by Conor Twomey
I gotta tells ya, this one snuck up on me. The 2003 facelift wasn’t unexpected given how, er, unusual the original 2001 Impreza looked, but with an all-new car about a year away, was there really a need to facelift the Impreza again?
Well, in the hotly contested sport compact segment Subaru and Mitsubishi like to rain on one another’s parades as often as possible so when Mitsubishi recently upgraded the Evo, it followed suit that Subaru would have to do something similar to steal back column inches and regain its place on the rice rocket throne. So here it is. The 2006 Subaru Impreza WRX.
Big deal, right? Gluing on the new corporate nose and upping the specification a bit isn’t going to make the steering any better or take slop out of the body control, now is it? Well, no, but that the new nose doesn’t do the WRX any harm either, making the Impreza look more purposeful and less blobby than either previous iteration. Its expression, if you will, is one of anger and aggression, unlike its slightly petrified predecessors. The flanks are unchanged, with the exception of standard fitment of the STI’s sill skirts and some tasteful new 17-inch wheels, while the rear gets yet another new set of lights and another new bumper. It’s not the most exciting posterior I’ve ever seen but at least the rest of the Impreza WRX is looking good these days. The low-rise spoiler is standard, too, except on the entry-level WRX TR model. More of that in a minute.
Inside the WRX nothing has changed. The one-piece STi-style seats and dials became standard in the WRX last year so no other revisions were made to the interior so there’s still no aluminum pedals or shifter, no change-up lights, no embroidered seating, no differential controls and no intercooler water spray button on the WRX.
2006 Subaru WRX
Cranking up the oily bits
2006 Subaru Impreza WRX STI
The permanent all-wheel-drive transmissions is carried over from the previous model practically unchanged, but power now comes from the same turbocharged, 2.5-liter, flat-four engine as the STi, detuned to 230 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque. The 3-hp gain isn’t that significant but the 18 lb-ft jump in torque is also available further down the rev band thanks to the addition of variable valve timing, improving flexibility and economy. The gearshift has also been improved by a new short-throw shift kit, not that I can tell you much about that having been lumped with an automatic. An automatic WRX? Yeah, I’ll get to that in a minute, too.
Being able to go marginally faster (0-60 mph now should now take 5.5 seconds and top speed is about 145 mph) is always good but being able to stop faster is no less important so in addition to bigger wheels and tires, beefier 11.5/11.3-inch brakes from the European WRX have been fitted, with their bright-red, four-piston front and two-piston rear calipers. As you might expect, the brakes are sharper and more responsive than before, while offering more confidence-inspiring feel too.
So far I’m mighty pleased with the changes they’ve made to the WRX, but what about that chassis? Well, Subaru has made two important changes for 2006. Firstly, they’ve made the front suspension links from aluminum and secondly they’ve replaced the steering rack with a sharper, quicker one. The effect of the suspension arms seems to be a more composed front end, though the smooth ride versus body roll compromise is still heavily biased in favor of the former — not surprising because the springing and damping is unchanged. Even so, understeer is more difficult to provoke and the WRX seems to corners more eagerly than before.
2006 Subaru WRX
However, it’s the steering that makes the biggest difference to the car. Dead-ahead slop has all but disappeared so the car turns in more crisply making it feel much more responsive. It also ups the feedback while you’re in the corner so you’re no longer trying to read what the car is doing through your backside or by listening to the tires. It could still use a bit more feedback and weight but even so, the new rack has made the WRX a thousand times more fun than before and finally gives the WRX the kind of handling it should have had at birth.
So what’s new in the WRX range? Well, Subaru is now offering four WRX models, kicking off with a Track Ready TR model priced at $24,000 that does without rear cupholders, the one-piece seatbacks, the HID lights, climate control and various other little bits and pieces. The regular WRX has all these extras along with fog lights and a better stereo while WRX Limited adds upmarket nonsense like heated leather seats and a sunroof. Oh, and you can order the Limited with a four-speed automatic that doesn’t even have a tip-shift manual mode. Such was our test car and I can’t begin to explain how wrong a WRX automatic is. It allows you to tuck the front wheels in with a mod-corner lift of the gas but it commits that most heinous of sins by changing down a cog unexpectedly when you’re trying to power out of a corner totally upsetting the balance of the car. Not being able to select and hold your gear is a baffling omission and there’s also a penalty at the gas pump. Why, Subaru? Why?
The range topper is, of course, the 300 hp STI, which is now spelled all in capitals, much to the relief of motoring writers everywhere who are tired of battling MS Word’s auto-correct function. The STI should be bitchin’ fun given the improvements made the basic WRX.
Better looking, faster, better handling, and better value, the Subaru Impreza WRX is, at last, a car I’d be happy to have in my driveway. I only have one question. Why did it take two facelifts and five years to get the best from this car?
Subaru Impreza WRX
Base price: $23,995 (TR), $28,495 (WRX Limited Auto, as tested)
Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged flat four-cylinder, 230 hp/235 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 175.8 x 68.5 x 56.7 in
Wheelbase: 99.4 in
Curb weight: 3192 lb (WRX); 3296 lb (WRX Limited auto)
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 20/26 mpg (manual); 21/26 mpg (auto)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags; anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning; 17-inch alloy wheels; power windows, mirrors and locks; styling kit; CD audio system
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles