2003 Subaru Impreza
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    2003 Subaru Impreza Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

    The following review is for a 2002 Model Year. There may be minor changes to current model you are looking at.

    Muscular new WRX ready to rally.Just add roll cage.An outdoorsy subcompact for the snowbelt or anywhere else.

    Introduction

    Subaru has an all-new Impreza lineup for 2002. Value-oriented models are gone, replaced by high-performance models. Headlining this exciting lineup is the WRX, one of the most exciting new models from anyone this year, especially for rally fans. Though based on an economy car, the WRX is a factory hot rod that combines turbocharging, four-wheel drive, rally breeding, and attitude. 

    The all-new Impreza lineup for 2002 includes an updated 2.5 RS four-door sedan and a 2.5 TS Sport Wagon. Also based on the Impreza is a new Outback Sport wagon. The WRX is available as a sedan and a sport wagon. 

    The WRX is currently one of the hottest tickets on the automotive scene. Part of what makes it so hot is its 227-horsepower turbocharged engine. Knowledgeable rally enthusiasts have been lusting for this type of car for years. The WRX began in Japan in 1993 as a homologation special, a limited-production model built to satisfy production requirements for the World Rally Championship. Hugely popular in Europe, the WRC is a series of races run on all types of roads, often unpaved, and in all kinds of weather. Subaru's turbocharged all-wheel drive is particularly well suited to for driving flat out on gravel roads at night. Rally-prepared Subarus have been available in Japan and Europe for several years, but the WRX is the first that meets U.S. emissions requirements. Subaru Impreza Outback Sport is a subcompact for the snowbelt. Its all-wheel drive will get you home when you probably shouldn't have been out, as well as provide extra traction and handling on wet pavement. It's all new for 2002. 

    Like the other Impreza models, this year's Outback Sport boasts a new chassis and styling, and a larger standard engine. (See nctd.com for review of the sporty Impreza 2.5 RS and WRX models.)

    The Outback Sport's spunky 2.5-liter engine and all-wheel drive push this outdoorsy wagon out of the budget wheels category. Subaru recognizes this by equipping it with features usually optional on entry level models. The price, starting at $18,695, also pushes it well above small wagons such as the Kia Rio Cinco or the Ford Focus wagon. But then, the Outback Sport offers much more. 

    Lineup

    The 2002 Impreza model lineup is composed of five models. A WRX sedan and wagon, an RS sedan and a TS wagon. Also available is the Impreza-based Outback Sport wagon (see separate review of the Outback Sport at NewCarTestDrive.com). 

    Like all Subarus, they feature all-wheel drive. 

    Except for the WRX, all Imprezas are powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 165 horsepower. The engines feature Subaru's horizontally opposed cylinder layout, which lowers the hood line and the center of gravity. 

    WRX models are powered by a turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-liter engine that generates 227 horsepower. 

    There is a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, the latter with Subaru's advanced Variable Torque Distribution AWD. 

    The 2.5 RS comes with an extensive list of standard equipment, including an 80-watt AM/FM/CD audio system, air conditioning, power locks and mirrors, cruise control and leather-wrapped steering wheel. Subaru has positioned the Outback Sport to appeal to people who are practical or outdoorsy or both. 

    The $18,695 Outback Sport, like all Subarus, comes standard with full-time all-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes, 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, power door locks and windows, tilt steering column, cruise control, 60/40 split fold-down rear seats, ambient temperature gauge, tachometer, and fog lights. Like a tiny SUV, it comes with a rubber cargo mat in back. 

    Walkaround

    Subaru has looked after the details in updating the Impreza line. The windshield is flanked by specially shaped moldings that direct rainwater over the roof rather than onto the side glass, which is flush in the sedan's conventional greenhouse. All Imprezas have new easier-to-open door handles. 

    Large taillamps flank a trunk opening that extends down to the rear bumper. The trunklid has been carefully sculpted, a small lip added to the trailing edge. The rear bumper cap wraps all the way to the rear wheel openings and is contoured for a sporting effect. The rear of the car is highlighted by 'SUBARU' spelled out across the rear. The WRX gets a large 'WRX' badge on the lower left side and a dual-outlet exhaust under the rear bumper. 

    The overall effect of the body styling is very dramatic, particularly in dark blue, similar to Subaru's rally team colors, with the fender flares dramatically catching the light. We also saw the car in silver, and the car will be offered in standard plus two special colors, but the blue is our favorite. 

    The WRX presents the striking appearance of too much machine for the wrapper, bulging out at each fender, its engine reaching for more cooling air through a prominent hood scoop. These features are expressions of the rally heritage of the WRX. The WRX sedan is distinguished by its blister fender flares that permit a 20 mm wider front track. (The 2.5 RS is distinguished by the same fenders as the WRX.) The WRX Sport Wagon has wheel openings with raised lips, as do the 2.5 TS and the Outback Sport. Bridgestone Potenza RE92 all-season performance tires size 205/55R16 are fitted on 16x6.5-inch alloy wheels. 

    Rallying inspired the huge oval headlamps and the large round fog lamps set in the cavernous lower radiator opening. Small scoops around the fog lamps are indeed functional, channeling cooling air toward the front brake disks. The scoop in the light-weight aluminum hood directs air over the turbo's intercooler. Turn signals are integrated into the big headlamps. It's all finished with a distinctively contoured rear deck; the rear fenders almost form fins. The new Subaru styling is striking, particularly the large oval headlamps with the integrated turn signals, combined with the large foglamps just below. It's derived from the rally-racing image Subaru is cultivating for the other Impreza models, but it also works well with the outdoorsy image of the Outback Sport. The Outback Sport stands tall in a parking lot, continuing the humpbacked wagon profile of the earlier Impreza wagons along with the two-tone paint scheme. The new 16-inch alloy wheels are much classier than the nicest full wheelcovers. 

    The rear hatch has a door handle rather than a key-operated release. And the top of the rear bumper has a rubber pad that will save the painted plastic on the bumper from scrapes and dings while loading gear in back. The standard roof rack will prove useful to people who want to carry bicycles, kayaks, skis or other toys to their respective playgrounds. 

    Interior

    Subaru has gone to significant lengths to make the enthusiast driver feel at home in the WRX. Most obvious are the rally-style front seats, with large side bolsters intended to keep driver and passenger in place during hard cornering, and the Momo sport steering wheel. Momo is also wheelmaker to Ferrari and other exotic carmakers, so the wheel bears the Momo logo in its center, rather than Subaru. The shifter and handbrake handle, lever-style between the seats, are covered in black leather. 

    The seats are covered in a black flat-weave fabric covered with black dots; it's not an avant garde fashion statement, but it will do its job without offending anyone's finer sensibilities. Front seat side-impact airbags are standard, as are three-point front belts with electrically triggered pretensioners and force limiters. Just about everyone should be able to get comfortable in the WRX, which has tilt wheel and a height-adjustable driver's seat. The pedals are sporty-looking aluminum alloy with rubber grips. 

    The gauges are positioned under a semicircular pod on the dash, the speedometer centrally located with the tachometer off to the right. We'd prefer their positions to be swapped, as they are in Japan and Europe, as it just looks sportier to us. The audio and HVAC controls are in a silver-colored panel above the console. The audio controls have been moved above the ventilation controls and include a standard 6-disc in-dash CD-player and logic control cassette player. The right side of the dash proves a large glovebox can coexist with a passenger-side airbag. 

    The rear seat is roomy for a subcompact. The curve of the C-pillar means you'll need mind your head when getting in, but toe room under the front seats and reasonable headroom for anyone under six feet means an endurable ride for most adults. Though the rear has three-point seatbelts and headrests for three, these are better suited for larger children than grownups, as the Impreza lacks the width to accommodate three sets of adult male shoulders side-by-side. The rear seat's contour, though not as aggressive as the front seats', confirms the two-passenger suggestion. 

    Power windows, central locking and air conditioning are all standard, as are a rear defroster, power mirrors, overhead maplights and, so you can remember what you're driving, 'WRX'-embroidered floormats. In fact, there are no factory options, though ground effects moldings, a rear spoiler, and 17-inch wheels and tires will be available as dealer or port-installed options. The trunk is roomy, and there's a pass-through behind a rear-seat armrest, but the Impreza still has old-fashioned hinge arms for the trunk lid that take up space when the lid is closed. 2002 brings a new interior to the Impreza Outback Sport. Subaru designers shopped in the better end of the plastics store and it shows in the quality look and feel of the interior. The materials are nicer than what's found in many compact cars. The new interior is not only roomier, but looks it as well, with a two-tone treatment, darker on upper surfaces to reduce reflections and lighter on lower surfaces for visual expansiveness. 

    Seating surfaces and door inserts have a nice tweedy fabric that's soft and warm. The front seats have wing bolsters on the seatback for adequate lateral support when cornering, but forego high side bolsters on the seat bottoms, allowing easier entry and exit. It's a nice compromise. Power seats aren't available. However, the driver's seat levers up and down to accommodate drivers of different heights, somewhat similarly to the way Volkswagen seats operate; in addition there are the usual recline and fore-and-aft adjustments. The steering wheel also has a generous two inches of up-and-down adjustment, almost double that of the previous-generation Impreza. 

    Power window and lock switches are located in the armrests; the driver's window switch is lighted, a plus, but having the door lock switch lighted as well would prevent fumbling for it in the dark. The dual map lights are well positioned for easy reading in the dark. The cover cubbyhole on the dash of the previous generation was replaced by a digital clock. A mini-visor over the inside rear view mirror is appreciated when the sun is just in the wrong position. 

    Rear foot room is limited unless driver and front passenger move their seats forward, although we're aware this is a small car. It's not the widest car, though, and three adult males in the back seat is a tight squeeze. At least there are three full lap-and-shoulder belts, the middle with a retaining guide on the seatback. A retractable cargo cover is standard and removable; with the rear seatbacks tilted forward, there's a maximum of 61.6 cubic feet of take-it-with-you space. How much new camping gear do two people need? Well, there's always that roof rack and under-floor stowage in the cargo area for those who continually browse the Mountain Hardwear catalog. 

    The cargo area also has a power point, great for inflating rubber rafts or air mattresses. The rear hatch raises high enough that most will be able to stand underneath it without ducking. The cargo area also has its own light and four tie-down hooks. The rear glass has a defroster/deicer standard; a nice touch is the zigzag heating element under where the rear wiper, also standard, rests. Ice buildup here can render a rear wiper useless during a snowfall. 

    The overall feel of interior, from the quality of plastics used, to the fabrics, to the burnished-metal bezels on the dash and center console give the interior a warmth and richness often lacking in a small car. But then, the Outback Sport isn't a lowball market entrant. 

    Driving Impression

    The Impreza WRX is an absolute hoot to drive. 

    First of all, it's got lots of power. As mentioned, its turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-liter engine generates 227 horsepower, which delivers strong motivation to a 3,100-pound car. And there's nothing like a generous dollop of horsepower in a compact chassis to twist the excitement dial over to the right. 

    Upon starting it up we were able to sense the familiar and friendly Subaru vibrations, a distinctive feature of a horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. The controls are light and the pedals well spaced; there's little to suggest in its mannerisms that the WRX is anything but an ordinary Impreza. 

    A glance at the instruments reveals that it seems to rotate the speedometer with remarkable ease. Brisk acceleration is almost casual, the driver finding that the car arrives at the speed limit much sooner than usual. But slam the pedal to the floor: the WRX just grips and goes. The engine never gets loud, never gets raucous, but does sound like a very serious Subaru, one that's been spending a little extra time in the gym. 

    Look under the hood and you'll see the intercooler sitting atop the engine like a crown. It cools the intake charge after it is compressed and heated by the turbocharger. The turbocharger is tucked behind and to one side of the engine. An unusual feature is a catalytic converter between the engine and the turbine. There are two more cats in the exhaust behind the turbo. The engine features dual overhead camshafts with four valves per cylinder, and solid lifters for reliable high-rpm operation. Indeed, the WRX engine reaches its power peak at 6000 rpm and is redlined at 7000 rpm. 

    Gear ratios on the five-speed manual gearbox are well matched to the engine's torque curve, with second gear good to the high side of 60 mph. The shifter is quick and accurate and the transmission always willing to go to the next gear. 

    This car is extremely stable. All-wheel drive eliminates any hint of torque steer under hard acceleration, a mode we constantly found ourselves in. The suspension has been well tuned to reduce understeer, the tendency for the front of the car to push toward the outside of a turn. When driven very hard, the WRX responds appropriately and enthusiastically to an enthusiast driver's input. Subaru has learned the hard lessons of world-class rallying well. 

    Around town, the ride quality is firm. The short 99.4-inch wheelbase and sports suspension make a luxurious ride impossible. Textured pavement generates noticeable road noise in the cabin, but the WRX never feels harsh. 

    Wind noise is almost nonexistent. And the standard audio system sounds greet. 

    We drove the WRX over some rough roads, the kind they use for special stages in rallies. Along with some race instructors, we beat the WRX like a living room rug over a clothesline and it never shook or shuddered, much less fell apart like it should have done. We came away impressed, not only that the Impreza wasn't shedding parts, but that it felt as solid as chunk of concrete. That bodes well for its long-term durability, as well as for the other Impreza models, which are built on the same solid chassis. 

    Big disc brakes quickly bring everything back to a more sedate level of activity. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, with big 11.4-inch front rotors and twin-piston front calipers. Four-channel/four-sensor anti-lock brakes are also standard. 

    The WRX is quite firmly packed with technology, so it's a little heavier than other subcompacts. According to Subaru, the turbo, the all-wheel drive, the fully independent suspension, and the chassis were all put on a gram-by-gram diet. The chassis was made as light as possible, with competition in mind, using tailor-welded blanks (essentially, thicker metal only where it's needed). Still, the WRX weighs in at over 3000 pounds, though Subaru notes that it has a better power to weight ratio than even the sporty Audi S4. 

    The Impreza 2.5 RS can. Experienced drivers notice that there's something different under the hood of the Outback Sport. All Subarus now sold in the U.S. have horizontally opposed engines. In other words, instead of cylinders in a line or in a vee shape, they stick out to either side opposite one another. This has a number of technical advantages, but the most noticeable is engine smoothness. The reciprocating masses cancel the worst of the vibrations. 

    As a result, the big 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine in the Outback Sport is relatively smooth without power-sapping add-ons such as balance shafts or expensive vibration-damping engine mounts. The Subaru four-cylinder engine isn't the silkiest engine running, and it has its own distinctive sound, but it's quiet at idle and cruise. 

    Outback Sport's 165 horsepower is more than expected in a subcompact and its 166 pounds-feet of torque is especially useful climbing hills and for producing brisk acceleration around town. The VW Jetta wagon 1.8T trumps it with 180 horsepower, but lacks the outdoors atmosphere, and all-wheel drive, of the Outback Sport, while the new subcompact wagon from Mazda, the Protege5, produces a mere 130 horsepower. 

    Our Outback Sport came equipped with the four-speed automatic transmission. The shifter is located on the console and requires lateral movement to shift from one position to another, except between Neutral, Drive and Drive3. This makes it easy to select Drive3 when starting out by mistake, then drive around for awhile before noticing you're not in high gear. It's also easy to shift into neutral when shifting out of a lower gear. Familiarization will no doubt reduce these occurrences, and having Drive3 and Drive close together is handy when shifting back and forth in town or in the mountains. Like any automatic transmission, it does sap some power from the four-cylinder engine. A driver of a 1999 Subaru L wagon with a five-speed manual commented that the 165-horsepower 2002 model equipped with the automatic did not feel any peppier than her 142-horsepower wagon. There's a price to be paid for the convenience of the automatic. 

    One might not expect sports car-like handling from an SUV-like crossover vehicle such as the Outback Sport, but remember that the Impreza's chassis was laid out to optimize its performance in the high-performance WRX and sporty 2.5 RS models. So the basic vehicle has the bones for it. The Outback Sport is responsive and nimble and more stable in corners than the mini-SUVs such as the Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape or Subaru's own Forester, all taller than the Outback Sport. 

    All-wheel drive gives the Outback Sport a leg up, or perhaps two legs up, on its front-drive competition, on dry pavement but especially on wet roads or gravel, and very especially on snow or ice. Traction control and front-wheel drive are good, but no match for grip from all four wheels. The all-wheel drive is engaged full-time, unlike systems that require activation, and can be used on dry pavement, which some truckish part-time four-wheel drive systems cannot. The editor got a chance to try the Outback Sport in the snow when a winter storm dumped nearly 10 inches on the Eastern Seaboard. All-wheel drive gave the Outback Sport the traction needed to venture out when others were left stranded or struggling. It also helped keep the car pointed in more or less the direction being traveled. It doesn't make the car invincible, but it'll stop in a shorter distance than a heavier SUV. 

    The Outback Sport has front disc and rear drum brakes fully capable of slowing this car. The four-channel, four-sensor anti-lock braking system will provide shorter stops in slippery conditions, as each wheel can use braking to the limit of traction. That's better than cheaper systems that, for example, include both rear wheels on the same circuit, which can only apply the braking force to the limit of the wheel with the least amount of traction. 

    The Outback Sport shares a common shortcomi. 

    Summary

    Enthusiast drivers are lining up three deep for the Impreza WRX, with waiting lists at dealerships and fan websites set up even before the car was introduced. It's a phenomenon similar to, if not perhaps to the scale of, the original Mustang or the 240Z. Driving a preproduction model at a press long lead, we were photographed by the passenger of an Acura Integra GS-R. Certainly Subaru dealers have never experienced anything like this, so buyers may encounter dealer markups. 

    Subaru says the usual demographic analysis doesn't fit the WRX. Instead they're looking at psychographics, which means that if you want a car like this, you want this car, regardless of your age, gender or income level: If you have to ask why, you won't understand the answer. We see the WRX appealing to enthusiasts who aren't necessarily eager to impress the neighbors but do enjoy driving a very capable automobile. Certainly there's nothing like it on the market today. The line forms to the right, just behind me. The Outback Sport provides something offered in no other car on the U.S. market: all-wheel drive in a compact wagon at a sub-$20,000 price. More expensive than most of its competitors in this size class, it offers more mechanically along with more features than the others. 

    The outdoorsy motif is a plus for those who don't want to drive an ordinary car, while the wagon format and standard roof rack provide utility. The Outback Sport will best the boxy and tall mini-SUVs for fuel economy as well. For those who can afford the extra premium over most small cars, the Outback Sport is a little hauler that will get you to the slopes, or anywhere else, on time. 

    Model Lineup

    2.5 RS ($18,995); 2.5 TS Sport Wagon ($17,495); WRX sedan ($23,995); WRX Sport Wagon ($23,495); Outback Sport ($18,695). Outback Sport ($18,695). 

    Assembled In

    Options As Tested

    4-speed automatic transmission ($800); keyless entry ($175); splash guards ($150). 

    Model Tested

    WRX sedan ($23,995). Outback Sport ($18,695). 

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