Impreza is impressive

Thursday, July 12, 2001 at 1:00am

Those old boys at Fuji Heavy Industries, my favorite car company, have outdone themselves. They do things about as normal as having Jennifer Lopez design new habits for the resident nuns in a convent.

Fuji Heavy's got this new Subaru, and at first glance, it looks like a car for persons who've taken vows of poverty. They named it Impreza WRX. I thought it had to be an acronym I was supposed to figure out. I tried the active words like `Wild Rambunctious eXpress,' `We're Really eXciting' and `When Riots eXplode.' I tried the passive words like `Why Run eXcessively,' `Whattaya Really eXpect, and `Wimpy Raspy eXcuse.'

Do these letters have a meaning or are they the results of a Fuji Heavy late night Sake keg party where three non-English-speaking winners each pick one letter at random from the English alphabet?

The driving experience raised even more questions, such as `how in the name of U.S. protectionism did this little rocket ever get into the country?' Here sits an unpretentious little subcompact four-door sedan. In reality, it has the power of a category three hurricane in the guise of a gentle breeze. Who'll ever suspect this small econobox is armed and ready for a street brawl?

Fuji Heavy thinks car stylists are sissies and they don't much go for show-off macho things like silly wing spoilers on the trunk. Oh, sure, there are some, but I bet the American distributors demanded them. All right, so it's got a largish scoop on the hood, but it's functional, not cosmetic. The only visible hint of performance are clutch, brake and accelerator pedals done in drilled shiny metal.

The flat-four, or boxer-type engine, has two liters, turbocharged to 14.2 pounds per square inch. The engine is 227 horsepower, redlined at 7,000 rpm. That's 13.76 measly pounds per horsepower in a full-time four-wheel-drive vehicle. Yes, there is turbo lag, but when revs reach 3,500, things really happen.

Front and rear wheels get equal torque, but a limited slip center differential transfers more torque to the wheels that need it. As far as the driver is concerned, you never feel a thing. Power through a corner and you can hang the rear end out if you want to, but it is never abrupt, you always get ample warning. This is a driving thrill few cars can offer.

Steering feel is ideal, and the five-speed manual transmission is better than most and almost as good as the Hyundai Elantra. The seats have marvelous lateral support. They hold you in place and let you drive.

I don't have the equipment to accurately measure 0 to 60 times, but Car and Driver magazine reports 5.8 seconds for the WRX, which is faster than a $47,000 Porsche Boxter, a $40,000 BMW 330i, a $43,000 Audi TT Quattro or a $31,000 Chrysler 300M. That's fast company.

The WRX is not a stripped-down racer, but it's refreshingly simpler than more expensive cars, which get carried away with gee-whiz tricks like repositioning the seats and mirrors every time you get out, or computers that remind you it's time to change the air in your tires. (The new Cadillac DHS radio took me two days to figure out how to turn it off, and I aced algebra, geometry and physics.)

WRX doesn't have power seats, OnStar GPS or cellular phone plugs, but it does have power steering, windows, mirrors, leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel, remote keyless door locks, air, cruise, and an in-dash AM/FM stereo cassette/CD changer with six speakers. I could turn on the radio and even operate the HVAC controls without looking in the owner's manual.

The all-black interior is refreshingly business-like, with fabric upholstery, carpets and a spacious center console with cupholder. Another cupholder slides out of the dash. Rear seat legroom is adequate for two adults around town but might get close on longer trips. A center armrest folds down for a good sized pass-through to the trunk.

This is a street version of Fuji Heavy's dominating World Rally Championship racers. I've never driven a European rally. A friend and I once took a Don Yenko competition prepared Corvair Monza to Europe to run some rallies. At the Tour of Corsica, when we got off the boat, Swedish Rally Champion Eric Carlsson took one look at it and said "It won't go through the narrow stone bridges." That was that for my rally career.

I'm happy to get to drive a WRX, but what I really want is to charge off hairy-flatters in a Subaru rally car on those European roads. Should I call those old boys at Fuji Heavy? They've been known to do some wacky things, such as sending high performance subcompact sedans to America when nobody else will.

2002 SUBARU IMPREZA

As tested, $24,520

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