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Subaru's WRX Tries On A Suit For Size

The working years - Subaru's WRX tries on a suit for size

It's been years since Subaru launched the WRX and the latest all-new version has been eagerly anticipated. But all would agree, it is a very different car from its predecessor. The big question is - will the punters buy it?

It's a Friday night in the capital city. Wellington is abuzz following success at the rugby Seven's tournament playing at the magnificent WestpacTrust Stadium. Town is flooded with people, most of them on their way to experiencing many (or all) of the city's high-profile nightspots.

It is a perfect opportunity to get a feel for the new Subaru WRX. The mica blue 'world rally' test car with its heavily moulded side skirts, bulging bonnet scoop and dish sized drivers lights is set-off perfectly by Courtenay Place's neon glare. For a car that relies so much on its appearance for success, it is important that the public not only notice it, but also desire it.

The old WRX was aptly described as 'the car that ate the 90's.' It was a car that took no prisoners; built for speed and handling with menacing looks to boot, it fast developed icon like status and put Subaru on the map as a serious carmaker. But it was far from perfect. Average build quality, a slightly odd driving position, a firm ride, and most noticeable on the standard stock Imprezas, a manual transmission that was anything but a joy to use, meant it was not to everyone's taste.

Subaru have set out to widen the appeal of the WRX with this car. Time will tell if they have succeeded, but - setting aside the new car's controversial looks - major improvements cannot be overlooked. The driving position is damn near perfect - everything just feels so right. You ease into hip hugging bucket sports seats while your hands fit perfectly on the gorgeous leather clad momo steering wheel. Admittedly, at $58,000 ($61k for the auto hatch) it doesn't come cheap, and is a hefty $10k increase over the old model, but it feels worth every cent.

In your eagerness to turn the key it would be easy to miss the clear concise dials, the drilled aluminium pedals, the fully integrated dash with built in cup holders, but you shouldn't. Ergonomics on this car are first rate and the car feels very well put together.

The truth is, I feel very comfortable in this car. It fits the driver like a well-tailored suit, almost BMW-like in its driver orientation. But surely Subarus aren't about comfort? They're about raw power and speed and backward baseball caps, aren't they?

Which brings me back to downtown Wellington on a Friday night. I am in search of the opinion of the purists, those who really know and care about the soul of the WRX. It is a little known fact that the capital - which boasts the highest income per capita in the county and markets itself on its culture - also has a dedicated group of hoons. Young guys and their cars making noise and no doubt scaring themselves silly with turbo-chargers, burn-outs and fast thrills. When not driving in an endless loop of drop-the-clutch acceleration and hard on the anchors braking, the group congregates in Cambridge Terrace near the Mercedes dealership. Can this group provide a valuable verdict on Subaru's new boy-racer?

Photographer Neil and his horribly expensive SLR digital camera are my erstwhile companions; he diligently capturing images, me driving, as we cruise through the garish neon night. At 10pm, it's too early for the hoon contingent so we look for photo opportunities and some informal street feedback. We don't have to wait long. Parked up outside a pinball arcade in Dixon Street a couple of gangly teenagers dressed for a night out bowl up to the car. Their enthusiasm is genuine.

Demi, 17, admits that he is a serious WRX fan and that he 'loves WRXs and talks about them all the time.' His opinion on the new car? "It is very cool. Definitely better than the old one. It looks different, but it also looks faster," he says breathlessly as I follow him around the car. "If I won Lotto, I would buy one in a heartbeat." His mate, Heath,19, is also pretty keen on the car but seems most interested in Neil's camera. He admits he is a photography student, but I am still a little astounded. Imagine being more interested in a camera than a new WRX!

So one up for Subaru. The problem is, neither of these guys can stump up the sort of money that the WRX commands. All very well to admire from a far, but Subaru do need to shift this car. Enter Wayne, a 37-year-old self-employed Auckland businessman. He and his mate are in town for the Sevens and he can't believe his luck at stumbling across the new WRX. I can't believe my luck that he stumbled across us. Wayne says he owns a 94' WRX STI and is thinking of trading up. The fact that he has 'had a few' at the rugby does not dampen his enthusiasm and he prances around the car exclaiming and touching. He really likes this car and I have to get under the bonnet with him to chat. In a sober moment he admits that he would like the new WRX to have more power and that the 'shape of the old model is legendary' while the new shape is 'growing on him.' He says he might buy the last of the old model instead, but I am not convinced. This guy is in love with this car and he will no doubt make a Subaru salesman's day in the not too distant future.

With two up for Subaru, it's time to move on. We leave Wayne and his mate arguing about the relative merits of Holdens versus Subarus. It's still too early for the hoon contingent, so we decide to give the car a bit of a workout. Whether driving this car hard or soft, the handling is sublime. You simply aim it and it goes, no matter what the speed while the permanent four-wheel-drive means that grip is never an issue. Frankly, the capabilities of this car are staggering. The perfectly weighted steering, the first rate five-speed box, the well positioned pedals, all combine to provide a driving experience second to none.

It is true that the 160kw on tap is a lot less than the previous STI's 205kw, and some might have expected more. But how much power is enough? How fast does one really need to go? In a straight line, the WRX will get from 0-100km/h in 6.9 seconds, which is certainly fast enough for me. The noise of the traditional flat four turbo charged boxer engine is a delight. Throaty on idle, it bellows on full blow providing charismatic personality to an otherwise civil package. But it is definitely better stirred than shaken. Under 3000rpm there is very little happening. Climbing to the Mount Victoria Lookout, I was surprised how often I had to drop into second gear to gain any useful acceleration. Of course, when the turbo comes on line, the car is hard to hold back. Still, the lack of puff low down is a little disappointing. For those who can't get enough, a 206 kW STI version sedan will arrive in February.

What are not disappointing are the brakes. Descending the hill, they really come into their own. They are powerful, yet not 'grabby' like some high performance cars and will stop you quick smart when the need arises. No drama, no fuss, just short stopping distances, helped by state-of-the art four-channel ABS. In fact, you should be more worried about the guy behind hitting you than you hitting the guy in front!

The ride quality is equally impressive. Far from jarring fillings loose with every pothole, the car soaks up most bumps with ease. It's no Mercedes S-Class, but it's a giant leap forward on the old car. This, while the WRX rides on 17' inchers with low profile 215/45 tyres.

Heading back to the centre of town, Neil and I get to grips with the cars equipment. The six-disc in-dash stereo rocks, while the semi-auto air-conditioning is powerful and simple to use. Thrown in to the mix are dual airbags, cruise control, the usual mix of electrics and an immobiliser security system. In other words, you get plenty of goodies for your bucks.

It's pushing midnight and we are keen to talk to some 'hoons' and rap up the evening. Coming into Kent Terrace it would appear that we are in luck. Seemingly from nowhere, the streets are alive with the sound of popping mufflers, base driven stereos and engine revs. A guy at the lights guns the engine of his lowered Nissan Primera while we are shadowed on all sides by indistinguishable Japanese speed cars. We have definitely been noticed. It's a bit like being the newest gunslinger in town and nobody knowing who's going to shoot first.

I resist the urge to plant the boot, and slip in to a vacated park right in the thick of things. Around us, about 40 cars are parked, most of their owners milling around talking and looking, while others in their cars career past at incredible speed. Standing in the cool wind with my notebook flapping, I find it genuinely scary to watch these guys. Many of them reach speeds of nearly 100k's before easing off or screaming to a halt for a set of traffic lights.

I collar a couple of guys while Neil heads off to get photos. I can't help but express surprise that there is such a lack of Police presence so close to town. Steve, 18, says that normally up to six cop cars make it hard to 'have any fun,' but tonight they must be tied up with more important things. It seems I have broken the ice and slowly, the hoons descend on the WRX to pass judgement. They ask a couple of questions before getting stuck in. "It looks like a Corolla with a bonnet scoop," someone remarks. "Why didn't they leave the old front on it?" says a voice from the dark. "God those headlights are ugly," a guy standing next to me says before adding, "The wheels are too small for the arches. I can't believe they're 17 inchers." One by one they come and go. Not all the comments are negative, but the theme is pretty clear - Subaru has sold out the WRX. Steve (by now we're old friends) confides that his twin turbo Supra is better looking and a lot faster. He doesn't see himself owning one, not now, not in five years time. Yet, I can't help defending it. I talk about the handling and the advantages of 4WD; the improved ride and build quality. They don't seem all that interested as they disappear off for one last run before doing whatever they do to see out the night.

I am a little disappointed as I drop Neil to his 'ride.' Couldn't they see that this was a much better car than the old WRX, funny looking headlights and all? Then it struck me. When I picked this car up, I felt a little unqualified to pass judgement. A professional white male not far from 30 and in the top tax bracket, I felt a bit 'passed' boy-racer cars. But it would seem Subaru have moved the goal posts. This is a thoroughly modern package that offers performance and practicality to boot. And I like it. I like it a lot.

Who cares whether the baseball cap brigade do or don't? After all, what matters is whether or not I would buy one. And, unlike the average 18 year old, I can - well, just about. Now, where was that bank manager's phone number....

Specifications – Subaru WRX
Engine – 1994cc longitudinal 16 valve dohc turbocharged boxer four, electronic fuel injection, 160kw at 5600 rpm, 292 Nm at 3600 rpm (manual)
Performance - 0-100 km/h: 6.9 seconds
Transmission - Five speed maual gearbox, adaptive permanent 4wd with viscous limited slip centre differential
Suspension – MacPherson struts with coil springs and stabiliser bars front and rear
Tyres – 215/45ZR17 Bridgestone Potenza REO11 radials on alloy wheels
Kerb weight - 1340kg
Price - $58,000

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