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Impressive Impreza


The redesigned 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX has traded its youthful rough edges for a sleeker, more sophisticated ride

Does anyone out there still read Time magazine? A few weeks ago, the waning weekly put out a story that purports firstborns have a genetic predisposition to brilliance. Second out of the chute? Tough luck. Primogeniture rules.

So it seems to apply to the first Subaru WRX, a car that couldn't have been better received if Al Gore and Michael Moore made a movie about it. Bowing in 2002, the WRX racked up kudos and bon mots and even a few best-buys on its way to becoming a cultural icon for a certain set of shoppers also in the market for Xbox 360s, iPhones, near-Ivy degrees and Orange County addresses.

So what to make of the new, second-generation WRX-a more grounded version of the car that kidnapped the Subaru brand and relieved it of its uber-pragmatic, WNBA-admiring tendencies? The press has been mixed. Edmunds.com says the new WRX is "softer than before but still capable," and it's "gone mainstream." Car and Driver thinks "the WRX delivers better ride quality, but responses feel a bit less eager." Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times and the Patti LaBelle fan club laments its duller responses: "Drive it really hard and the car-previously a model of tucked-in balance-feels positively deranged."

The question here at TheCarConnection.com, now that the dust has settled elsewhere, is, has the WRX grown up too much? And by corollary, do firstborns really-and this would totally exclude us from greatness-get all the magic?

Four power to you

When it comes to powerplants, the answer is most definitely not. The new WRX puts out all the brilliant power, surging turbo boost and sounds of cut-and-thrust greatness that the first-gen car delivered in ample supply.

The first WRX used a turbo 2.0-liter four to amass 227 horsepower and 217 pound-feet of torque in its maiden year. It upgraded to a boosted 2.5-liter in the '06 model year. The new WRX carries on with a new version of that later turbocharged 2.5-liter flat four, now thrumming out 224 horsepower and 226 lb-ft for this model year. Subaru says the engine delivers more torque at a lower engine speed than before, thanks to a new intake manifold, intercooler and turbocharger. With this engine, Subaru's reached Honda heights of sweet, whistling mechanical sounds coupled with supple power delivery.

The four's power gets transmitted through either a five-speed manual transmission or-holy anachronism, Batman!-a four-speed automatic. There's nothing inherently wrong with the number of gears available, but it hardly seems right when a hauling Ford Expedition can brag about its six-speed automatic and a howling WRX claims only four. And even in the case of the clean-shifting, stubby-levered five-speed manual, there's room for improvement. Why not add a cog, get the gears tighter, and give the WRX some breathing room at the top of its cruising range?

At the end of the power food chain lies Subaru's all-wheel-drive system, which doles out power by the shovelful to 50-series, 17-inch tires.

A quick survey of the 0-60 times generated by buff books pegs the new WRX at about five and a half seconds, and a top speed of at least 140 mph. It's maybe a shade slower, but so close as to be materially undistinguished in everyday driving, from the first WRX. Of course, it's on the rare track day-or on the Internet message board-where that minor quibble turns into fierce car-freak fights, with or without Mitsu Evo fans chiming in.

You say you want an evolution?

We'll spare those Subaru versus Mitsubishi arguments for another day, but evolution is a word that turns out to haunt the new WRX in another unexpected way. Subaru has strained in the past few years to richen up and smooth out its products. The Tribeca SUV's the best example, but here now too is the WRX, which gets longer, thicker, and a touch less responsive in its quest to appeal to more than the driving-glove-and-mocs crowd.

The WRX does gain some useful room in its stretching program. The wheelbase is 3.7 inches longer than before, and headroom and rear-seat legroom are up by more than a half-inch. The first WRX wasn't as cramped as its compact dimensions seemed, but there's truly adult-sized room in the new car, for better or worse.

Where the longer body grants the biggest change is in ride quality, Subaru says. Along with a lower engine position, the WRX's center of gravity has moved down somewhat, which Subaru says works with the stiff new body and new rear multi-link suspension to improve on handling.

And that's likely going to be remembered in WRX lore as Subaru's "mission accomplished" moment. The chorus of voices from Subaru fans and enthusiast magazines and Web sites like TheCarConnection.com agrees that the new WRX isn't as crisp or sprightly as the last car. A quick inland dash from California's Interstate 5 to Monterey reveals it all-the formerly fleet WRX's responses have been dillied with. The body rolls into turns unathletically, there's a newfound squirrelly feel to the tires under extreme duress, and the steering-the paragon of great feel 'n feedback-takes a split-second to take a right-now set.

Its rawest edges have been shorn off. But the WRX does get more cargo room in the back (that new rear suspension lies flatter, and more out of the way), and thanks to framed windows, a quieter ride. There's also enough airbag coverage for every possible collision and anti-lock brakes, though stability control is not standard equipment.

Egging us on

Given the choice of two body styles, we'd take the egglike five-door WRX over the sedan almost every time. It's not quite voluptuous, but despite the Pacifica-like grille it's a smart silhouette. It's also quite Saablike, leading us to wonder if GM was involved at all in early planning, and if Saab ever was intended to get a new 9-2X from this architecture.

The four-door manages to look more banal, with a set of Suzuki-like taillamps. It's a U.S.-only body style, as hatchbacks still don't garner the kind of respect that they do in Europe. The sedan is 4.5 inches longer than before, and 6.5 inches longer than the five-door, with the trunk space to prove it-three golf bags' worth, Subaru says.

Distinguishing the WRX models from baser Imprezas are the usual trim and chrome bits. Subaru also offers an aero kit with a chrome exhaust on the five-door; four-doors get dual chrome exhausts and a rear spoiler.

Both versions cosset drivers (a word you've probably never heard before in a WRX review) with far, far nicer cockpits than most any other Subaru, save the Tribeca. A thick steering wheel offers up a clean view of the gauges, while the climate controls are big, Reese's cup-sized knobs that are easily adjusted on the move. A band of metallic plastic crests across the dash in a handsome wave. An optional navigation system and an available iPod jack appeal to the techno-savvy types who probably already have the WRX on their to-drive list.

But it's not the features, nor the creamier ride, that's supposed to entice us into a $24,995 WRX. It's supposed to be how it's glued to the road, and how it sounds when you zestfully dust off the crapheap in the lane next door. And in that respect the WRX is a lesser car than before. The singular intent has been redirected to cater to a different audience-a less numbers-driven one.

In the process, Subaru's bruised its street credentials among the car freaks a little bit. We'll let you know next week if the 305-hp STI will carry the day for Subaru as we think it's intended to, or if Evo drivers have even more to gloat about.

Meanwhile, it's time to call our siblings and remind them who got a better grade in gym.

2008 Subaru Impreza WRX

Base price: $24,995 (four-door); $25,495 (five-door)

Engine: 2.5-liter flat four, 224 hp/226 lb-ft

Length x width x height: 182.5 x 78.0 x 53.9 in

Wheelbase: 108.3 in

Curb weight: 3891-4067 lb (manual/automatic)

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 19/24 mpg (manual); 20/25 mpg (automatic)

Major standard features: Power windows/locks/mirrors; six-speaker audio system with AM/FM/CD/MP3 and RDS; steering wheel-mounted audio controls

Safety features: Dual front, side, and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction control; active head restraints; tire pressure monitors

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles


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