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MOTORNET: WRX revisited

WRX revisited

MOTORNET with Karl Ferguson

Move, move, move I screamed silently at the little mid-eighties Barina, flat out at 50 km/h and hugging the right hand passing lane about half-way up Wellington's notorious Rimutaka Hill. Clearly, the Barina didn't have the guts to pass the even slower moving Ford, but its driver was determined to give it his best shot - much to my consternation I might add and cause for a steady stream of expletives from me.'Why the hell won't he just move the @#$$% over??, I asked rhetorically.

I edged ever closer to his bumper in Subaru's latest and greatest Impreza WRX, its motor revving impatiently as if it could sense my frustration. With only metres left of the passing lane, the Barina cut to the left. I dropped the Rex into second and gunned the motor, the turbo singing as the rev counter went shooting past 2500 rpm. With the little Holden in my rear-view, and the speedo needle edging towards 100 clicks, the tight blind corner at the end of the passing lane was suddenly upon me. I hit the brakes hard....

It had seemed like an excellent idea to travel to Hawke's Bay on New Year's Eve. Subaru had offered me a drive in the new WRX and I had gratefully accepted thinking the car would be ideal not only for the lesser travelled SH2, but also for the metal roads that would take me to my final destination, a small beachside community at Mangakuri to see in the New Year. Traffic would be light and it would provide the ideal opportunity to stretch the legs of the new WRX. It was also a great way to relax and enjoy the countryside and sunshine after spending 2002 living in Washington DC. I wanted to make the most of the break before having to head back to the northern hemisphere winter. It was just that I had forgotten how people drive in New Zealand.

As it turned out, I braked much harder on the corner than I needed - much to the irritation of the Barina driver - but to my own benefit as seconds later a police car passed me coming the other way. I wasn't speeding but I could feel the malevolent stare of the cop upon me as he swept past, presumbably looking for any excuse to pull me over and give me a ticket.

Subaru are very much to blame for this. The 2001 model was no shrinking violet, but Subaru have taken the criticism of that models polarising 'bug-eyed' headlight look to heart and made some noticeable external changes for 2003. As well as tidying up the headlight arrangement, the bonnet is much more sculptured and now houses a much larger scoop for the intercooler induction and lower front skirts. The result is a significantly more agrressive, and arguably better looking front end, the only bad news being that it's now that much harder to drive around discretely. Not surprisingly, every teenage male with a driver’s license (or not) and a jap import of any description assumes the right to challenge me to a drag at every and every opportunity, which gets real tired, real fast I can tell you.

Fortunately, their attempts are rarely successful. As well as touching up the outside, Subaru have made a few changes where it really matters - under the bonnet. Power is up eight kilowatts, taking the total to 168 kW at 6000rpm. With only 1200 kilometres on the clock, the WRX was still pretty tight but that didn't mask the fact that the extra power has made a difference to the performance of the vehicle - particularly in the mid-range. There's not a lot happening below 2500 rpm (in fact, this lack of low down performance can be quite disconcerting until you get used to it) and then the turbo comes in to play and you simply point the car and hang on. Subaru Australia has recorded some pretty amazing performance times for the new car - 0-100 in 5.69 seconds, or close to a second faster in the 0-100 sprint than the old model. It's highly unlikely the average driver will be able to replicate these times in New Zealand with our lower grade fuel and coarse chip roads, but it's encouraging nonetheless!

While the performance of the car is impressive, it's the overall package that really leaves its mark. The Barina was a blip in an otherwise stunning drive up the Rimutaka's and on to the Hawkes Bay. The car is so flat it feels like a Go-Kart and its stability - even on metal roads, where it really comes into its own - is legendary. Its difficult to know where the limit lies with this car, as you simply turn into the corner (it would seem at any speed) and as you hit the apex, nail the accelerator and wait to be rocketed away. No need to worry about coming in too fast as, as I discovered, the brakes work brilliantly. Meanwhile, the sports seats hold you tightly in their grip and the five speed transmission snicks from gear to gear. It's not only fun, but immensely flattering - any driver regardless of ability would feel like Fangio behind the wheel of the WRX.

If I have a complaint, it's a minor one. At times, I felt the steering was a little too light and a little more weight wouldn't have gone a miss, but I consider this to be more of a personal preference than a professional criticism. It’s also useful to look at the price of this car for some much needed perspective. At a whisker under $50k, the WRX offers exceptional value for money. Performance wise, there is very little that can touch it and while it may not have the interior fit and finish of a BMW, it’s still a very professional effort.

As a small aside, I have to say, driving in New Zealand compared to the US is quite an eye-opener. I was frankly amazed at how often I needed to call on the WRX's enourmous performance to pass slow moving cars. It seems the straighter the road, the slower the traffic moves, and more often than not, the guy towing the boat at 80 km/h doesn't see a need to move over and let you pass. Don't get me wrong - US drivers are certainly no bettered mannered (don't even get me started on taxi drivers) but they simply don't have to endure our single lane highways and by-ways. Mostly, their interstates are clogged with traffic and no one goes anywhere fast, but hit the DC beltway or interstates at non-peak times and look out. The posted limit is 65 miles and hour, but when the lanes are clear, having a truck roar past you doing 80 m/ph (over 120 km/h) is not that unusual.

Leaving Mangakuri Beach around 8am early one day in the New Year, I headed north towards Havelock to attend a friend’s wedding. I was alone and the road was clear. The bright New Zealand sunshine was eating through the last of a light morning mist and the windy road stretched out before me, beckoning. The next forty minutes proved to be a truly memorable driving experience, the little WRX snakiing through the twists and turns beautifully. I am not sure, but I doubt I even exceeded 100 km/h.

The fun was in the corners, not in the outright speed. You can buy a WRX in the US, and for not a lot of money, but I doubt I ever would. You simply don't find roads with corners, let alone personality. Like most drivers, I too get frustrated by slow moving traffic, few and far between passing lanes and the odd crazy driver, but everytime I set out on a monotonous interstate drive back in the US, I will think only of the magic that you can experience driving in NZ, and will remember none of the irritations. Subaru's fantastic WRX will be right there too...


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