Rabid fans of the segment-defining Subaru Impreza WRX, which popped up around the turn of the millennium, were pretty bummed out last year when their favorite turbocharged rally-bred bad boy went all soft on them. While the interior was vastly upgraded, materials improved, and driving refinement bettered compared with the former-gen car, the '08 WRX essentially devolved into a cushy GT. It was a far cry from the old model, a tenacious warrior modeled after World Rally Championship racers.
Thankfully, Subaru listened to legions of disappointed fans, and made quick changes for 2009. The 2.5-liter boxer four has been boosted up to 265 hp (up from 224) courtesy of a bigger turbo. Also, handling has been buttoned down for less body roll and more direct steering courtesy of bigger, wider wheels and more aggressive suspension tuning.
We drove a gray metallic sedan (neither as attractive nor as funky as the hatchback, we feel) through hill and dale in Atlanta, Georgia, and came away largely impressed with a spunky little all-wheel drive sedan that, as Austin Powers might say, got its mojo back for '09.
For Subaru, mojo means boost; the brand has a long history of growly boxer flat fours forcefed by exhaust gas-driven turbos. The WRX's turbo increases in size for '09, giving lots more absolute power but taking longer to spool up (yes, some lag rears its ugly head). This is not a car for the uninvolved driver; things don't really come alive under the hood until you hit 3,500 rpm. Below that it is adequate and thrummy in the way that only flat fours are, but even with 2.5 liters it can be caught sleeping when you want some thrust. Just downshift a gear or two, leg the throttle, and your cheeks will end up smacking your earlobes; from 3,500 to redline the WRX is a thrill-ride, pure and simple.
Thankfully, Subaru's new design ethos gives you a vastly more comfortable, ergomic environment in which to reside when you're stuck in bumper-to-bumper. And in Atlanta, that scenario is probably true for 10 of every 20 miles driven. Looking around the cockpit, we noticed that Subaru took the goofy boy-racer bits out and replaced them with near Acura-grade materials, shapes, and textures. A soft curve arcs to the center stack and then off to the passenger side. The red glow of the instruments harks to BMW. All controls operate with heft and precision, save for an annoying two: the ropy, sloppy gearshift, and a tiny gas pedal with a feather-light return spring. The fronts of our calves were aching in short order, having to perform constant right toe curls to avoid freeway speed creep and lurid displays of turbo boost in the Kroger parking lot.
One thing that Subaru did keep from the kinder, gentler WRX of last year is remarkable suspension compliance. Automobile Magazine called it the WRX's "magic carpet ride," and we concur. This little Subie's ability to combine a creamy ride, very little impact harshness, and deliciously direct steering led us to believe they've been taking notes from BMW. Atlanta roads are awash in 1/2" thick metal plates covering a re-do of the citys' crumbling sewer infrastructure; the Subaru tripped and skipped across them with neither complaint, discomfort, nor directional disturbance.
Sport seats in the front offer laudable support for corner carving while also providing impressive comfort. But the non-adjustable headrests, simply extensions of the seats themselves, cant the head forward at an annoying angle. The rear compartment is so comfortable and spacious for the class (especially in the headroom arena) that it prompted a current Legacy owner to wonder why he spent an extra five grand for a car that seemed, to him, just as spacious.
While it's ultimately a vehicle suitable only for a select group of automotive iconoclasts, the 2009 Subaru Impreza WRX should put a cheshire cat grin back on the faces of its boost-happy fans while transporting their kids and spouses in superior comfort. And with 15 horses over the Subaru Legacy GT - and a base of just $25,660 for the WRX sedan - Subaru is going to have to up its Legacy game pronto.