Subaru WRX (2003)

"The WRX was designed to get the 'Car Club for Men' crowd to buy more Subarus.
Good: good traction, headlights automatically turn off
Bad: little low end power, difficult to shift


This car turned out to be an interesting one for us. There's been a lot of "buzz" about this car among what we'd call the "Car Club for Men" (who will inevitably deluge us with e-mail now, questioning our parentage and nighttime preferences -- have at it boys). People describe the WRX as a "rally car." You've probably seen the TV ads with teen-aged boys laughing and joking as the WRX careens at high speed and flies off into the dust-covered sunset. Frankly, we were prepared to hate this car. We're generally opposed to cars that--as their primary attribute-- have a huge amount of power and encourage their owners to drive like whack jobs.

So it came as a great surprise to us that we hated this car for exactly the opposite reason. It's a dog. While the engine has plenty of horsepower, much of it comes from turbo boost, which doesn't kick in until you're pretty far up there in the revs. So if you try to drive this car like a normal, sane person--around town, for instance--it can't get out of its own way.

It's particularly slow off the mark, from a stop. Once the turbo really kicks in, past 3,000 RPMs or so, the WRX takes off. If you like to drive like that--revving it way up in each gear--you'll find the WRX exciting. But if you're just driving around town, you'll rarely rev the engine that high. And what have you got then? An overweight Subaru Impreza (3,165 pounds). That's not an awful thing, as the Impreza is a practical, reliable little car. But it won't be what you expect after seeing the TV ads.

On the plus side, the WRX corners very well. With the standard all-wheel-drive system, the low center of gravity of the boxer engine, and decent Subaru suspension, the WRX feels pretty well glued to the road when you take corners. The AWD also offers traction in bad weather-- another big plus.

We had several issues with the manual transmission in our test WRX. First, you'll find yourself shifting a lot, because--as we described--there's very little low-end power. Make a slow turn like you might do going around a corner in town, and you'll often have to downshift into first gear. Try continuing on in second gear and you'll end up rocking back and forth, trying to help the car get moving. After a while, we assure you, this will be a real pain in the driver's seat. To make matters worse, we found it difficult to shift our test car into first gear. It had to be forced, and since we had to shift into first gear often, it became annoying. And last, but not least, we have to comment on the shift knob. The shift knob has evolved over the last 100 years or so to be round, and fit nicely into the palm of the human hand. But Subaru decided to build the WRX shifter for drivers with flat palms. The shift knob is shaped like a thimble. It's fashionable, it's different, but it cuts into your palm. Dumb idea, guys.

Except for a few stylistic changes and the aforementioned shift thimble, the WRX interior is essentially the same as the Subaru Impreza, which is practical and fairly roomy for a compact car. Leg room and shoulder room are adequate. It's a little pinched, but not bad. There's not a lot of cargo space in the back of the WRX five-door -- room for, say, a dog or two in the back (not that we ever have dogs in our test cars, mind you). We do find five-door hatchbacks particularly utilitarian, as they allow access to whatever room there is. But show up with a WRX on carpool day and your buddies may start to groan.

Ergonomically speaking, all the controls were pretty much where you would expect them to be and were easy to use. We liked the fact that the lights turned off when you turn off the car ignition -- even if the switches are left on. We still don't know why every car manufacturer doesn't design their headlight controls this way, but Subaru is one of the few who do. Thank you, Subaru.

One oddity: In a nod to "rally" styling, Subaru has glued a "turbo boost gauge" to the steering column, in front of the dashboard (between the dashboard and the steering wheel). They've intentionally given it an "add on" look, even leaving the wiring exposed out the back of it. We have no particular opinion on this. It's there for styling, but it's perfectly usable there. If you like it, fine.


The Impreza is not a bad-looking car, but Subaru couldn't resist adding the "high-school parking lot package" with the hood scoop and spoiler, which makes it slightly embarrassing to be seen in if you're over 25. Overall, though, we like the hatchback/wagon style of the Impreza.


We've found the Impreza to be great in terms of reliability. However, if you drive this car the way the turbo suggests it should be driven- that is, fast and hard -- we suspect this engine will suffer from premature wear and tear.


Like the regular Impreza, servicing is straightforward. Because of the turbo, however, there is less room to work and, therefore, maintenance will take longer and will be slightly more costly.

The WRX was designed to get the "Car Club for Men" crowd to buy more Subarus. They've taken a practical, reliable economy car with all-wheel drive, and dropped an engine in it that allows you to go real fast if you want to. If you like to rev up to 4,000 or 4,500 RPMs between every shift, you'll probably enjoy this car. But because you have to drive that way to enjoy the car, we caution anyone who doesn't drive like a knucklehead to take a pass on the WRX. The standard Impreza is a better choice, in our humble opinion. Or if AWD isn't a top priority, a Mini or VW Golf is more fun to drive on a day-to-day basis.

Now, if you'll excuse us, we have some nasty e-mail to read.


[ Test DriveNotes Index ]

2 003
Make and Model: 
Old url: