2011 Subaru Impreza Expert Review:Autoblog
One point three inches. How much difference can it make? That depends on what you're measuring. If you're comparing the 2010 Subaru Impreza WRX to the 2011, that small measurement makes all the difference in the world.
If you're a Subie fan, you've already read our First Drive. The headline news for the 2010-to-2011 changeover is that the WRX gained the STI model's widebody fenders and 1.3-inch wider track. Wanting to know whether the growth in girth made any difference to the affable and relatively affordable WRX, we decided to spend some quality time in the example you see here.
We learned plenty. Many things work well for the practical enthusiast. Others, not so much.
Photos copyright ©2010 Rex Roy / AOL
What works? The place we'll start is on a narrow, circuitous road outside of San Francisco that links two unimportant intersections well off the beaten path. Driving this road requires as much time looking out the door glass as the windshield. Some corners are cambered, which makes the flat ones much more interesting. The straights are long enough to change up a gear, an action that is quickly followed by serious braking.
Driven at just 25 to 65 mph, this road demands everything a car and driver can muster. We've enjoyed it many times and know that through many corners you'll use up every inch of the chassis's suspension travel. On downhill sections, brakes can fade. Communicative steering is highly valued because intel on the road surface can mean the difference between smacking a rock wall, driving into a ravine or clipping the perfect apex.
The 2011 WRX attacked this road. Spinning almost from lock to lock, Subi's light steering felt perfectly weighted for this duty cycle. Thankfully, the car's ample greenhouse and thin pillars provided good visibility. From the driver's seat, you don't notice the car's extra width.
What you do notice is that when pushed hard, the WRX's jounce bumpers (a.k.a. bump stops) are definitely designed to be an active part of the car's suspension. Jounce bumpers prevent articulating suspension components from impacting the subframe or chassis. In some cars, these are simply hard pads that prevent metal-to-metal crashes. In the Subaru, they are progressively tuned to manage suspension energy during the last iota of suspension travel.
Braking and turning into a tight curve often uses up most of the damper's main travel. When steering corrections are needed or pavement undulations are hit mid-corner, the outside suspension components need to compress further. Instead of causing a harsh impact and a poorly controlled rebounding action, the WRX's bump stops absorb the extra energy and enable a smooth rebound that doesn't upset the neutral balance of the car, making the 2011 'Rex incredibly trustworthy and predictable at the limits.
High-performance summer tires certainly contributed to the WRX's stability. Measuring 235/45R17, they're a centimeter wider than the 2010 edition and ride on new, lighter wheels (down 1.5 pounds per corner) that are themselves an inch broader. (Those who live in northern climates with four seasons should opt for all-season rubber or plan on owning a second set of tires. When temperatures approach the freezing point, the summer-compound tires get hard as chair casters and offer about as much grip.)
Once into a good road rhythm, you begin to notice other things about the 2011 Subaru WRX.
The 265-horsepower turbocharged 2.5-liter flat-four sounds great. Unlike most cars, the WRX (and most Subarus) emits a unique exhaust note thrum that enthusiasts can ID without a pause in conversation, and the engine itself emits a muscular howl as it moves up and down the power band. On the highway, things settle into a pleasant hum that matches the powertrain's minor vibrations. But make no mistake – this is not a quiet car from idle on up, though if you're looking for interior refinement, chances are you aren't shopping for a WRX.
As for how it performs, under 2,500 rpm the torque curve is flat (read: turbo lag). But spool it up and the 244 lb-ft moves the WRX with authority. On boost, the power delivery is nearly linear with a bit of extra ramp up just before the soft rev limiter cuts in at around 6,500 rpm.
Like the steering, the clutch and accelerator pedals have a lightness to them. We would have appreciated more feedback from the clutch pedal, but it's easy to get used to and won't tire you out in normal driving.
The shifter also felt light, requiring little effort to change from gear, while still providing Subaru's patented blend of aggressive notchiness. The relationship of the brake and accelerator pedal made heal-toe downshifting a breeze, even for someone with smaller feet.
The brakes proved stout, but our pace was aggressive enough that the pedal did soften a couple times. The aroma of hot pads wafted into the cabin more than once, suggesting a pad and fluid swap before heading to the track.
After exiting our remote and semi-private proving grounds, we headed toward the Pacific on various roads south of Half Moon Bay. On these roads, we mingled with traffic and realized that the WRX invites challenges from other enthusiasts. (To the guy in the vintage MGB coupe who tried hanging with our WRX... valiant effort. You and the car did very well considering the vintage brakes, skinny tires and the fact your girlfriend was riding shotgun.)
At legal speeds driving north on Highway 1 and then on interstates heading toward wine country, the WRX shared more about itself that only extended wheel time reveals. For example, the light steering that was a clear benefit on twisty roads felt almost too feathery for regular driving. Likewise, the useful suspension compliance sometimes felt floaty over undulating highway pavement. The front chair that proved initially supportive also got downright hard after five hours at the helm.
Design details also made themselves known; the halo glow at the end of the speedo and tach needles made it easier to capture a quick read of those gauges. And those gauges are a style statement. Before you key the ignition, the dials are a black void. Once running, the gauges come to life and their graphics make them easy to read. Even still, don't confuse the WRX's interior for anything but a workmanlike environment – the controls are where you want them, but the overall ambiance is one of a discount and somewhat dated interior livened by a few good driver's tools (namely the wheel, alloy pedals and the leather gearshift knob).
Wind noise was well controlled, and the cabin remained free of buffeting with the sunroof open. There was noticeable road noise, but considering the WRX is an Impreza at its core, expecting a library would be unreasonable. Curiously, most of the din seemed to originate from behind the driver.
When the sun set, we quickly learned that the fog lights are for style only. Good thing the low beams threw adequate light and that functional fogs would be an inexpensive upgrade. Naturally, the optional HIDs are a solid investment considering how easy it is to overdrive the lights in a car this quick.
After spending quality time with the 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX, we came away feeling that this would be an easy, practical performance car to live with. In most people's real lives – as opposed to their fantasies – 265 horsepower is plenty, making the WRX STI's extra 40 hp seem superfluous.
And about those extra 1.3-inches; they add considerably to the car's visual presence while enhancing usable performance. With a starting price of $25,495, that's a good deal no matter how you measure it.
Photos copyright ©2010 Rex Roy / AOL
New Car Test Drive
Value and the beauty of all-wheel drive.High and higher performance, all-season practicality.
The Subaru Impreza has been a bestseller for years, and it set sales records in 2010 while others struggled. That's because of how much it offers for the money, including standard all-wheel drive. It packs in a lot, for its size and price. The 2011 Impreza is in its fourth year of this generation.
All Subarus are highly capable cars, and the Impreza is the backbone of the line. It deserves to be a top choice in foul weather or on rough roads. But it's an easy car to live with even in the best of conditions. It's comfortable and easy to drive. The interior is simple and straightforward, and everything is easy to operate. Cargo capacity after the 60/40 rear seats are dropped is excellent.
The Impreza is solid and safe, the ideal size for running around town while holding its own on the freeway with trucks and big SUVs. Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 20/27 mpg with manual, 20/26 mpg with automatic.
The Impreza comes in 4-Door sedan and 5-Door hatchback versions.
For 2011, the turbocharged Impreza GT has been discontinued, as attention has turned toward the hot WRX, which we review separately.
The four-door sedan looks traditional, while the styling of the five-door is sporty and somewhat edgy. The 5-door costs $500 more, but it offers more utility than the sedan with its larger cargo capacity, easier parking with its shorter overall length, and even better cornering with less rear overhang. Many people nonetheless prefer the lines of a simple sedan.
The Impreza Outback Sport comes only as a five-door. It's prepared for travel on unpaved roads and can easily carry gear for outdoor work or activities, from sports to dogs. Outback Sport includes 17-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires, a raised suspension, foglights, all-weather package, and cargo tray. The new 2011 Outback Sport Special Edition adds a power moonroof and removable TomTom navigation system, the audio system upgrade including Bluetooth and USB, iPod and satellite radio capability, and it's value priced.
The Impreza has a smooth highway ride and responsive cornering, thanks in some part to its relatively long wheelbase (103.1 inches), and the low engine placement, an advantage of the horizontally opposed position of the four cylinders. This lowers the center of gravity and improves the balance, contributing to agile cornering. What's more, the Impreza shares the quick WRX steering rack, with 2.8 turns lock-to-lock, and a tight 34.8-foot turning circle. You can definitely feel it, and it's good.
Out on the highway, there's plenty of speed from the 170-horsepower engine, with 170 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm, for good acceleration. There's no lacking in power at any rpm range.
The standard 5-speed manual gearbox works well. The optional 4-speed automatic works okay, too, including when you have to floor it, passing trucks or slower traffic on a two-lane highway. Most cars have 5-speed automatics nowadays, but the Subaru engine has enough flexibility in its power band to work well with a 4-speed. The Subaru Impreza WRX and WRX STI are fast and fun to drive, yet reasonably practical for everyday use. Loosely based on the Impreza compact, the WRX versions are economical to operate in light of their performance and, more than ever, make excellent cars for commuters who like a little spice in their daily drive.
The 2011 Subaru WRX lineup has expanded. The 2011 WRX gets the widebody treatment of the STI for both sedans and hatchbacks, and three trim levels for each. The 2011 STI adds a four-door sedan in two trim levels to the existing five-door hatchback and considerable running gear upgrades. All of them add iPod control and Bluetooth, and some four-doors have the option of leather upholstery heretofore unavailable.
WRX models are very good and seem to get better every year. Following a complete redesign in 2008 the WRX got a power increase and suspension retune in 2009 and aero upgrades for 2010. The 2010 Special Edition STI took the handling to the next step with suspension uprates based on the home-market spec C cars, and the 2011 WRX STI goes even further.
Despite their racy appearance and serious performance, the WRX is reasonably refined. The current WRX models are smoother and more comfortable than pre-2008 versions, and easy to live with during the typical commute. Their cabins are roomier than previous versions, with an overall improvement in appointments and finish quality. They're offered with high-grade audio and an optional navigation system.
The WRX and STI achieved cult status among driving enthusiasts and boy racers, but more than ever that image is too narrow and confining. These cars have decent room in the back seat and good cargo capacity. Their all-wheel-drive system can legitimately be considered a safety and foul-weather advantage, even if, with the powerful, turbocharged engines in the WRX, it's marketed as a performance enhancement, a role it also fills.
These are drivers' cars: no automatic transmission is offered. Yet buyers seeking a smaller car with lots of safety features should like the WRX. All models come with all-wheel drive, electronic stability control, a sophisticated anti-lock brake system and good crash-test performance; a good set of winter tires make them near unstoppable in bad weather.
From about $26,000, the WRX models come well equipped, with nice seats, automatic climate control, a good stereo and more horsepower than all but a couple cars in this size/price class. Both are powered by a 2.5-liter, 265-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder, arranged in Subaru's familiar horizontally opposed, or flat-four, configuration. The WRX offers a bang for the buck that surpasses many more expensive sports sedans.
The STI version is essentially its own car. STI stands for Subaru Technica International, the high-performance division that made the WRX famous through considerable success in the World Rally Championship. Nearly every major mechanical system is unique to the STI: six-speed manual transmission, special suspension and brakes, unique interior appointments and a high-tech, manually adjustable all-wheel-drive system. Yet the STI's centerpiece is a higher-tech version of the 2.5-liter four, generating 305 horsepower. Its quarter-mile acceleration times match those delivered by some muscle and exotic sports cars.
While the STI offers increased performance and driver involvement relative the WRX, few feel shortchanged in the WRX. Subaru's claim that buyers like both and the choice frequently comes down to price…the STI is about $9000 more than the WRX and offers more performance, and more potential, for the extra coin.
To be sure, the WRX costs more than your typical front-wheel-drive compact, and the performance and all-wheel-drive come with a mileage penalty. Still, we think the WRX models are a good deal, offering lots of performance for the dollar in a car that's easy to live with every day. Primary competitors for the WRX and WRX/STI are the front-drive Mazdaspeed 3 and Volkswagen GTI, and all-wheel drive Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart and Evolution.
The 2011 Subaru Impreza models come with all-wheel drive, 2.5-liter SOHC four-cylinder, making 170 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, and a choice of 5-speed manual transmission with Incline Start Assist or 4-speed automatic with SportShift ($1,000).
Impreza 2.5i sedan ($17,495) and 5-door ($17,995) come with cloth upholstery, 60/40 split folding rear seat, four-speaker AM/FM/CD, power doors, locks and mirrors, 16-inch steel wheels with all-season tires, and a 5-speed manual transmission with Incline Start Assist. Impreza 2.5i Premium ($18,495) and 5-door ($18,995) upgrade to a new AM/FM stereo with single-disc CD player and six speakers, auxiliary input jack, Bluetooth hands-free calling, iPod, USB port and satellite radio capability. Options include 17-inch 12-spoke alloy wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and TomTom navigation system.
Outback Sport ($19,995) includes a heavy duty raised suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires, front and rear bumper underguards, projector beam foglights, crossbars for the roofrails, heated front seats and sideview mirrors, windshield wiper de-icer, and a leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel with audio and cruise controls. Rearview camera is optional.
Safety equipment on all Impreza models includes the Subaru Advanced Frontal Airbag System featuring side-impact air bags and full-length airbag curtains. Active safety features include ABS with Electronic Brake-Force Distribution and Brake Assist, electronic stability control with traction control, and all-wheel drive. The Impreza earned Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a lobbying organization for the insurance industry, with the highest rating in frontal offset, side and rear impact tests. The 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX ($25,495) comes in sedan and a 5-Door versions powered by a 265-hp turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 5-speed manual transmission. The WRX comes with fabric upholstery (checkered carbon black with red stitching), automatic climate control, power windows/locks/mirrors, AM/FM/Sirius/MP3/iPod audio with Bluetooth and auxiliary input jack, cruise control, electroluminescent gauges, quad tailpipes, 17-inch alloy wheels with summer performance tires. The hatchback also adds a rear wiper, spoiler, clear-lens taillights and cover, light and tie-downs for the cargo area.
WRX Premium ($27,995) sedan and hatchback add heated front seats, heated mirrors, wiper de-icer, power moonroof, trunk spoiler and fog lights. The Navigation Package ($2,000) features a GPS system with seven-inch screen, satellite radio, auxiliary audio/video jacks, CD/DVD drive and Bluetooth telephony. WRX Limited ($28,995) adds leather upholstery and HID low-beam headlamps, also available with Navigation ($30,995).
The WRX STI sedan ($33,995) and 5-Door ($35,995) is equipped similarly to WRX Premium grade. The extra money adds mainly high-performance mechanicals, starting with the 305-hp 2.5-liter engine, 6-speed manual, more sophisticated all-wheel drive system and upgraded chassis components. The 5-Door includes cargo cover, tie-downs, cargo light, rear wiper, and BBS wheels; navigation is optional. STI Limited sedan ($37,345) adds the BBS wheels, fog lights, moonroof, and comes with leather upholstery.
Dealer-installed accessories are numerous, ranging from wild spoilers and footwell illumination to more practical short-throw shifters, gauge packages, brake pads and performance exhaust systems. Many dealer-installed parts feature full factory warranty coverage.
Safety features include dual-stage front airbags, front passenger side-impact airbags and curtain-style head airbags. The WRX has achieved five stars for front impacts, five stars for front passengers in side impacts, and four stars in rollover tests from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Active safety features include Vehicle Dynamics Control stability electronics and four-channel, four-sensor anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD).
The Subaru Impreza comes in four-door sedan and 5-Door hatchback versions.
The sedan is sleeker and better looking, but the 5-Door offers more cargo space (44.4 cubic feet with seats down) even with its overall length being 6.5 inches less. (Both ride on the same wheelbase, however.)
The 5-door and sedan have the same smooth hood and nose, with a big chrome vee flying over the dark opening in the grille, like a shiny silver bat bursting from a cave. They also share a character crease in the side, although the 5-Door's edginess vanishes in the sedan, which uses old-fashioned red taillamps, an understated black valance under the grille, and a dual exhaust: two pipes versus the 5-Door's one.
The roofline of the 5-Door is only 0.2 inches higher than the sedan, although the coefficient of drag is 0.34 vs. 0.32. (The Outback Sport is 0.35 thanks to the roof rack.)
The Outback Sport is a 5-door. Its styling is edgy, with flared fenders, a blocky butt, and short rear overhang with silvery taillamps. A neat nose rises up and back to the aerodynamic spoiler over the liftgate. The roof rack includes high crossbars that add to the outdoorsy look. The ground clearance is raised, but only by a fraction of an inch; the larger wheels (17-inch alloys) with all-season tires add to the rugged look, more aggressive than the smoother but vanilla sedan. The Outback Sport looks at home on a gravel road high in the mountains. There's no mistaking that the 2011 WRX and STI mean business, with flared nostrils, flared wheel arches and generally more flair than any other Subaru. The bodywork may look as busy as a racecar's without the decals, but all those scoops, vents, curves and spoilers are there for engineering reasons, not cosmetics.
The WRX now wears essentially the same clothes as the STI: puffed-up fenders covering fatter tires and wheels set wider apart. In return, the STI gets a four-door sedan derivative previously reserved for the WRX.
Distinguishing WRX and STI is easiest from the rear. The WRX sedan has a lip spoiler along the trailing edge of the trunk, and the hatchback a spoiler atop the rear window. In contrast the STI sedan's rear spoiler is a wing standing well off the trunk's surface and the hatchback has a larger spoiler atop the rear window. Sedans use conventional taillights while hatchbacks get clear-lens arrangements with some LED elements that help it stand out, and the STI's quad tailpipes are polished stainless 3 outlets.
A wider, lower front end treatment, a bit deeper on the STI, sets off both cars, and some have HID low-beam headlamps but bi-xenon units are not available; perhaps Subaru expects owners to add their own bank of driving lights. The fender badge reads WRX or STI as appropriate. The WRX has 235/45R17 tires versus the STI's 245/40R18 rubber. BBS forged wheels come on the STI hatchback and STI Limited sedan. Spotters may also notice the STI brake calipers.
The current-generation, launched as a 2008 model, is the largest WRX generation ever, which translates to more room inside the car. The four-door sedan, developed specifically for the United States, is more than six inches longer than the five-door hatchback. The four-door has the edge in covered trunk space and about 3 mph higher top speed, the hatchback a minor advantage in rear-seat headroom comfort and is slightly lighter in STI guise.
In side view, the most prominent bit of design is a sharp crease that extends from the front wheel arch and runs just above the door handles all the way to the rear. It helps create the impression of a wedge, and emphasizes the aggressive attitude of the whole car. We appreciate the flared fenders employed more to cover wide tires than as the retro styling exercise of the Mercedes' E-Class pontoon rear fenders.
American buyers overwhelmingly prefer sedans to hatchbacks but the latter are making a comeback. In the case of the WRX and STI, we will take the hatch, however, and not just for its practical benefits like a rear wiper, better visibility, easier parking and the ability to carry awkward loads. We'd say it's the more handsome car. Its roofline runs in a single, elegant nearly-French curve from the base of the windshield to that spoiler at the top of the rear glass. Also, its rear overhang is considerably shorter than the sedan's and the STI sedan's wing is downright invitational to law enforcement. Shorter overhangs are generally better for handling, in addition to other benefits.
WRX and STI have an aluminum hood, which reduces weight in front and helps distribute the car's mass more evenly over the front and rear wheels. Both cars feature the latest evolution of what Subaru calls its Ring Frame Reinforced body design. Think of RFR as a safety cell in roughly a cube shape around the passenger compartment, made of stronger, hydro-formed steel sections. The idea is more strength and rigidity without an undue increase in weight, and it may help explain the excellent ratings in NHTSA crash tests. The first objective of RFR is better occupant protection, but the structural improvements pay dividends in many respects, from more responsive handling to improved smoothness in just about every aspect of the car's operation.
Effort and style have gone into the sweeping twin-cockpit design of the Impreza cabin. The quality of the interior materials is good. You can tell that the high-grade plastic is actually plastic, which is not always the case with some expensive cars, but it's not conspicuously plastic, like with some compact cars. The titanium color for the dashboard trim looks nice.
The steering wheel tilts and telescopes, which is good, but it doesn't seem to tilt high enough. At its top position, we couldn't climb into the car feet-first without rubbing our average-height knees against the steering wheel, though admittedly, we had the seat at its highest position, for the best visibility. Speaking of visibility, rearview vision is adequate in the 5-Door hatchback but not great.
On the dashboard above the center stack there's a horizontal window with digital readout for temperature, time, and fuel mileage, but it's not readable in the sun, and distance to empty is unavailable. The stack itself contains the usual vents with a six-disc CD changer above big easy climate control knobs. There's a nice shift lever behind a cubby and coinholder, and ahead of two cupholders and a 12-volt outlet; between the seatbacks there's a small deep console. The door pockets hold 32-ounce cups. Overall, it's a very practical interior, which is what you can expect from the Impreza.
The double-stitched cloth seats in the Outback Sport could be more form-fitting. Their outside edges are rugged and handsome, but the wider center part is made of a material that looks sort of like a pinstripe suit, and which attracts and won't let go of things that commonly float around cabins, especially dog hair. Considering that Subaru owners are well-known dog lovers, who take them everywhere, we find this issue with the seats shocking. The available leather-trimmed upholstery would likely be a better choice for dogs.
Rear-seat accommodations in the 5-Door models are average. There's good headroom, while hip and shoulder room in the rear are decent. The rear-seat legroom is a slim 33.5 inches. The rear seatback angles are reclined for relaxation, and the rear doors open wide, 75 degrees, so ingress and egress is easy, an important quality.
Cargo capacity in the 5-Door, after the 60/40 rear seats are dropped, is excellent for a car of this size. We filled our Outback Sport with a small kitchen table (legs removed), big shop vacuum, a weed whacker, and some boxes. (However, if carrying capacity is your priority, it's not as spacious as a longer Subaru Legacy wagon.)
The Impreza sedan can carry a lot too; being 6.5 inches longer than the 5-Door, it has a large and deep trunk, big enough for three golf bags. When the WRX and STI were redesigned for 2008, their interiors were more understated, or subdued, than they'd been in years. Since then, however, Subaru has re-introduced details such as aluminum alloy covers for the foot pedals, red stitching on the seats and steering wheel for 2009, and embroidered WRX logos to remind occupants of what they're sitting in, in case the howl of the free-revving turbocharged engine isn't enough. For 2010, the line-topping STI model got new black Alcantara upholstery with red stitching, instead of gray Alcantara with silver stitching, for a bolder presentation.
For 2011, WRX changes are evolutionary. The new gauge cluster looks instantly familiar to us and conveys the same data in the same manner; the central tachometer dominates everything. The stereo system has been revised, now capable for satellite radio, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod control and USB and auxiliary inputs.
The major change is the option of leather upholstery and a moonroof in Limited-level sedans. This choice may find favor with owners seeking some luxury with their performance, though we prefer our rally cars as is: a moonroof adds weight at the highest point on the car, to a small extent working against the low center of gravity that aids handling, and the cloth seats grip better for keeping you in place and don't have the surface temperature extremes of leather.
Based on the Impreza's cabin, the WRX and STI benefit from lots of glass and low window sills, giving a light and airy feeling that belies the compact label. Head and legroom in front are generous and the sporty front seats leave more rear seat legroom than the numbers imply. Four six-footers won't tax it, and most enthusiasts will have plenty of headroom for a helmet.
The front bucket seats in the WRX are upholstered with a soft, black-checkered fabric, double stitched in the fashion of a luxury car, and they provide a good compromise between support and comfort. There's enough side bolstering top and bottom to keep occupants snug during fairly aggressive driving, but there's also plenty of give in the cushions.
The seats in the STI are more like aftermarket performance seats, which means harder and more heavily bolstered. They're even better for hard driving, but the snugger fit leaves less squirm room during longer, more relaxed travel, and they demand more energy to climb in and out of. The seats come in black Alcantara with red stitching. The integral headrests may require a helmeted driver to have their head further forward, or backrest more reclined, than they are accustomed to.
Overall, the WRX driving position is excellent. Seat adjustments are simple, but they allow people of various sizes to get properly situated. Most drivers will be able to reach all controls, including those for adjusting side mirrors, without lifting head or shoulders from the seatback. A suitably contoured tilt/telescoping steering wheel does the same for gauge vision and stalk controls, while the adjacent shifter and handbrake are right where you want them. One minor gripe regarding the armrests: They're positioned such that each elbow rests at a slightly different height. Then again, you'll seldom use both simultaneously.
Gauges are easy to read and illuminated in dark amber. The trim is a metallic silver plastic. You'll find more attractively grained plastics and maybe richer looking trim materials and carpet in this price range, but nothing in the WRX looks cheap enough to kill the deal. That's at least partly because the dashboard layout is so straightforward, effective and easy to clean the dust off of.
The size and shape of the dash is roughly symmetrical on both the driver and passenger sides, with a big, outreaching center stack of controls and displays in the middle. The four dash vents are fully adjustable and large enough to move plenty of air.
An LCD sits under its own hood at the top of the center stack, with temperature indicator, time and other information. At the bottom sit three big climate-control knobs: one each for temperature, airflow direction and fan speed, easy to grab with barely a peripheral glance, operating with a nice tactile sensation that conveys the amount of adjustment. In between are the standard audio controls or the optional navigation screen. Both are good sized and easy to manipulate. While the audio knobs aren't as big as those for the air conditioning, volume, source and tuning can also be adjusted with buttons on the steering wheel spokes.
The expanse of glass combines with narrow windshield pillars to provide excellent outward visibility in virtually any direction. Wiper coverage and strength is up to muddy rally standards, well beyond daily driving, and on most models the area where the wipers park is electrically heated so you needn't wait for the defrost to thaw them before sweeping the snow off.
Cargo capacity in the sedan is fairly good. With 11.3 cubic feet of trunk space, it falls toward the lower end of its size class, a bit less than what's found in the less-expensive Honda Civic Si sedan or the more expensive BMW 328i. Still, the WRX does have all-wheel drive and the rear seatback splits and folds forward. With the 60-percent portion laid flat, there's enough room to slide two golf bags in through the trunk, and still leave room for a third passenger.
Cargo space in the five-door hatch is much better. With 19 cubic feet, rear seat up, there's a lot more space than what's available in the typical small sedan's trunk if you don't need the rear window view. The hatchback also allows taller objects to be contained within the car. When the rear seat is folded cargo capacity expands to 44.4 cubic feet, with easy access from the rear side doors to help push things in and out.
Cubby storage is average. The glove box is deep, holding more stuff than most, and there's a lined bin in front of the gearshift for phones, openers or glasses. There's a pair of cupholders in the center console, just right of the handbrake that are up to the car's handling abilities. Another cupholder in each front door pocket is large enough for a 24-ounce bottle. The box in the center console has jacks for MP3 players and a power point. Models with the navigation system come with a video jack. This allows video games or DVD players to project on the navi screen, but only when the car is parked.
We found the Subaru Impreza the perfect size for running around town while still being comfortable on the freeway out there against the trucks and big SUVs. As a runabout that's not too big and not too small, it's solid, safe, simple, and provides standard all-wheel drive so it's ready for any highway driving condition. It's good for the daily commute or for heading to the mountains in January.
There are two different all-wheel-drive systems on the Impreza models. Those with the manual transmission use locking center differential with viscous coupling, which distributes power evenly between the front and rear wheels on dry pavement, and shifts the torque around only when a tire slips. The models with automatic transmission use what Subaru calls Active Torque Split that transfers power based on acceleration and deceleration, as well as slippage. It's more sophisticated than the 5-speed manual system, but if what you're mostly after is traction in snow, either does the job.
The 4-speed automatic has four speeds with a SportShift semi-manual mode that works well. The driver can upshift and downshift using the shift lever. There are only four speeds, when most transmissions now have five speeds, but we didn't encounter any situations where it felt like the ratios were too far apart.
Out on the highway, we found plenty of speed from the standard 170-horsepower engine, with 170 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. We found no flat spots or places where it was lacking. The transmission kept up just fine, when we had to hammer the throttle to pass trucks on a fast two-lane.
The Impreza has a smooth highway ride with responsive cornering, thanks in part to its long wheelbase (103.1 inches), and now, an engine placement that's even lower than before; it was already lower than the competition, thanks to its being horizontally opposed. The best-in-class engine placement lowers the center of gravity and improves the balance, solid and agile cornering. What's more, every Impreza now uses the quick WRX steering rack, with 2.8 turns lock-to-lock, and a tight 34.8-foot turning circle. You can definitely feel it, and it's good.
Although the suspension on the Outback Sport is described as heavy duty, with 17-inch wheels, it didn't translate into a beefy ride. Nor did we find the sedan's ride to be too soft. The rear suspension is double wishbone, like what's found on many sports cars. Its compact layout allows more room above, in the cargo area. While the WRX delivers inviting, balanced driving performance it's also relatively refined and easy to live with on a daily basis. All-wheel drive built-in from the start long ago made it a favorite where the road is white a good portion of the year, and the performance aspects are making it popular in climes where all-wheel drive is unneeded.
The widebody treatment has made the WRX look more substantial and threatening but it added less than 30 pounds so straight-line performance is essentially unchanged: Only added traction from the wider tires may require a change to your start-line launch technique. It can be driven moderately with ease and really comes on steam as the rev counter nears 3000. With 265 hp and 244 lb-ft of torque the 2.5-liter engine is plenty potent, and the all-wheel drive allows you to fully exploit it; a front-wheel drive Mazdaspeed 3 has more power and notably more torque but can't use it all until third gear.
Subaru engines are all horizontally opposed; as in a Porsche or original Volkswagen Beetle the cylinders lay flat 180 degrees apart rather than the conventional four cylinders lined up in a row. This makes the engine low, compact and light, all aids to vehicle dynamics. It also means a slightly lumpy idle sound, little power right off idle (you need to slip the clutch a little), a droning exhaust around 1500 rpm you'll notice only ion creeping traffic, and it's hard to sometimes imagine a $35,000 car still sounds a bit like a 40-year-old Bug.
The WRX uses a five-speed manual transmission exclusively. It has nicely spaced gear ratios and a short-throw shifter, but it's a gear short of much of the competition and the shifter is a bit rubbery causing us to not get a gear we wanted occasionally; fortunately we never got the wrong gear either. Subaru's performance division offers plenty of shifting upgrades that would add precision and effort for crisper, more precise gearchanges. A Hill-Holder feature keeps the car from rolling backward when the brake pedal is released to engage the gas on incline starts.
Suspension was already dialed in nicely on the WRX, with nicely weighted, accurate steering crisply pointing the car, good grip, and compliant ride quality that lets you know the road surface but doesn't beat it into you; it's a relatively easy car in which to approach its limits and aids driver confidence. For 2011 there are very minor changes to the tuning, but wider wheels and tires carefully chosen to not add weight to rotating mass, ensure even more grip. All WRX and STI come with three-season tires and even all-wheel drive won't overcome their uselessness them in the snow.
Although grip is commendable what makes the WRX such a nice driver is balance. The weight is better split front/rear than most cars in this class, but the steering, brakes, handling and engine are ideally mated to the others. It's never a case where there's too much power for the brakes or steering, or so much grip it feels underpowered. And the mechanical noises it makes…turbocharger whistle, gear whine and so on all add to the fun or fade into the background when you're just cruising from A to B.
On another level is the STI. Think of this as a purpose-built, class-spec rally car with air conditioning and a radio but lacking a roll-cage and five-point seatbelts the government says you can't have in a street car.
Although the same size engine has slightly lower compression and only one-half-psi (14.7 vs 14.2) more peak turbocharger boost pressure than the WRX it employs more sophisticated components to add 40 hp and 46 lb-ft of torque. Combine that with a six-speed manual that has shorter gearing than the WRX, and the 165-pound heavier STI is substantially quicker. Imagine first gear, three second gears in a row, and a couple for cruising along the highway or pushing top speed. (Although the STI sedan is 11 pounds heavier than the hatch, top speed is higher because of less aero drag. With few opportunities for 150+mph in North America, we'll stick with the lighter hatch.)
An STI is a quick car. Perhaps not as fast from 125 mph like a big V8 muscle car or V12 GT car but for the twist-and-punch of a mountain pass, autocross course, off-highway rally or urban commute it's plenty potent. And the STI's six-speed manual shifter felt much more accurate than the WRX's five-speed. Again, upgrades are available.
Beneath the STI are few parts shared with the WRX: transmission, all-wheel drive, suspension arms and antiroll bars, brakes, and even the wheel bolt pattern are upgraded. The springs in the 2011 are stiffer even than those of the 2010 special edition but still deliver the compliance needed for bashing along dirt roads or surviving commutes. Likewise the 18-inch wheels are new, and lighter than the previous versions. But it's a pair of relatively inexpensive rod-end bushings in the front suspension that pay the biggest dividends because they keep the front wheels more stable, translating to easier shock and spring tuning and less steering correction mid-corner.
Like the WRX the STI is also fairly easy to drive quickly. At its handling limits, the STI has a slight inclination to understeer, or to keep going in a straighter line. Yet that tendency is less than in the typical front-drive car, and the all-wheel-drive system allows the driver to get the front end to tuck into a curve by adding a little (not a lot) more gas. The STI stays planted under rough, abrupt or heavy-handed inputs on its controls but get the speed and steering angle right and you can keep it there while powering out of the bend. Whether braking hard into a curve, or panic-braking with a sudden twist of the steering to avoid an accident, the anti-skid electronics work to keep the car's weight balanced and the tires on that fine line between maximum grip and slide. The STI's multi-setting stability control helps take care of the beginner at a club track day without strangling the pace, and it allows exceptionally skilled drivers to turn all the electronic aids off.
On both paved and unpaved closed courses, we found we could overdrive corners in a big way and easily maintain control (if not the briskest pace). Enter a corner a bit too fast and the worse thing to come of it is a poor entry to the next corner. But if you know the course, the STI's controls let you adjust for it. The center differential that apportions output front and rear has a choice of automatic modes ideal for most drivers and most conditions…those where you don't know what weather, road, or traffic have in store for you. The manual setting allows you to vary the amount of front/rear lock and displays it as bar-graph in the instrument panel. Fewer bars equal less lock, for good turn in but understeer if you apply too much power in the corner; more bars for more lock and the front wheels go where you point them and with this acceleration you want to make sure they're pointed where you want to go.
SI-Drive is the other console control that sets accelerator response. Push down for Intelligent to maximize economy and make the smoothest drive (like rain or snow) because the pedal has to travel more to get the same power output. Sport is the happy medium for response and drivability, or rotate the knob to Sport# (sharp) for the quickest reaction to your right foot. This is best reserved for open roads or tracks where you'll ask for lots of power at any given moment. Regardless of how you get going, the big Brembo brakes, with ventilated iron discs that stand up to off-pavement abuse, merely shave off speed or stop immediately with equal aplomb. The antilock system is also very good, probably a direct result of Subaru's rally experience finding traction where little exists.
It's hard to go wrong with a Subaru, and the Impreza offers excellent value. The engine and all-wheel-drive are proven, the handling is secure, the maneuvering is tight, and its safety tops the charts. The sedan has traditional looks, the 5-door is edgy with more utility, and the Outback Sport is ready for rugged use.
Sam Moses filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Outback Sport in the Washington Cascades. The Subaru Impreza WRX and WRX STi are fun, fast and solid, with standard all-wheel drive and overall performance that's rare in their class. They're also practical, with decent room in the back seat and good cargo capacity, and they've achieve excellent scores in NHTSA crash tests. Ongoing refinements haven't significantly diluted the character and enthusiasm that have made the WRX so appealing over the years, but they have raised the bar on comfort and quality. The WRX and STI cost more than many cars of comparable size, and they give up some fuel economy for the performance, but those who appreciate this car's strengths probably won't mind.
J.P. Vettraino filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Detroit; with Mitch McCullough reporting from Vancouver Island, British Columbia and G.R. Whale reporting from the Colorado Rockies.
Subaru Impreza 2.5i sedan ($17,495), 2.5i 5-Door ($17,995), 2.5i Premium sedan ($18,495), 2.5i Premium 5-Door ($18,995), Outback Sport ($19,995). Subaru WRX four-door sedan or five-door hatchback ($25,495); WRX Premium sedan or hatchback ($27,995); Limited sedan or hatchback ($28,995); STI sedan ($33,995), STI hatchback ($35,995), STI Limited sedan ($37,345).
Japan. Ota Gunma, Japan.
Options As Tested
Subaru Impreza Outback Sport ($19,995). Subaru WRX STI 5-Door ($35,995).
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