuries other than its blue Escaine fabric seats with black knit bolsters.

Fluff adds weight to a car whose sole purpose is to run as fast and corner as sharply as possible without straying from its intended path. The all-wheel-drive WRX STi does that.

This four-door sedan is the product of Subaru Tecnica International, Fuji Heavy Industries' motor sports development division. It is an expensive little ride at $31,000, especially considering that it lacks the standard goodies found in similarly priced automobiles. But car enthusiasts know why. They focus on engineering. They look beneath the hood.

There, they find a turbocharged, intercooled, 2.5-liter, double-overhead-cam, horizontally opposed, 300-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. Horizontally opposed? Think of two cylinder banks, each containing two cylinders. The cylinder banks are side by side, instead of being lined up four in a row ("inline") or shaped like a V.

That horizontal, or "boxer," cylinder configuration allows Subaru to concentrate the engine's mass in a smaller area. That helps to lower the WRX STi's center of gravity, and that improves handling and steering.

The engine is turbocharged to force more air into its cylinders, thus creating a better and more combustive air-fuel mixture. But turbocharged engines run hot. Intercoolers help reduce that heat. The ugly scoop atop the WRX STi's hood channels air to the intercooler.

That highflying, dual-plane rear spoiler, an eyesore that compromises rear vision, manages air in a different way. It reduces lift -- the tendency of the front end of a car to lift during acceleration, or for the rear end to lift during braking.

It all comes down to this: the joy of seeking and finding abandoned roads or strips, or gaining entry to a legal track and letting the WRX STi rip. I did this and enjoyed every wonderfully senseless moment of doing it.

I had some complaints: The WRX STi really isn't designed for everyday use on city streets, although Subaru executives argue to the contrary. In truth, this is a street-legal racer that, like the equally well-tuned Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, is more at home on a legal track.

But the WRX STi is so much fun. It's addictive. Once you find the right space and let it run, you'll want to do it again and again.

Please note, this is not the car for poorly maintained urban streets. Its four-wheel independent suspension system handles some of the bumps. But mostly you'll be bumped silly in this one on most city streets.

The WRX STi, like all Subarus, has all-wheel drive. The engine is in the front, and it's longitudinally mounted (front to back).

The car's engine develops 300 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 300 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. The car weighs 3,263 pounds, sort of heavy for a pocket rocket. But power-to-weight ratio is excellent at 1 horsepower per 10.9 pounds. The engine is linked to a six-speed manual transmission.

As for gas mileage, I averaged 20 miles per gallon at better-than-normal speeds in driving environments in which those speeds were safe and reasonably legal.

The car's base price is $30,995. The dealer invoice is $28,580. The price as tested was $31,545, including a $550 destination charge. But you probably would pay more. This is a premium baby.

In reply to: all, it's a great toy. Compare the WRX STi with the Mazda RX-8, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Nissan 350Z and Porsche Boxster.

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