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Car reviews - Subaru - Impreza - WRX 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
4WD grip, handling dynamics, hatch styling
Room for improvement
Auto throttles a great engine, rough road ride

21 Feb 2002

AN automatic Subaru Impreza WRX hatchback. The first question you've got to ask is "why"?

Why, if you are going to buy one of the great budget performance cars of all time, are you going to go for the least sporting variant offered?

The hatchback WRX actually has a 20mm narrower track than the sedan so its footprint isn't as wide, and therefore its handling - in theoretical terms at least - isn't as good.

And then there's the E4AT four-speed automatic introduced with model year 2002. Not only is it around $2000 more expensive than the five-speed manual, it also makes the car 25kg heavier, so more edge taken off the performance.

Is there an upside? Well, yes. In the view of this humble scribe the hatchback is now the better looking of the two WRX body shapes, although that's more because the sedan is very average.

While the four-door is a series of contradictions, with bug-eyed headlights fighting squared off wheel arches and a box-shaped body, the hatch is far more organic with round headlights, round wheel arches and a round body.

The lack of flared wheel arches is a pointer to the hatch's narrower track but, apart from that, the two variants are virtually identical in mechanical terms.

They share the same EJ20 "boxer" four-cylinder turbocharged engine, which with the assistance of an intercooler - signified by the bonnet mailbox slot - produces 160kW at 5600rpm and 184Nm of torque at 3600rpm.

The engine pumps its power out to all four wheels via the aforementioned transmission choices.

Other aspects stay the same: the MacPherson strut suspension, rack and pinion steering, all-wheel disc brakes with ABS and 17 x 7.0-inch alloy wheels mated to Bridgestone Potenza 215/45 tyres. It all adds up to an exciting driving package.

So what about the new stuff, namely the auto transmission we get here?

The E4AT is a new design that is 7kg lighter and 33mm shorter than the unit sold briefly with the old generation in 1998 and 1999. Features include "up and down grade control", which means it automatically selects a lower gear and holds it while going up or down a hill with a slope greater than 6.5 per cent.

When going downhill it also requires the speed of the vehicle to be under 70km/h and the brakes to be applied before it is enabled, while going uphill it will downshift until the vehicle crests the hill and upshift after a certain distance depending on the speed and throttle opening.

Perhaps surprisingly, there's no semi-manual function for the auto, instead there's a gated shifter in the Benz style, while the other giveaway is a gear selection indicator in the centre of the instrument cluster. There is a power button, which holds onto a gear until higher in the rev range thereby improving acceleration.

What else is new for 2002? A keypad immobiliser first seen in the Liberty B4 is all that's added to a decent list of kit which already includes cruise control, in-dash CD, Momo leather steering wheels and dual airbags.

It must have been gearbox time at Subaru because the five-speed also gets updated for 2002 with closer ratios for harder acceleration.

Speaking of which. As we've already pointed out, performance is dimmed in the auto. According to Subaru's official figures, it still gets to 100km/h in a feisty 7.2 seconds, 0.9 seconds slower than the manual. In both cases, the hatch is 0.1 seconds slower than sedan because it is slightly heavier.

Naturally, it's also slightly heavier on fuel consumption than the manual version, recording 8.5 L/100km on the highway and 11.0 L/100km in the city, versus 7.5 and 10.5 respectively.

Of course, those are theoretical figures and hitting them means driving the WRX in a milder way than it's designed for. WRX is quite simply one of the great accessible thrills of modern motoring - even in this slightly diluted latest generation.

Settle into the tightly moulded one-piece sports seat, grasp the small, thick-rimmed Momo steering wheel, gaze out over the chrome-ringed instruments, pausing briefly to admire the centre console which is much improved from the previous generation WRX, and you're ready.

The chunk-chunka boxer four always lets you know it's there, jostling for aural space with tyre roar, while further sensory input is provided by the stiff ride over the more tortured bitumen stretches you're likely to encounter in search of drivers' roads.

Our search for WRX roads during our test drive was successful, but with them came constant rain and soupy fog - just the conditions to keep you on your toes. And the WRX revels in this stuff, its level of grip, directness, engine tractability and braking power and feel keeps the smile on your dial in the time honoured WRX way.

But what makes you grimace is the throttling the auto applies. This car no longer feels like a bullet - there's no longer the ability to slam you back into the seat.

It's at its worse when you drive it without resorting to self shifting. The box is simply not adaptive enough. Back off for a corner and it goes straight to top gear, whereas you actually want to hold second or third, and when you accelerate out of the corner that's when it drops back to second.

Drive it manually and the hunt for real acceleration takes you back to second gear. But be careful as you change through the gate, as neutral is easy to find!

So as a sporty proposition the auto doesn't compare with the manual. You do have to drive it as a manual to extract what you want from it.

Around town of course, it's a different proposition. The WRX is not the easiest car to live with in manual form as an everyday commuter because it's designed as a sports car and therefore is a little highly-strung for that duty - although the latest generation is certainly better than the original in this regard.

The auto smooths a lot of that out. You could be driving an everyday Impreza for the most part.

And that brings us back to the beginning. If you want an everyday Impreza go and buy one. If you want a WRX, buy the manual.

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