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Despite its current prominence in international rallying (and let’s face it, Colin McRae, in particular, has sometimes aroused the habitually disinterested national press), Subaru’s road cars never have had a particularly high profile in the UK.

The last example of the breed we tested (in February 1993) was the 2.0, turbocharged, four-wheel drive Legacy, since usurped on Forestry Commission land by the more compact (and already successful) Impreza Turbo 2000 4WD, though the Legacy range continues to be available for road users.

Simply looking at the road version of the Impreza is enough to make you think that it is already Subaru’s most desirable model. Available as a roomy four-door saloon (tested here) and five-door hatch/estate, it is prettier than the Legacy, but it retains the latter’s 0-car charm. Only the aggressive front end treatment (bonnet louvres and giant fog lamps) offer any clues to the car’s true purpose.

But. . .

With permanent four-wheel drive and a top speed of 140 mph, its obvious rivals, on road and stage, are the Ford Escort Cosworth, the departed, but still magnificent, Lancia integrale and the Toyota Celica GT4. The last three are all similarly potent, yet all are far more expensive.

Why?

To some extent, you get what you pay for. Although the Impreza’s cabin isn’t exactly basic, neither is it remotely inviting. Equipment levels are adequate, save for the absence of Recaro-standard seats, which is most noticeable when the Gs are loaded up. While the standard items are comfortable and a good driving position is attainable, even for tall drivers, via the height-adjustable steering column the absence of side bolsters and inadequate support under the knees is all too apparent, Accommodation is generous in all areas and five adults can comfortably be located. You can’t say that for some of the Impreza’s rivals. The workmanlike interior, dominated by the ugly, air-bag retentive steering wheel is typical of old-school Japanese design, with rather dull tones of grey cloth offset against

cheap plastic. Although the controls are ergonomically sound and the instruments perfectly legible, there are even fewer internal clues to the Impreza’s pace than there are external. As an aside, don’t leave valuables in this car there is no security alarm, though an immobiliser is standard. If you want hard evidence of performance, look beneath the lightweight bonnet: you’ll find a longitudinally-mounted, aluminium, flat four, quad-cam, 16-valve engine which has been tweaked considerably since it first saw service in the Legacy. The upgrade includes an air-cooled intercooler, which has whipped power up from

197 bhp to a more competitive 208/6300 rpm. Likewise, torque is up from 193 lb ft to 201/4800 rpm. With these mods and the Impreza’s lighter, more rigid bodyshell. Subaru claims 0-62 mph acceleration in 6.6s (significantly quicker than the Legacy), but our test car actually felt even faster. Sadly, time constraints prevented our being able to conduct a fully calibrated check.

The five-speed gearbox is similar to the Legacy’s, but the four-wheel-drive system has been much revised. Torque is continually varied, laterally and longitudinally, according to available grip in the prevailing conditions.

The chassis is barely different to that on lesser 1mprezas, featuring little more than uprated dampers and springs. MacPherson struts all round, combined with trailing arms at the rear, form the basis of the suspension set-up. Needless to say, for a car with this performance, the front brake discs are ventilated and assisted by a four-channel ABS system. Engine-speed related powerassisted steering is standard.

If the Legacy was not as inspiring as a Sapphire Cosworth to drive, the Impreza’s smaller dimensions certainly promise more.

However, when you examine the prerequisites of ‘driveability’ (responsiveness, a flat torque curve and wide power band), the Impreza’s flat four doesn’t exactly appear tailor-made, leastways on paper. It is rare for even the most advanced turbocharged engine to provide razor-sharp responses or pull from low revs, but at least

the lmpreza’s delivery is pretty smooth and it becomes ever more willing as the revs rise.

That said, there are noticeable phases in the unit’s progress. Floor the accelerator and initial lag is superseded by a sudden kick when the turbo whirrs in at around 2500 rpm. Then, at about 5000 rpm, when you’d expect the power to be tailing off, it gets its second wind, pulling strongly to the red line. If you’re caught off-guard in a high gear at low revs, then no amount of throttle stamping will bring anything other than a tardy response. This is an engine which thrives on being revved and is unwilling to idle at the behest of a lazy driver. However, if you wish to make less frantic progress, the four-pot is flexible enough to hold its own.

The chassis dynamics will bring a smile to your face. The Impreza is as easy to drive as it is on the eye, a sharpish clutch being the only noticeable concession to power. The brakes can grab a little if used without sensitivity at low speeds, but otherwise the short nose and ample vision, assisted steering, excellent driving position and amazingly light gearchange make urban driving a doddle, Refinement cannot be faulted. There’s little wind noise, but enough sound from the engine to keep you awake on motorways, and everything bar obvious pot holes are adequately absorbed. Surely something that rides this well cannot be Sporting enough to be entertaining?

Wrong!

Show the Impreza some interesting roads and the sweet flat four’s novel bark implores you to remain closer to the rev limit (7000 rpm) for much longer than would be to tolerable in, for example, a Cosworth (redlined at 6000). This is no roller skate as the body roll consistently reminds you but if you take the Impreza by the horns it will obey your commands in rewarding fashion. Forget about sloppy understeer (though it does so, mildly); only well-sorted tiddlers such as Renault’s Clio Williams can offer significantly better turn-in.

The short wheelbase makes the chassis very throttle-sensitive, and one feels that the car would perform better on gravel, which requires a more flowing driving style than tarmac. When confidence is up and vision is ideal, great fun can be had setting the car up for a series of tight corners even with its high level of grip.

If you’re quick with the light steering, you can have oodles of fun without undue drama. Subaru has retained (just) enough steering communication and kept extremes of lock to a compact minimum. The nose will tuck-in if you lift-off when cornering at speed, and the tail returns to the chosen line with a little more throttle application and, possibly, a whiff of opposite lock if you’ve gone way over the top.

Its poise and grip isn’t limited to the tight stuff. The Impreza’s mile-eating capability over super-fast terrain is almost awesome.

There aren’t many cars the sane side of 50 grand that could leave an Impreza far behind; most of those that could would be hard-pushed to keep up on tighter, narrower roads.

Stopping this formidable machine also inspires confidence, though it is no match for an Escort Cosworth in the braking department.

The transmission is the main dynamic flaw: the gearchange is not the smoothest we have encountered, and there is often a trace of clutch judder. Also, there was an intermittent tendency for the engine to behave as though it was being starved of fuel if ever you backed off the throttle abruptly.

Verdid

RRB The Subaru Impreza Turbo 2000 4WD is a no-nonsense performance saloon, utterly devoid of frills and gimmicks. Yes, the interior is dull, but at least it is comfortable. If you’re looking for something a little more extrovert, the aforementioned rivals will further demolish your bank balance to the tune of anything between £7000 and, in the

case of the Celica GT4, £12,000 .

Add Subaru’s three-year unlimited mileage warranty and acceptable fuel consumption (we achieved 28.3 mpg overall, and that involved almost exclusive hard use), and you have probably the best performance bargain around right now.

More than that, the Subaru Impreza is also a modern Japanese automobile in an extreme minority.

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