COULEE CITY, Wash. — Pumped up with muscular air-intake hood scoop, bulging side skirts and tail-mounted flying wing, a sporty Impreza 2.5 RS coupe bears the badge of Subaru but seems vaguely out of place among Subaru's line of utilitarian sedans and rugged all-wheel-drive wagons.
It's uncharacteristically racy, and those big alloy wheels, tinted to a brilliant gold, look flashy and fast.
So why would Subaru — the Japanese automaker recognized as a world leader in traction technology and whose image in the United States has been honed by the durability of a practical line of all-wheel-drive vehicles — promote a sporty little coupe that could very well run circles around all of the other vehicles in this line?
For an answer, we must search outside North America's boundaries to discover another image for Subaru that has been developed on other continents, where automobile rally racing receives the kind of sports attention that football fans in the United States reserve for contests like the Super Bowl.
In countries like France, Japan, Argentina and Australia, rally races pit driver and co-pilot against maps and clocks and daredevil competitors tearing across treacherous roads wound through cities and countryside — and Subaru wins the world rally title time after time, thanks to gutsy drivers and the wily nature of Subaru's rally car, the Impreza 555.
That Subaru, with modifications like a roll cage added and high-output engine aboard, served as inspiration for the Impreza 2.5 RS Coupe, which mixes incongruously into Subaru's array of rather tepid sedans and wagons.
Start with an Impreza injected with steroids
This Subaru sports coupe showed up on eastern slopes of the Cascade Range in the state of Washington for a series of driving tests.
A walk-around briefing before the driving began revealed how the 2.5 RS was created. Origins trace to the two-door-coupe variation of Subaru's subcompact Impreza sedan, which first appeared in 1995 with optional horsepower and a link to Subaru's all-wheel-drive system.
1999 Subaru Impreza
1999 Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS interior
The Sube's sober interior belies its gritty performance goodies.
The exterior of this version collects some extra fixtures, like the hood scoop and rear wing spoiler that set it apart from other Imprezas. Inside, special touches add a sporty flair, such as a leather-wrapped steering wheel, analog gauges including tachometer, and a sunroof.
For power, Subaru borrowed from the Legacy Outback wagon a twin-cam 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, then turned to the Impreza 555 for a tight five-speed manual transmission with short-throw linkage. That plant, the largest that Subaru imports to our market, produces 165 horsepower and excellent torque numbers.
With cylinders opposed horizontally and set perpendicular to the driveline, Impreza's engine uses equal-length drive shafts so pairs of cylinders act like boxers jabbing at one another in counterbalanced movements which negate the typical engine's vibrations.
In addition, an on-board all-wheel-drive system functions like all other Subarus in our market in the essence of simplicity. Power from the engine moves directly through an electronically controlled smart transfer case to the wheels that need traction, with scant loss of energy or reduction in fuel efficiency.
Subaru's traction advantage
Subaru's all-wheel-drive system operates continuously to automatically transfer power from wheels that slip to those that can grip. It's the precise bite of wheels gripping the road at all times that gives Impreza 555 an edge in world rally competition, and the principle works equally well when applied to 2.5 RS.
The traction advantage becomes obvious on slippery surfaces like rain-soaked streets, but it produces downright thrilling results when this car tackles a set of tricky curves like those we encountered while climbing through hills to the Disauter Summit in a run across the Colville Indian Reservation along Route 155.
1999 Subaru Impreza
Grand Coulee Dam spans the Columbia River at Electric City to form vast Roosevelt Lake, which has a finger projected southwest with Route 155 skirting the shore to Coulee City. Our tester Impreza ripped over this course in a fun run that pumped up the driver's blood pressure.
With relatively modest weight but substantial power output, the car can scoot. Dust, swirling over broad plains east of the Cascades, blew across the beeline course of U.S. 2 as we nudged the speedometer to triple digits in a test for stability at high speed. The RS felt solid and still rooted to the pavement, and we noted little concession for wind noise.
This apparent rigidity in motion traces in part to the Impreza's structural design in unibody format. The platform originated with an abbreviated version of the Subaru Legacy sedan, and for the 2.5 RS, its front-wheel track widens slightly for a broader stance. Unlike the Legacy, though, which is produced at Subaru's joint-venture plant in Indiana, all Imprezas come together at the sophisticated mother plant in Gunma, Japan.
The Impreza's racy coupe wears a long-stroke, four-wheel independent MacPherson-strut suspension system which mirrors the sport-tuned setup that led an Impreza 555 to victory for two consecutive years in the World Rally Championship.
Standard mechanical features include speed-sensitive power rack-and-pinion steering and disc brakes at all wheels with four-channel computerized anti-lock control. Thorough safety hardware includes structural crumple zones, side door braces and dual front airbags.
The interior layout positions twin bucket seats in front of a bench rated for three but best suited for two. Reclining front buckets contain bold side bolsters to help retain body position during strenuous lateral maneuvers. An instrument panel carries a handy tray on top above the center stack of vent ducts and climate system controls.
Conveniences include a tilting steering column, intermittent windshield wipers and standard air conditioning but extend to power equipment for windows and door locks, and an 80-watt stereo AM-FM radio system with cassette deck and four speakers.