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Subaru's WRX gained cult popularity among video gamers and drivers who wanted racing performance on a budget. We tested out the newest iteration, the 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX, and have some bad news: the WRX has matured. Oh, it still has rally handling, a screaming engine, and a scoop on the hood for its intercooled turbocharger. But its refined body style will make it fit right in the corporate parking lot, and even the Subaru Forester has a hood scoop.
The first thing we noticed about the new WRX were the sides, which look an awful lot like they were stripped off of a BMW 3 series and shortened. Yes, it's that smooth flame-surfacing, broken up only a little by the beltline and a rib. Of course, with the cheapest BMW 3 series starting above $30,000, Subaru's new WRX can claim the ground BMW ceded as it took its cars up-market.
The WRX lives in a middle ground between the standard Subaru Impreza and the highly tuned Subaru Impreza WRX STi, with a short detour to the Subaru Outback, part of the Impreza line. Despite its mature look, this new WRX mostly delivers on the performance expected of it. It also shows Subaru's direction in cabin electronics, with a really nice-looking navigation system and a stereo that true audiophiles can appreciate.
Test the tech: Turbo test
On our first run out in the 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX, we felt the power of the intercooled and turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Acceleration is good below 2,500rpm, but above that it becomes incredible as the turbo spins up and the car gets its peak 224 horsepower. So we thought it would be interesting to run some acceleration tests starting with and without the turbo wide open.
For our first test, we launched the car from just over 1,000rpm. With the clutch engaged, we stomped the accelerator and held the gears until 6,000rpm before upshifting. The car behaved very well, with no wheel spin and no tendency to pull to either side. Our time to 60mph on this run was 7.02 seconds.
For fast launches, we would prefer a close ratio gearbox.
On the second run, we revved the car up to 5,000rpm before dropping the clutch. Again, the car was very well-behaved, with no wheel spin. We upshifted at high rpms again. Because of this transmission's wide gear bands, we could hold second gear all the way up to 55mph, but it also had a significant rev drop on the upshifts. Our time for this run, with the turbo blowing fast from start, was 6.75 seconds, .27 faster than the low rpm start.
Finally, we let the driver modulate the accelerator, without trying to launch from a specific tach reading. For this run, we got our best time of 6.45 seconds. While starting with the turbo running at full speed achieved a better time than launching from idle, the car performed best when the driver was allowed to find the sweet spot of rpms, power, and gear.
In the cabin
As we would expect from the sporty version of the Impreza, the WRX includes sport seats for the driver and passenger. These seats have fixed headrests and a sculpted look that goes well with the general interior theme. The dashboard curves in to meet the center stack, somewhat like the cabin of the Subaru Tribeca. The interior also has a clean look, with few buttons marring the curving surfaces. The stack is particularly simple, only hosting HVAC controls, vents, and an LCD for the navigation and audio systems.
Subaru includes an information pod at the top of the dashboard, which shows temperature, time, and fuel economy, among other things. With the navigation option present, the LCD also shows trip computer functions, with more detail than shown in the information pod. The LCD trip computer also has an analog display that shows three animated dials indicating such things as average and instant fuel economy.
The map resolution and general graphic quality are first-rate.
The navigation system impressed us with its next-generation graphics. We've seen few navigation screens that looked this good, from the high-resolution maps to the 3D route guidance graphics. But it doesn't show enough street names, making navigating by the map difficult. The interface is very good, with a touch screen and buttons along the bezel for selecting maps, destination entry, and the audio system screens.
Beyond its pretty graphics, the navigation system stood out as one of the best we've seen because of its complete points-of-interest database, including retail establishments, and its usefulness in planning complicated trips. For each place or address you enter, you can choose to make it a waypoint or the final destination. With the waypoints, you can change their order, delete some or all, and easily enter new ones, all from a convenient list screen.
On the lower part of the LCD's bezel is a button labeled Tilt. This button lets you set an angle for the LCD, something we didn't find particularly useful, or open it up completely to reveal a disc slot. This single-disc slot handles MP3, WMA, and RedBook CDs, as well as DVDs. Yes, when the car is parked, you can actually watch DVDs on this LCD. There is also a composite video jack alongside the RCA jacks in the console, letting you plug in an MP3 player, video game, or other video device. XM satellite radio is also available. The onscreen interface makes it easy to find and select music from MP3 and WMA CDs, and satellite radio.
The in-dash disc player also handles DVDs.
Our WRX had six speakers and a subwoofer, an arrangement we're seeing in many cars these days. But what makes this audio system stand out is the equalizer and surround sound settings. The equalizer is tweakable to an insane degree, letting you actually choose specific frequencies to level up or down. You can also choose from presets for specific music genres. Although we appreciate flexibility, the equalizer is a little overboard--we would have liked an extra set of controls that let us set bass and treble levels. The surround settings also offer quite a few options, letting users choose Movie, Music, Matrix, or Dolby Pro Logic.
The upshot of all these sound options is very good audio quality. More speakers and a pumped-up subwoofer might have done the complex settings more justice. Music sounded good through this system, but not spectacular. If we had spent a few days tweaking the equalizer settings, we might have got it more to our liking, but as it was, we didn't hear highs or bass that really stood out.
Because not all the specifications on the 2008 Subaru WRX are out, we're not sure if Bluetooth cell phone integration will be offered. If it is, it will most likely be a dealer accessory.
Under the hood
Along with its international rally success, the WRX became popular as an affordable sports car. The 2008 WRX doesn't let the model down, but it isn't a great leap forward, either. The 2.5-liter intercooled and turbocharged four-cylinder engine is similar to the previous year's model, although peak 224 horsepower is reached sooner, at 2,800rpm. We were impressed by this engine's smooth power as the turbo wound up--we didn't feel a sudden turbo bump in the acceleration.
Although similar to the previous year's engine, peak horsepower now comes in earlier at 2,800rpm.
The five-speed manual transmission is also a carryover from the 2007 model. We have mixed feelings about this transmission. Because of its wide ratios it doesn't make for particularly fast launches--a short throw close ratio gearbox would do better. But since you can go from 5 to 55mph in second gear, you can keep it in second while negotiating winding mountain roads, without having to shift up to third. We ran it over the Panoramic Highway, above Stinson Beach north of San Francisco, taking it through compound S-turns with signs suggesting 15mph, finding we could let the revs wind up on the straightaways, then brake and take it through the corners, all without shifting. In our driving, we found that all the performance lies in second and third gears--fourth and fifth are for saving gas on the freeway.
Handling is a big part of the WRX's repertoire, but we weren't all that impressed by the steering response. The wheel has some looseness about it, but the all-wheel-drive compensates well enough. In our hard cornering, we never felt the tires break free, although we did feel the car drift a little. We were disturbed a bit by the body roll we felt in the corners. The WRX could use a little more reinforcement in that area.
The steering on the WRX isn't as tightly tuned as we would like.
The EPA gives the 2008 Subaru WRX 19mpg in the city and 24mpg on the highway. In heavy city traffic, we dropped below 19mpg, but our overall observed average was 20.8mpg. These numbers could probably be improved by a sixth gear, allowing better economy at freeway speeds. The WRX hasn't been rated for emissions yet.
The base price for a 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX with the satellite radio and navigation package is $28,450. A $645 destination charge brings that total up to $29,095. For less than 30 grand you're getting a sporty little car that works well as an everyday driver, except for its mediocre fuel economy. We are eager to see the STi version of this car, which might patch up some of the performance issues we found, such as body roll. Of course, we are also looking forward to seeing the next generation of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, which uses a double-clutch transmission, something that could put it way ahead of the WRX STi.
For a little more money, Subaru competes with itself with the Legacy Spec.B, an all-wheel-drive car that offers Subaru's SI drive system. For about half the money, you could also get the all-wheel-drive Suzuki SX4, although you should wait to see how well it does in World Rally Car competition.