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Car reviews - Subaru - Impreza - WRX sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Performance, driveability, grip, handling, styling
Room for improvement
Gearchange, ride quality, PULP fuel requirement

7 Apr 2003

AS the quickest facelift in company history, Subaru's MY2003 Impreza WRX is a clear admission the burgeoning Japanese brand got the all-new 2001 model wrong.

In fact, one needs only to witness the two major areas of improvement in the fast-tracked, facelifted model to see exactly where Subaru went wrong when it replaced the original Impreza at the end of 2000.

First there's the styling. Appearing with a slightly larger, squarer and more contemporary bodyshell, the second-generation Impreza's most controversial aspect was its prominent new circular headlights.

Loved by some but loathed by many others, the MkII Impreza's new "bug-eye" headlights became the centre of conversation for enthusiasts of the Impreza line-up's performance flagship, the WRX - rather than the improved chassis refinement or vastly reduced noise, vibration and harshness levels wrought by the stiffer, stronger new body.

And then there was the performance. All this extra build quality, safety and chassis integrity came at a cost, in the shape of more weight.

The new WRX increased in weight by 120kg, from 1270kg to 1390kg in manual sedan form. With the same 160kW peak power output - and only a nominal, 2Nm increase in maximum torque - the new Rex proved considerably slower and was unable to match its predecessor's consistent 14-second quarter-mile acceleration times.

Don't forget, these were figures that helped WRX become a cult figure as an all-wheel drive turbocharged rally-rocket able to out-corner and out-pace cars costing up to four times as much.

As as result, the popularity of WRX suffered and - despite record sales of non-turbo cooking models in its first two years - the second generation Impreza struggled to match sales figures set by the original even at the end of its model life.

Enter the cosmetically updated, more powerful MY2003 version tested here.

On sale since December 2002 at a slightly higher price, the facelifted WRX doesn't just wear a prettier face, complete with stylized teardrop-style headlights and revised bonnet/scoop, bumper, grille, foglight and wing mirror designs.

As expected, the '03 Rex also features a number of mechanical changes aimed at quickening its pace, and the result is an extra 8kW and 8Nm of peak power and torque respectively. WRX outputs now read 168kW at 6000rpm (up 400rpm) and 300Nm of torque at the same 3600rpm.

The improvements come courtesy of Subaru's version of variable valve timing, called Active Valve Control System (AVCS), which electronically adjusts the intake valve timing through a range of 35 crankshaft degrees to boost power and torque while minimising fuel consumption and emissions.

The system first appeared in the previous WRX STi but has now filtered down to the volume-selling performance model WRX model. The proven 2.0-litre turbocharged boxer engine also benefits from sodium-filled exhaust valves, a rise in the compression ratio from 8.0:1 to 9.0:1 and a new dietary requirement of 98 RON premium unleaded fuel.

Throw in the super-short 4.444 final drive gear ratio (shorter than even the six-speed STi) introduced for the MY2002 WRX and, with a nominal 5kg weight increase for the MY2003 sedan, the engine improvements have had a direct impact on the car's performance.

According to Subaru's in-house figures, the 0-100km/h acceleration test is dispensed with in 5.69 seconds (against 6.43 seconds for the MY02 car), while the 400-metre (quarter-mile) sprint now takes 13.92 seconds - an improvement of seven-tenths of a second.

In short, not only is WRX now capable of recording acceleration times similar to the original cult car, it also feels as quick as ever.

The forward thrust in first and second gears, as the turbo comes on boost, feels as strong as it did with the lighter, first-generation car, but the real improvement comes in the form of its noticeably increased pulling ability from lower revs in the higher gears.

From just over 2000rpm in fourth or fifth gears you can notice the extra torque that's now available, before the serious urge comes on tap from 3000rpm, as it always did.

The variable valve timing realises a greater level of tractability and driveability than ever, with throttle inputs delivering a familiar turbo rush with very little lag.

With more power and a better spread of torque, the WRX is no longer a slave to its weight.

Other mechanical mods include revised dampers with multiple-phase valves, changes to upper suspension mountings and the relocation of the rear trailing arms.

Auto WRXs have been upgraded with a manual-shift Sportshift transmission while, inside, there's now a titanium-coloured finish on the centre console and audio and ventilation system surrounds.

Subaru claims the driver's seat Super Seat Lifter height adjustment mechanism has been enhanced for easier operation, while vehicle security has been improved by a driver's door central locking button (as found on the new Forester range) fitted to all Imprezas.

Incidentally, tailgate key locks have been removed from all hatch variants, as has the passenger door key barrel from turbo cars, with WRX picking up a double locking system on all doors that is activated/deactivated by the remote control.

The changes accompany what was already quite a security-conscious vehicle, the WRX featuring the DataDot theft deterrent system and keypad immobiliser/alarm system since 2002.

While insurance costs remain an issue for all turbocharged cars, the less offensive MY2003 WRX should realize better retained value. Of course, the three-year/unlimited km warranty remains and, in a boon for performance car fans, WRX returns an amazing 9.6 litres/100km claimed fuel consumption figure.

Sure, significant improvements have been delivered both in terms of security and interior/exterior aesthetics, but the MY2003 WRX's most noticeable advance is its greater driveability and performance.

While this comes at no cost to the second generation car's extra comfort, refinement and safety, Subaru's most famous nameplate also remains as grippy, agile and fun as ever.

Cynics may say the MY03 car is what Subaru should have delivered two years ago, but building the perfect value-for-money performance car takes time.

Seems some things really are worth waiting for.

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