I haven’t been this excited since my last game of naked tennis against Anna Kournikova. The occasion involved a trip to Queenstown to attend the launch of the MY08 Subaru WRX that would include an extended drive on the South Island’s challenging roads. A 4:45am wake-up did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm because my twenties (and its associated club motorsport antics) were defined by the three Subarus I’ve owned: a 1991 Legacy RS-RA Facelift with big bore exhaust (the whole neighbourhood felt the vibe), a 1996 WRX hatchback, and a 1998 STI Type R (version 4). Of all the cars I’ve owned, that STI was the best. Talk about setting myself up for disappointment!
Our party of journalists arrived at Queenstown airport and were herded into a hangar where the WRX sat beneath a cover. A couple of Danishes and a cup of tea later, Chris Rickards (GM of Subaru) gave us an introduction to the car, and just as he was about to reveal it to us the hangar door opened to the sight of helicopters. Lots of them, ready to take us somewhere mysterious.
Our first view of the WRX was as the chopper climbed up the side of Deer Park. On the top of the ridge sat a sparkling blue WRX. Surprise! This isn’t the WRX we’ve come to know: it’s smoother¦almost more feminine. Something must be wrong with my eyes. Sweeping around to rejoin the edge of Lake Wakatipu we made our way to Kingston at the other end of the lake, where we landed in a field of 11 Imprezas, some WRXs, some not.
Here, we found out that the new WRX is aimed much more towards a balanced male/female demographic. Desperate to shake off the boy racer image Subaru has endowed the WRX with the ability to carry a mountain buggy or two golf bags. Boy racers don’t play golf, or race mountain buggies. You still get a body kit, though, with a discrete spoiler, rear diffuser and front fog lamps. And then there’s the iconic bonnet nostril.
From there, we set off on a journey along the region’s spectacular roads, on what was a beautiful day. Immediately it was easy to tell that this WRX is a more palatable and refined drive at normal cruising speeds than previous models. In fact, it’s so quiet that care has to be taken not to travel at well above the speed limits. This is partly to do with the new framed windows reducing turbulence — previous models have frameless windows — but also due to the engine’s increased refinement and torque range meaning that in any gear you get a satisfying amount of grunt. Steering feel is perfectly weighted — neither too heavy or too light — and extremely communicative of the road surface. Its accuracy made it possible to hit every apex without thinking, and the power (169kW at 5200rpm) and torque (320Nm from 2800rpm through to well over 4000rpm) from the 2.5-litre boxer engine afforded us hedonistic surges of acceleration out of the corners.
Tarmac driving in the dry is all very well, but to test Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive, a healthy dose of sinuous gravel is what is required. For everyday use the WRX has a plethora of driving ‘aids’ (or ‘fun spoilers’ as I call them): VDC (stability control), ABS, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist. Turn them off, though, and you can tell immediately that this WRX is a sure-footed as an eight-legged mountain goat wearing crampons. There are a lot of cars in which I would feel uncomfortable at 100kph on flowing gravel roads. This isn’t one of them. The Subaru is so well balanced that it gives you a nice controlled four-wheel drift with no lairy tail-out action like I would have had in my old STI. It just gets on with the job of getting you around the corner.
Handling has been improved over the previous version WRX due to a lower centre of gravity, lighter weight (between 30-40kg) and stiffer chassis. The stopping distances in the dry have reduced by a whopping 5.7m from 100kph (down to 39.6m), and an incredible 9.2m in the wet (down to 43.5m — better than some cars in the dry).
The biggest change is the size of the car. The wheelbase has increased by 95mm, but the overall length has reduced by 50mm — the wheels are now closer to the corners, and this means more interior room for passengers. The driver and passengers also have improved headroom.
Standard equipment includes climate control air conditioning, six airbags, electroluminescent instrumentation, a six-CD in-dash stereo with auxiliary input, cruise control, and a multifunction leather steering wheel.
Charging to 100kph in 5.8 seconds, the WRX still manages to be 2% more efficient than the MY07 model, with the combined cycle quoted at 10.7l/100km, and it will accept E10 fuel. It’s also 95% recyclable.
If your budget can’t stretch to $42,990, the non-turbo two-litre Impreza Sport R comes in at a piffling $31,990 for the manual version, and I predict it will whip everything in its class into submission.
Price: WRX from $42,990 manual only , Sport R ($31,990 manual, $32,990 auto).
What we like
- Very competent
What we don’t like
- Boring colour range
- We have to wait until February 2008 for the STI version
Words and photos Darren Cottingham