It all began the morning of Australia Day 2014 when an old high-school friend phoned to invite me to a day of kayaking he had planned down on the coast. The idea of sunny paddling seemed more attractive than productive work illuminated only by my computer screen, so I considered the invitation for exactly three-tenths of a second before making my way to the shed to remove my dusty kayak from the rafters.
It wasn't until it was on the ground that I realised I didn't actually have any method of transporting the vessel. My Fiat X1/9 was still in the middle of a lengthy restoration, so attention turned to my Mazda MX5. The situation resembled one of those awkward corporate team-building exercises, but no matter how many ways I approached the problem I just couldn't find a way of affixing the kayak on/in/behind the MX5.
I phoned and cancelled my attendance, and ended up that night slumped in front of the tellie with a bottle of wine watching a re-run of Top Gear where Richard Hammond was sliding an old WRX hatch through the wilds of Africa. That's what I need, one of them!
The fascination with Rexes was hardly new, mind you. I was a wide-eyed ten-year-old at the height of WRX madness in the late 90's; I spent hours taping rally broadcasts from channel Ten's RPM program as Cody Crocker slid his GC8 to endless third places behind the WRC weapons of Possum Bourne and Neal Bates. I filled all of our floppy disc drives with WRX pictures painstakingly downloaded on our dial-up connection, and I even tried desperately to convince my elderly Grandpa to buy one when he was shopping for a car.
As a ten-year old they were always out of reach, but sixteen years later I felt it only right to finally reward that little kid. It took me a fair while to find the one I bought – a red MY98 WRX hatch with a full history in stock condition, purchased from its first owner. I finally had a WRX of my own.
I love that the early WRX is a proper homologation special from a time when the fastest factory rally weapons were directly developed from models that anyone with forty grand could buy. That distinctive bonnet scoop feeds fresh air to the intercooler, which is mounted above the engine, protected from stones and rocks. A big turbo means noticeable lag under 3000rpm in the road car, but that is justified by the bigger turbo that could then be homologated for the rally cars. The name is even related – World Rally eXperimental. It isn't properly fast by modern standards, although this probably says more about the constant march of technology than anything else, but the WRX will still cover ground remarkably well if you have a healthy disregard for your license.
It's somewhat ironic that the things I love most about it are also what make it ultimately unsatisfying. The WRX was conceived with one goal; the pursuit of speed above all else, to win the World Rally Championship and to take the performance fight to the likes of Porsche at a quarter of the cost. It's a competent car but it delivers speed in a rather clinical way, and it masks pace so effectively that you feel no emotion at sane velocities.
It flatters the driver, allowing you to use the power and grip to hide any hamfistedness. It's instantly gratifying, like getting a high score playing Hey Joe in Guitar Hero, but that doesn't make you Hendrix all of a sudden. I prefer cars that demand perfection from the driver, requiring smoothness of inputs and ultimate accuracy. The MX5 was like that – miss an apex by even a few metres and the rhythm is ruined, but get it right and it's the best feeling in the world.
The WRX excelled as a daily companion that could put a smile on your face, but could also fit in your friends and even your kayak. It was the ultimate budget all-rounder. As long as you save a little extra cash for the inevitable fuel bills it's a comfortably everyday car with adequate speed when required.
My job now comes with a company car and I'm not finding the WRX thrilling enough to be a proper weekend car, so it's up for sale. I'm glad I tried it for a while though. Sometimes you have to indulge those childhood fantasies.