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First Oz drive: Subaru Impreza unbugged

Fresh face: The new Impreza's headline act is its revised styling, but the WRX also gets more power.

No more bug eyes for Subaru's Impreza, while the WRX gets its groove back

28 Nov 2002

SUBARU is in the process of saying goodbye to the current bug-eyed Impreza range - but don't expect it to be a long and tearful farewell.

With a reputation centred around the car's controversial styling rather than its impressive dynamic abilities, Subaru will no doubt welcome the fresh look of the facelifted model with open arms, along with hopes for wider acceptance among buyers and critics alike.

With sales of the second generation car never quite reaching the levels expected - although it is on target for around 7400 units here this year courtesy of record sales of the naturally aspirated models - Subaru has fast-tracked the revamp in an effort to restore the car's showroom appeal and improve its sales fortunes.

The new 2003 model year Impreza range represents the quickest model facelift to occur in Subaru's history, coming just two years after the current car was released.

Aside from the most obvious and perhaps significant aspect of the facelift - the new front and rear styling - improvements have also been made to equipment, safety and security levels, while the WRX has received some engine modifications to lift power and torque outputs. Pricing has remained steady for all models bar the WRX and WRX STi.

On sale this week, except for the STi which is delayed for supply reasons until January, all 2003 Imprezas feature revised bonnet and bumper designs, new grille and headlights and smaller fog-lights - as well as a new bonnet scoop on the WRX.

The rear is distinguished by revised bumper and tail-light designs, while exterior wing mirrors are said to have been the subject of a redesign for aerodynamic purposes.

The 92kW 2.0-litre flat four engine continues unchanged in GX, RX and RV variants, as does the 112kW 2.5-litre unit in the RS junior sports model. But the renowned turbocharged 2.0-litre boxer engine in the WRX has finally been tinkered with to liberate some additional power and torque.

Outputs have remained relatively unchanged since the MY99 was launched in September 1998, although torque increased nominally by 2Nm when the current car was released in late 2000.

Power is up 8kW to 168kW at a higher 6000rpm (up 400rpm), while torque has increased by 8Nm to 300Nm at the same 3600rpm as before.

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 current WRX STi but has now filtered down to the "cooking" WRX model, along with 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 (previously 95 RON on WRX and 98 RON on STi).

With the WRX sedan's kerb mass only increasing by 5kg over the outgoing model, the engine improvements have had a direct impact on the car's performance.

The 0-100km/h acceleration test is dispensed with in 5.69 seconds, according to Subaru's in-house figures (against 6.43 seconds for the MY02 car), while 0-400 metres takes 13.92 seconds in the new car - an improvement of seven-tenths of a second, or similar to the lighter, first generation WRX.

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

The automatic WRXs have been upgraded with the Sportshift transmission, which enables Tiptronic-style gearshifts at the gear lever as per the automatic Liberty B4, although not with that car's additional steering wheel controls.

Inside, all variants now have a titanium-coloured finish on the centre console and audio and ventilation system surrounds, while Subaru claims the driver's seat "Super Seat Lifter" height adjustment mechanism has been enhanced for easier operation.

Vehicle security has been improved across the board with a driver's door central locking button (as found on the new Forester range) fitted to all Imprezas.

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

Changes to seat and door trim have been made to all the naturally aspirated variants - GX, RX, RV and RS - while all bar the RS also benefit from the introduction of active front seat head restraints.

A facelifted version of the ultimate Impreza, the rally-bred WRX STi, will also form part of the 2003 line-up, but not until January next year.

The raft of Impreza styling changes also applies to the STi, along with a larger bonnet scoop and World Rally Championship-style bodykit with flared side skirts, front bumper outboard splitters and a high-rise rear spoiler.

Inside there is a unique, smaller diameter three-spoke steering wheel, new back-lit instruments with red illumination and an ignition "on" display sequence, as well as WRC-blue carpet throughout and chrome door handles.

Under the skin changes are relatively minor, but are aimed at improving the efficiency of key areas.

The shape of the air baffle plate inside the bonnet scoop has been altered to increase airflow to the overhead intercooler, while the spray pattern from the water injection nozzles has also been increased.

Front suspension rigidity has been strengthened by the addition of a "performance rod" to the cross member and modifications to the transverse linkage mounts, while reinforcement brackets have been added to the rear cross member and its bushes revised for better noise suppression.

But the STi's engine output remains unchanged at 195kW maximum power and 343Nm peak torque.

Pricing for the STi has risen by $1500 or 2.7 per cent to $56,630, making it the most expensive model in the Subaru range ahead of the $55,130 Liberty B4.

Pricing: ($ change in brackets)
Impreza GX sedan $25,990 (-)
Impreza GX sedan (A) $27,990 (+$50)
Impreza GX hatch $26,440 (-)
Impreza GX hatch (A) $28,440 (+$50)Impreza RX sedan $30,590 (+$20)
Impreza RX sedan (A) $32,590 (+$70)
Impreza RX hatch $31,040 (+$20)
Impreza RX hatch (A) $33,040 (+$70)Impreza RV hatch $29,990 (-)
Impreza RV hatch (A) $31,990 (+$10)Impreza RS sedan $32,990 (-)
Impreza RS sedan (A) $34,990 (+$50)Impreza WRX sedan $42,490(+$1000)
Impreza WRX sedan (A) $44,990 (+$1550)
Impreza WRX hatch $42,940 (+$1000)
Impreza WRX hatch (A) $45,440 (+$1550)Impreza WRX STi sedan $56,630 (+$1500)

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

FANS of Subaru's WRX will be happy to hear that revisions to the car's 2.0-litre turbo engine have gone a long way to returning the car to its former glory.

The wait for the Rex to get its edge back has been too long, after the second-generation model put on around 150kg in the interest of creating a stronger, safer and more refined car.

The MY03 is still all those things, but it now goes like the WRX of old.

With more power and a better spread of torque courtesy of the STi-derived Active Valve Control System (AVCS), the WRX is no longer a slave to its weight.

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 and up, as it always did.

Despite the raft of external changes, the view from behind the wheel of the WRX remains virtually unchanged.

Look straight ahead and you'll see a new Momo badge in the centre of the steering wheel, a centre-mounted tachometer and red instrument needles, and the wider, restyled bonnet scoop.

Look down and you may be sharp enough to notice the new seat trim, separate central locking switch and chrome handbrake button, but other than that the cockpit is totally familiar.

In automatic models, the new Sportshift transmission lever is the last thing to be added to that list.

Tiptronic-style manual control certainly improves the useability of the WRX's four-speed auto, but the car still deserves better - like an adaptive five-speed transmission to make it the equal of anything from Europe.

The auto has a real Jeckyll and Hyde way of going about its business. Off boost and with one less ratio than the manual, it can't mask turbo lag in the way manual does, so it feels particularly doughy.

On boost it pulls like a train, and the auto has the added advantage of being able to keep the engine it its sweet spot during gear changes without interference from a clutch and hand gearshift.

However, while the WRX experience is diluted by an auto transmission, Rex's revised self-shifer will no doubt help Subaru maximise its Impreza sales opportunities.

While styling will always be a subjective, personal and emotional element of motor vehicles, the fact is this facelifted Impreza is less controversial and more mainstream in its new form.

Whether that makes it better looking or not is for you to decide, but there is no getting away from the fact WRX is once again a cracking drive. Plus it is also safe, secure, well equipped and relatively refined into the bargain.

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