Many people lament the passing of the 90’s; we were getting over the big hair and outrageous styling of the 80’s and the Internet was starting to take over encyclopaedias (Do you remember Funk & Wagnells?). In the car industry, the 90’s marked the golden age in Japanese performance vehicles. The Japanese possessed the technology and reliability to outshine their better known rivals such as BMW, Porsche and even Ferrari. Some such cars include the fabled Nissan Skyline GT-R, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Toyota Supra and Mazda RX-7. One such car was the Subaru Impreza WRX.
Starting life as a mediocre small 4 door sedan, the Subaru Impreza arrived in Australia in 1993 and did not set any hearts racing until the turbocharged WRX variant arrived in 1994. Coinciding with the beginning of Subaru’s success in the World Rally Championship (WRC), this came at a time when you could buy cars from the showroom with similar chassis and drivetrain to their racing cousins. My example for review is a 1997 GC8 Subaru Impreza WRX STI Version 3 which is the last of the homologated WRC cars with most manufacturers switching to WRC specifications, being cars that did not have to be sold in showrooms anymore. This particular version was never officially imported into Australia being only offered for sale in Japan.
The STI variant is the more hardcore WRX with upgraded engine power and suspension. The venerable EJ20 is beefed up and with more boost to give it 206kW (276HP) of power at a lofty 6500rpm and 343Nm of torque at 4000rpm all with that famous boxer burble. It has classic turbo characteristics meaning not much below 4000rpm before boost comes on strong and you get the turbo kick up the pants all the way to the 7500rpm redline. This lag is part of the charm of old turbo engines; newer cars seeing a much more linear power delivery.
All this power goes through a close ratio 5 speed manual gearbox and mechanical all wheel drive system with viscous couplings front and back. There is very little electronics on display, with no traction control, stability control or fancy torque vectoring; the STI relying on good old mechanical grip and what look like laughable 205 wide 16 inch tyres. Push it hard, and it will reward you with direct feel and nimbleness that is assisted by its light 1250kg kerb weight. For such a small car it is perhaps surprising to find it drinks as much fuel as a V8, averaging around 12L/100km and limiting the range of its 60 litre tank.
While the drivetrain is the strength of the car, the rest is unfortunately standard Impreza fare. You get a compact sedan seating 5, with nice and snug bucket seats in the front but good luck trying to squeeze 3 adults in the back. The boot has enough storage for a compact car although there is only a space saver spare. Safety is limited to anti-lock brakes and that’s it; there is not a single airbag in sight. Comfort arrives in the form of climate control air conditioning and a woeful 4 speaker sound system that sounds like people yelling through cups and string. The dash and trim is just full of uninspiring grey plastic and clunky switch gear with no real sporting suggestions apart from a balanced Nardi steering wheel and carbon fibre inlay in the instrument cluster. All this is forgotten once you find a stretch of twisty road and start grinning from ear to ear.
Given the brief of finding an exciting 4 door sedan of this vintage, there is very little competition. Its direct competitor is the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution which sadly was only released in Australia in limited numbers from 1999. The other issue is that many of these cars have gone through the Japanese tuning scene with modifications such as changes to the exhaust, turbo, injectors and intercooler. This could mean they have had a hard life and you should budget for repairs and replacement parts. Although the GC8 Impreza is quite old, its popularity has meant that there is still a number of aftermarket parts available.
A fairly good condition WRX of 1994 to 2000 vintage will set you back between $5-10,000.00 and the STI variant $13-20,000.00 depending on age and condition.