Trading on the rally conquests and Ken Block videos of the Subaru STI, the Subaru Impreza WRX has always been the car for people who aspire to dirt track power slides but who spend most of their driving time commuting to work and making grocery runs. The 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX accepts its position as a stand-in for the STI by adopting the wide body kit and track of its rally bred brother.
The WRX's resemblance to the STI is more than skin deep, but stops short of the bone. Where the STI is taut and hard, the WRX is compliant, even soft. The STI gets a true sports-car transmission, but the WRX's gearbox feels like surplus from Fuji Heavy Industries commercial trucks. On the practical side, the new WRX benefits greatly from a cabin tech makeover, a new navigation unit that brings in a Bluetooth phone system, and extensive audio-tuning capabilities.
Wide fenders, sport seats
It took a couple of years, but we have gotten to like the looks of the hatchback WRX--probably from watching videos of Ken Block take it around his personal obstacle course. And we always like the practicality of a hatchback. The wide fenders copied from the STI don't hurt, either, giving the car a meatier look.
Our test car was a Premium-edition model, between the base and Limited trims. We fell in love with its leather-covered sports seats immediately. High backs and nominal side bolsters provided comfort and stability. The red, stitched WRX logo is a nice touch.
Only in the Premium and Limited trim cars is the navigation option available. This DVD-based system is far from cutting edge, but the maps offer decent resolution. It takes more than one DVD to cover the U.S., forcing disc swaps for different regions, which is kind of weak in this era of hard-drive and flash-memory-based GPS. Worse, we had to specify the actual state when entering a destination.
Given the primitive nature of this navigation system, it is no surprise that it does not show traffic or weather information. And annoyingly, it blocks out all destination input, except for emergency locations, while driving.
A Bluetooth phone system is also consolidated in this navigation head unit. We easily paired it with an iPhone using the onscreen controls. The system includes a phone book function, and would have let us push contacts from our phone to the phone book, except the iPhone does not support that functionality. Similar to the navigation system, phone number input is disabled when the car is underway, and there is no voice command system.
We were eager to test the WRX's performance, but our initial experiences left us unimpressed. The long shifter felt too far from each gate position, and lacked any kind of precision. We rowed it into second gear, then third, with each movement feeling like pushing a fireplace poker around a loose clump of logs. The transmission also lacked a sixth gear; instead reverse sits in that position, which invites havoc when looking for top gear on the freeway.
Trying to work with the car, we got it set for a fast start. Revs up and clutch dropped, the car slogged carefully forward, its 2.5-liter four-cylinder doing the best to comply with our wishes. After a few seconds, the turbo kicked in, and the real fun began. The WRX boasts 265 horsepower and 244 pound-feet of torque, but considerable turbo lag kept us waiting like a kid on Christmas Eve for something to happen.
When it did get going, we could feel the power surging the car forward, taking it from snail to Cape buffalo at full charge. The WRX requires just a little patience. Making it all worthwhile was the whine from the turbo whenever it kicked in, making us feel like Top Gun pilots.
As the wide fenders brought the STI to mind, we were surprised to find the ride so soft. Rough city pavement and wide freeway expansion joints were absorbed equally, with dampers avoiding any unnecessary oscillation. A few of the bigger potholes sent a jolt through the car, but under most circumstances it offered a better ride than your average midsize sedan.