Battle of the Imprezas

SUBARU IMPREZA WRX: Vivid straight line acceleration.

Subaru’s Impreza WRX and STi have long been regarded as the best bang-for-buck performance cars.

Both are genuine sports sedans, with the STi vastly capable and constantly luring the driver to push hard and explore its capability, while the standard WRX is more user-friendly and, although it has significant punch, it is more docile.

Part of that latter statement is the fitment of automatic transmission on the WRX – the STi is solely a manual model, and while that would be my preference, it was good to feel how the turbocharged engine works against continuously variable transmission. The WRX’s CVT unit is stepped into eight points and the driver can access those through steering wheel-mounted paddles.

Even without driver intervention, the transmission works well with the flow of power from the horizontally-opposed 2-litre engine, it has solid power delivery and smooth transmission through to all four wheels. The power outputs are rated at 197kW and 350Nm.

If you are wondering why my introduction mentioned both Impreza performance models, there is a major difference between the two cars; the STi gets a 2.5-litre engine at 221kW and 407Nm, and the WRX has a more manageable 2-litre unit, making it not so flighty if the throttle is given a bit of a nudge. The standard model is not short on the readies either – it will lunge 100km/h from standstill in 6.3sec, and will make a highway overtake in around 4sec.

It’s also not just about straight line acceleration. The WRX is a top performer constantly, at all points of the rev band there is a good match of power and delivery through the transmission. A lot of that has to do with the torque structure of the engine. Subaru also claims a 2400rpm to 5200rpm point of maximum torque, and with peak power rated at just 5600rpm there is strength right through the rev band that provides constant impetus.

It is also an engine that delivers well with economy. Subaru, as a manufacturer, has recently placed a big emphasis on leaning out its engines, the result of which is remarkable across the various models. The WRX is rated with an 8.6-litre per 100km combined cycle average. That equates to 33mpg in the imperial system, but it is not a figure that I could get close to. Well, that’s no surprise, I drove the WRX keenly and that is never conducive to good fuel economy.

However, my 10l/100km (28mpg) figure wasn’t excessive and was certainly moderated by a commendable 6l/100km (47mpg) figure sitting at a steady 100km/h on a highway cruise. The lazy engine speed of 1900rpm is a major contributor to that good figure. Of course, if you give the accelerator a bit of a squeeze at any speed, the engine bursts into life and provides a thrilling ride.

The WRX’s suspension rates are a dynamic compromise between what is acceptable for family car comfort and the firming needed to promote good handling characteristics. Given the WRX isn’t tall, at just under 1.5m, there is little body sway over the suspension, which means Subaru can set the spring and damper rates a little less firm to counteract that. Instead, the WRX sits tidy in a corner, accepting mid-corner bumps without disturbing chassis control.

None of this is new from WRX; it has always been that tempting car to force into a corner. In the first instance, grip is supplied by sticky sport specification Dunlop tyres (245/40 x 18in); secondly, with four-wheel-drive seen as a major grip enhancer, the WRX has natural handling ability. It’s almost like rear-wheel-drive only at some points, especially forcing out of a corner; oversteer isn’t likely, but there is a push that indicates something special lurks in the driveline.

Four-wheel-drive has many advantages. Handling aside, it is a safety mechanism and a way to engineer a sports car feel into a chassis. At the same time the WRX doesn’t unsettle the occupants; while the STi is a little harsh over uneven surfaces, the WRX has a supple suspension set-up that doesn’t compromise handling or comfort.

And at $50,990, the WRX is still the sports sedan bargain – whereas the STi will set you back around $64k. With these prices it’s no wonder the WRX is seen as the desirable car for a wide range of age groups.

As much as I like the STi, I think it would miss my attention solely because I don’t believe I would do justice to the engineering. It is a car that likes to be driven hard and its ride is most definitely a compromise. On the other hand, the WRX is a lot more compliant, missing out on little yet delivering with purpose.

Price – Subaru Impreza WRX, $50,990

Dimensions – Length, 4595mm; width, 1795mm; height, 1475mm

Configuration – Four-cylinder, four-wheel-drive, 1998cc, 197kW, 350Nm, eight-speed automatic.

Performance – 0-100km/h, 6.3sec

Fuel usage – 8.6l/100km