In America, Subaru first made its reputation with solidly built and practical but not very exciting cars like the Legacy. There was a brief bit of fun with the BRAT compact pickup in the 1970s and ‘80s, but Americans mostly had to watch the coolest Subarus from afar, as the street versions of Colin McRae’s killer blue and yellow Group A rally car didn’t come to our shores. The first WRX (“World Rally eXperimental”) versions of Subaru’s compact Impreza sedan came out in 1992 with stiffer suspension and more power, and in 1994 an even hotter version by Subaru’s in-house skunkworks STi (Subaru Tecnica International) debuted. It wasn’t until 2002, though, that a WRX came to the States on the platform of the second gen Impreza.
Called the "Bugeye" due to its circular headlights, the WRX had polarizing looks but nobody could deny the performance. The 227 horsepower, rally-bred all-wheel drive system, 5-speed manual and even a Momo steering wheel packaged in a roomy but compact Civic-sized sedan turned the performance car world on its ear. “Simply said, the WRX rocks” said Motor Trend. “This car does it all, and does it well: It’s quick and agile, gets great fuel mileage, seats five, and doesn’t penalize your pocket for wanting it all, and getting it all, in one car.” With the right tires it could even handle driving in the snow with ease, and with Subaru winning the World Rally Championship in 2001 and 2003, owners could rightly say they had a rally winner for the road.
In 2004, the WRX got a facelift with more conventional “blob eye” headlights, but the biggest news for that year was the arrival of the arrival of the WRX STi, which cranked everything in the WRX up a notch and arrived just in time to take on the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII. The STi featured a larger 2.5-liter engine with variable valve timing and 300 horsepower, Brembo brakes, a quicker steering ratio, a 6-speed gearbox and even more advanced all-wheel drive. Aside from the not-so-subtle STi badges, the massive rear wing and hood scoop were other dead giveaways that this was a step above. Decidedly sportier, the STi didn’t even come standard with a radio.
In a comparison test against the arch-rival Lancer Evo, Car and Driver described the STi as “an awfully nice piece, with bulldog-tough looks, greyhound speed, and pit-bull grip.” The test also found that the more powerful STi’s 4.6-second 0-60 time was faster than the Evo, its engine had smoother power delivery with less turbo lag, and it had a better ride. On the other hand, reviewers found the Mitsubishi easier to drive at the limit and that it had livelier handling with less tendency to understeer.
For 2006, the WRX got another facelift, which earned it the “hawk eye” nickname, and the base WRX got a larger 2.5-liter engine. Curiously, for 2005-06 Swedish carmaker Saab also sold its own rebodied version of the WRX as the 9-2X Aero, aka the “Saabaru.” After 2007, the third gen Impreza carried the WRX torch into the future, but it’s the first 2002-07 cars that really brought Americans into the sporty Subaru fold. One rare late model to look out for is the STi Limited, of which 800 sold in the U.S. with a lip spoiler instead of the boy racer rear wing, a leather interior and more sound deadening material.
Any WRX or STi was properly quick right out of the box, especially in its day, but they were of course highly popular in the tuner world. Amateurish mods, hard driving, track time, high mileage and crashes have taken their toll on many WRXs. They can take abuse, so a lot of them have. Buyers would be wise to shop for the lowest-mile, best-maintained, least modified example they can find, even if it means paying a little extra. Subaru paint quality was not great on these cars, and anyone familiar with the squeaks and rattles inside a Corvette will feel right at home in a Subaru. Relatively low running costs and Subaru reliability, on the other hand, make such things easier to forgive. Tired old jokes about vaping and Monster energy drinks aside, these are seriously rewarding cars to drive and own that will haul groceries and a few friends but also keep up with much more expensive and exotic cars when the foot goes to the floor.