Originally created 09/30/05

WRX sedan balances power, civility



All-wheel drive is popular on sport utility vehicles and trucks, and it has been surfacing as a feature to improve traction and handling of luxury cars.

But even buyers of the smallest sedans - subcompacts -can get all-wheel drive, and they don't have to spend $30,000 to get it.

Subaru is the only brand to make all-wheel drive standard on every vehicle sold in the United States.

This includes the subcompact Subaru Impreza line where the starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $18,920 for a five-passenger Impreza 2.5i sedan with manual transmission.

For 2006, Imprezas also have more powerful engines, exterior styling updates, more safety equipment than their predecessors and a first-ever three-sedan selection of the Impreza WRX sporty trim level.

Suzuki is the only other brand to offer all-wheel drive on an under-$20,000, subcompact sedan. Subaru Imprezas are available as both sedans and wagons.

The top of the line WRX STI has become a cult car among young men who like its expressive styling and 300-horsepower four-cylinder engine with high-boost turbocharger.

The 2006 WRX sedan that was the test car seemed to strike a nice balance of spunky power and ride comfort.

Styling of all Imprezas now incorporates a three-section, mesh grille with more prominent headlights. In back, there are new tail lamps.

But the real news is the power. The base, 2.5-liter, naturally aspirated, horizontally opposed "boxer" four cylinder develops 173 horsepower, up a bit from 165, because of the addition of a valve lift system.

The Imprezas that are the next step up, the WRX models, have a new engine altogether. It's a 230-horsepower, 2.5-liter, intercooled and turbocharged boxer four-cylinder capable of 235 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm.

This is more than the previous 217-horsepower, 2-liter turbo four with 217 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. And the change is noticeable, right at startup.

The test WRX sedan with five-speed manual seemed to be ready to run and didn't need much time to get up to speed and effortlessly zip along.

There was a bit of turbo lag at times, as I stepped on the gas and waited for the power to come on. But once it did, there was strong power delivery.

Best of all, the all-wheel drive helped manage how that power moved the wheels. In so many small cars, a rush of power can make the wheels spin and squeal and sometimes jerk the steering wheel to one side, but there was none of this in the sedan as power was split among four wheels, not just two.

There also was a decent responsiveness through a wide rpm range, so I didn't have to drive the WRX only in the noisy, high revs.

I could enjoy a more quiet ride and still anticipate some power boost when I wanted.

The test sedan didn't include a turbo boost gauge so I couldn't monitor visually inside the vehicle when the turbo was tapped. Subaru said a boost gauge can be installed by a dealer.

Note that the WRX requires 91 octane fuel, which in this day of high gasoline prices can mean $50 or more to fill the 15.9-gallon tank. That's a hefty sum for a subcompact car, but spokesman Dominick Infante said premium fuel is best for the turbocharged engine.

Fuel economy isn't as high as in some other small cars. It's 20 or 21 miles a gallon in city driving, depending on whether the car has a manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The car's highway rating is 26 mpg.

The sedan handled easily, with a taut-feeling, sport suspension that didn't make the ride too jarring. There were vibrations that came through nearly all the time, and I felt the impact of the car going over manhole covers.

But overall, the four-wheel independent MacPherson strut front and rear suspension managed the car's motions stably and allowed for sporty handling without being overly aggressive. That kind of ride is still left to the WRX STI.

Four-wheel disc brakes worked well on the test sedan. As on a sports car, their bright red calipers were visible through the spokes of the wheels.

There was considerable road noise that came through via the 17-inch tires, though, and I heard wind noise coming from around the outside mirrors when I traveled on the highway.

The WRX continues to have a wimpy, small-car horn, and the trunk lid doesn't have any padding, so it can feel lightweight and sound tinny when the trunk is slammed shut.

Trunk space is 11 cubic feet, which is about par for subcompact sedans.