When the redesigned 2008 Impreza WRX made its New York debut, you could hear the collective creak from the upturned conks of the cognoscenti. What’s with the Camry clone? Somehow Subie thwacked a dart-full of its patented anti-fun serum into the styling of one of the world’s most “enigmatic” designs. But just how bad is the damage? Have Subaru’s efforts to re-brand the rockstar ‘Rex as a kinder, gentler, pop-idol created a yawnster? More importantly: is it possible to be a bad Subaru, but a good car?
Initial impressions: welcome to the new Subaru3. The good news is that the car may be less photogenic than Tara Reid, but in person it’s not too bad– even with those stainless-steel-horseshoe taillights and uni-brow grille. Sharp creases along either side work well here (as they’ve worked well elsewhere, hem-hem), though the front seems overly rounded in comparison. The truly elephantine hood scoop has the look of a just-about-to-sneeze 550 Maranello, but at least it’s well-integrated and less of a hack-a-hole-in-the-hood afterthought than previous years.
The bad news: whether four-door sedan or (better) five-door hatch, the playful nature of earlier WRXs is notably absent. Bugeye. Peanut-eye. Pignose. Impreza owners have always embraced their rides’ weird looks with affectionate disdain. Driving an ugly-ass Subaru was a chance to stand out from the pack, knowing all the while you had the goods underhood and underfoot.
The slick new model fails to distinguish itself from the motoring multitudes AND it looks like it was designed to adhere to some focus group’s idea of “sporty.” Still, the new WRX may have a touch of the old Subaru fungoid; it remains to be seen whether its looks will grow on its (former?) fans.
After you whack your head on the unexpected window frame, you enter a not-so-markedly improved cabin. The new dash offers reasonably subdued chrome accents and a flying-V design theme (an encore performance of the fallopian Tribeca). The materials boast higher quality than the old WRX’s “we-spent-the-budget-on-the-drivetrain” PVC wonderland. Fine-vision gauges with STI-style startup sweep and center-mounted tach complete the updated look.
The new Subie’s extended wheelbase means that rear leg-room is far less likely to induce DVT than the old model’s cramped quarters. A more compact suspension means a wider (if not overmuch larger) trunk. Once again, rear visibility takes a backseat to styling. On the positive side, the new front seats are wonderfully comfortable and supportive.
Well, vertically. When it comes to cornering, it’s a case of BYO-Bolsters. If your seatbelt’s not snug, an aggressive turn can easily catapult you into your passenger’s lap. I’d also happily sacrifice the new steering-wheel-mounted stereo controls for a Momo tiller. And the shifter is as vague as Miss Teen South Carolina, particularly when down-shifting from thirdish to secondish.
But why downshift? Subaru’s new 224 horse 2.5-liter mill lacks the pulsing sonic thrill you expect from a boxer engine, but it’s got porterhouse-sized servings of torque (226 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm) with a side order of insta-boost. In nearly any gear, at nearly any rpm, it’s possible to walk on the throttle and watch the traction control flicker like an electric eel trying to stun a manatee. And that’s with AWD. I frequently found myself punching it in the middle of a corner just to see what would happen.
Sounds fun, right? Well, while the hugely available low-end grunt makes the ’08 WRX a traffic scalpel, mash the gas on a corner and it rolls like an improperly ballasted galleon. Grip is more than adequate for any sort of reasonable person, but g-force aficionados better get on the pre-order list for some aftermarket swaybars, STAT. And we’re not well pleased that VDC stability control is a $1500 option.
The WRX’s speed-sensing variable power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering remains quick and accurate, but provides less feedback and more insulation. As rough roads and gravel will still be a natural playground for those who dare to get their side-skirts dirty, the tiller’s tactility isn’t a huge issue. And while the soft, long-travel, four-wheel independent suspension (double wishbone at the back) may add to the new Impreza’s tippy cornering, it’s truly astounding at swallowing bumps. Speedbumps are to be scorned, potholes pitied.
Taken as a whole, Subaru hasn’t dropped the ball with its new WRX. They’ve just punted it onto a whole different playing field. While the old WRX had its own (numerous) shortcomings, it easily made up for them with puppy-dog enthusiasm and ever-present utility. The new model has all the modern charm of a robot dog. It’s not bad, by any means: more comfort, more space, more style (arguably) and more fuel economy. All of which makes it more easily justifiable to your comfort-loving significant-other. It’s just too bad that all these “mores” add up to less fun.