This article was first published in 1999.
Just about everyone into hi-po modern cars (in Australia at least) has heard about the Subaru Impreza WRX. The small/medium sized turbo flier was built to contend the World Rally Championship and earn Subaru a new image for vehicular performance worldwide - and both ambitions have been 100% satisfied. So much so that Subaru now finds itself struggling to keep up with the consumer demand for Rexes!
The first model WRX (MY94-96) burst onto the scene winning just about every rally accolade known to mankind, and it was the 'Rally on Sunday, sell on Monday' theory that was meant to make the Rex hot property. Contemporary road tests were also extremely glowing, with many stating the little WRX as the performance buy of the decade. However, WRX sales were slow to begin with, really only hotting-up when ram-raiders took to stealing the Rex and then escaping the cops with ease. Some dealers even used newspaper extracts of these exploits in their ads!
On paper the WRX's underbelly is simply a more refined and compact version of the Liberty/Legacy RS, which we've already featured in Pre-Owned Performance. It comprises MacPherson struts front and rear, dual rear links and a pair of swaybars at each end.
The constant all wheel drive system gives virtually unparalleled stability under all conditions - accelerating, cornering and braking. The latter is improved because of the drivetrain's inherent ability to equalise drivetrain speed from front to rear, which reduces the likelihood of lock-ups at either end. The brakes are discs all round (vented at the front) with the added driver control of ABS as standard. The early WRX rides on a set of pretty dull-looking 15x6 inch alloys that came factory clad in Michelin Pilot SXs. The tyres also last for quite a while too, since the car can't wheelspin or lock brakes to any real degree.
There was a choice of two bodies available - a four door sedan or a five door hatch (wagon). The weight difference between the two was minimal, both averaging around 1250kg depending on options. In either body shape, the quirky styling of the Impreza is trademark. The earlier models can be picked by their 15-inch wheels (not the later model's 16s), smoothly-styled bonnet scoop and vents, low profile rear wing (sedans) and less aggressive nose cone.
Inside, the early WRXs were very much a cut-price exercise when compared to the Liberty/Legacy and also the current model WRX. They did feature a leather wheel and knob, but the seats and trim spell "budget". The interior was well laid out and very functional however.
The beast lurking beneath the vented and scooped hood is a two litre flat four, quad cam, 16 valve, fuel injected intercooled turbo. And if you can recite the WRX's engine specs without losing your breath then its on-road performance is more than likely to have you gasping!
A static compression ratio of 8.0:1, Mitsubishi TD05 turbocharger (Oz spec) and a scoop-fed air-to-air intercooler mounted atop the engine help the Rex deliver its 155kW at 6000 rpm along with 270Nm at 4800. Once the motor is brought up on turbo boost, the car halls itself down the road just about as well as any other turbo four door ever produced - Cosworths and Integrales included.
Based on the same EJ20 turbo engine as found in the fatter Liberty/Legacy, this later model engine features revised heads (with improved port angles), bucket-type cam followers, and reduced valvetrain mass. Reliability is one of this engine's fortes - so long as it isn't given a bootfull of high boost power while the intercooler is hot. We've heard a couple of these scenarios that resulted in rattled pistons...
All of the early model Australian-delivered WRXs use a 5-speed manual gearbox that also contains the front/rear viscous drive coupling.
All wheel drive, 155kW and 1250kg - that's a potent formula in anyone's language. The early WRX could sprint to 100 km/h in the mid-high sixes and cream the quarter mile in mid-high 14s.
However, its large-ish turbo (and various other contributing factors) meant that the car did suffer from a lack of low-down torque. Cruising along at 60km/h in fifth makes the car groggy and un-responsive - it's much happier to motor along at 65 or more kays. Incidentally, that's the reason why so many WRX drivers get caught speeding - they're not just Fangio wannabes!
Around the twisties the WRX is both supremely fast and ultra forgiving. Understeer is the car's characteristic trait though. If you push into a corner too fast it is easy to get plough understeer, but with the right driving technique, much of this problem can be alleviated. Also, try letting a couple of psi out of the rear tyres to let the back end move around a bit more. Its compact body size allows you to chuck it around as if it were a small hatchback - but a 155kW hatchback with all wheel grip! The brakes are competent and resist fade quite well, but are nothing spectacular. The later model WRX has much larger front discs to improve things.
For a STi-rivalling power output simply fit a big exhaust, free-flowing intake and push the boost pressure up a little. This should be adequate for most people (0-100 in a shade over 5 seconds), but the next step should be a new intercooler to improve on the WRX's marginal standard item. Some people disagree that the early air/air core is ineffective at high boost, but note that the current model features a larger core with improved flow. APEX'i make a front mount intercooler kit that seems to work very well - most of the 12 second Rexes we've seen use this big shiny device. Another common mod to the ultra quick cars is an APEX'i roller bearing turbocharger. With these mods plus maybe a couple of other incidentals you can break into the 12s quite reliably.
Suspension-wise, the car can be improved with a front castor kit (as we've tested in AutoSpeed in our Liberty RS), a larger rear sway bar and improved damping. Another item most people think is sub-standard in the stock stereo head unit (either with or without its optional CD player). Go for a quality stacker unit and be done with it.
There's one important thing to look out for when buying a used WRX - the condition of the clutch and gearbox. The huge launching ability of the car and its total tyre grip means the poor clutch gets a pretty hard time when you're jumping off at a set of lights. For road use, the clutch is best replaced with a full faced clutch plate together with a modified standard or aftermarket pressure plate to deliver more clamping force. This maintains a smooth clutch operation and gives less chance of slippage. Worn synchros (especially on second) are another indication that the car may have been thrashed.
It is important that high quality engine oil and Subaru's own cylinder head cleaner has been used to help maintain the health of the engine. There's no need to be overly wary though, as we've seen a few EJ20 turbo engines that have done over 200,000kms without giving any problems (and still on the original turbo!).
Because it has become quite fashionable to own the current model WRX, the early model cars have dropped quite a lot off their already bargain-basement price. Expect to have to hand over A$25,000 to A$30,000 for a typical car in good condition. Those that have been already modified are usually in the same ballpark too. With the money you a probably saving when you buy an early WRX, you can afford to upgrade the interior and wheels to bring it up to better than current specs. Also, given the theft incidence of WRXs in Australia, it is extremely important to get a good immobiliser and/or alarm wired in.
Performance of Intended Role
First and foremost, the WRX was designed to be a kick-arse rally weapon. And it has truly proven to be just that! But on a more practical side it's a bargain priced performance car that offers efficient packaging, high levels of safety, reliability and quality. The ideal modern performance car blend.