Lifestyle

Subaru's Lesson for Detroit


Wrxwagon_2006
Editor's Rating: star rating

The WRX Sport Wagon is the sort of car U.S. auto makers can't quite seem to build: fast, fun, and full of value

When you're behind the wheel of a Subaru station wagon, it's hard to figure out how the SUV craze ever got started in the first place. Subarus come in a variety of sizes and degrees of ruggedness, and all have standard all-wheel drive that powers them through snow, ice, and mud almost as well as any SUV. They're also safe, reasonably priced and reliable. They get better gas mileage than most SUVs, and are roomy enough to fill the needs of most people 95% of the time. Some of them are even a blast to drive.

A case in point: the 2006 WRX Sport Wagon, a speedy version of the Subaru Impreza with a supercharged engine that really gets a driving enthusiast's adrenaline flowing. The WRX isn't the most practical Subaru you can buy. Last summer, when I was choosing practical cars for college students, I went with the basic Impreza instead (see BW Online, 8/30/05, "Impreza: Zip on the Cheap"). But when I had a chance to choose the Subaru I really wanted, I had to go with the WRX.

POWER AND STYLE.

There aren't many cars on the market that can match the WRX's combination of low price and great performance. I can't think of a small SUV that comes close. The most basic WRX sedan starts out at $24,620, but if you're looking for an SUV alternative you'll probably want the WRX Sport Wagon, with a base price of $25,120.

My test car, the WRX Limited wagon, which has such luxury features as heated leather seats, starts at $27,520. (If you're a real performance nut you can go with the Porsche-fast STI version of the WRX sedan, which starts at $33,620. But, hey, let's be practical.)

Whichever model you choose, it's a pretty penny to pay for a small station wagon. But this isn't just any small station wagon. That's obvious from the big muscle-car-style air-scoop on the hood. As of the 2006 model year, the WRX got a 2.5-liter, 230-horsepower engine. In terms of horsepower, the new engine is only marginally bigger than the previous one, but it delivers far more torque at lower speeds. The result? The '06 WRX jumps from 0 to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds.

The WRX doesn't lack for creature comforts, either. The interiors of all Imprezas were upgraded as of the 2005 model year, and they're cleanly designed and functional, if not particularly fancy. With the leather upholstery and trim, the WRX's interior actually verges on being luxurious.

EASY TO CONTROL.

The controls remain uncomplicated and simple to use. The speedometer and other basic functions are enclosed in a cluster of three plain, easy-to-read chrome-rimmed circles. You control the heater and air conditioner temperature, air flow and fan settings by (wonder of wonders!) turning three large knobs in the center stack. You can turn each function on and off by pushing the same knobs. Why other carmakers have gone with fancier, but far more complicated electronic controls is beyond me.

Most of the equipment you need comes with the WRX at the base price. In addition to all-wheel drive, turbocharged engine and heated leather seats, standard equipment on the WRX Limited includes a power moon roof, sport-tuned suspension, cruise control, front-side airbags, 17-inch spoked alloy wheels, a six-CD changer, and sporty looking aluminum floor pedals. Oversized antilock disk brakes are also standard, and the big red calipers are very cool looking through the wheel spokes. As you'd expect with a Subaru, the wipers and defrosters are effective at clearing heavy snow off the windows, and heated and power-adjustable exterior mirrors are standard.

The WRX is also practical, especially if you go with the wagon rather than the sedan. As with any compact car, the rear seats are a little cramped. But with the seats up, there's still more than 20 cubic feet of storage space in back, about as much as in the trunk of a medium-sized sedan. There are also some handy little hidden storage spaces under the rear deck. And with the rear seats folded down, storage space expands to more than 60 cubic feet.

PAYING THE PRICE.

Like other Subarus, the WRX does very well in winter driving. The only problem I had was that the engine is so powerful it's hard to avoid spinning the wheels and sliding a bit on ice. I'd recommend putting snow tires on the car for winter driving.

Going with the turbocharged engine reduces fuel efficiency. The WRX wagon is rated to get 20 miles per gallon in the city and 26 on the highway (not particularly good for a small wagon), and uses pricey premium gasoline.

Another downside is that the only automatic transmission the WRX comes with is an unrefined four speed. I would definitely recommend going with the manual transmission on a sporty car like this, though the one on my test car wasn't as tight as the stick shift on, say, the Volvo S40 (see BW Online, 1/25/06, "A Hot Volvo for a Cold Road"). It would probably help a lot to go with the short-throw shifter, a $345 option that my test WRX didn't have.

CATCH UP.

Whenever I get behind the wheel of a Subaru, I start wondering why the Detroit auto makers don't make more cars like them. The closest Detroit model to a small Subaru wagon I can think of is the Pontiac Vibe. It's made in a joint venture with Toyota (TM), so its quality is pretty good. But it doesn't come in a performance version like the WRX.

Come on Detroit, gasoline prices aren't likely to fall anytime soon. Let's see fewer big SUVs, and more cars like Subarus.

Thane Peterson reviews cars for BusinessWeek.com.

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