Viscous coupling

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Lancia’s Integrale, long reigning king of the rally developed road car, faces its stiffest challenger yet – the Subaru Impreza turbo 2000. Andrew Frankel reports

The people at Prodrive, the Banbury-based organisation that prepares and runs Subaru’s World Rally cars, really wanted to win the Portuguese rally. In itself, there is nothing unusual about this; Prodrive, of them all, was not there just to make up the numbers. But Portugal was different; if either of its Subaru Imprezas had been first across the line, Subaru would have equalled the Lancia Integrale’s record of six straight championship wins and, with it, established a credible claim to being one of the two most successful rally cars of all time. In the event, it never came to this as, in a rally of unusual mechanical destruction, neither Impreza would even see the finishing line, much less be first to cross it.

Yet even now, in the midst of Subaru’s domination, it seems hard at first to square a marque of such traditionally humble and functional aspirations with the rallying greats such as Saab, Audi and, above all, Lancia. We should not be so patronising. Subaru has not been content, like Skoda, to leave its giant-killing to the special stage. It is after the legendary status of the Integrale on the public road too.

The Subaru Impreza Turbo 2000 seems an unlikely device to replace the Integrale in the affections of those who, throughout its years at the top of the world rally rankings, fell in love with the little Lancia and bought it despite the limitations of its left-hand drive only layout.

Place an Integrale — any will do, but the last, Evolution 3 model, is the best — next to an Impreza and the Subaru looks more than faintly ridiculous. It seems so tall as to be on tip-toes, its humdrum tin box styling curiously at odds with its dramatic bonnet scoops and louvres. Pretty it is not. The inside hardly helps. Certainly the steering wheel is on the correct side of the car, which is something, but this does nothing to offset the murky cabin with its dark grey expanses, plain switchgear and dull instruments. Here you will and nothing, save an unconvincing hole in each of the front seatbacks to accommodate a race harness, to suggest that this is anything more than one more anonymous, four-door, family slogger.

The Integrale could not he more different. There is not another car in the world whose essential shape would benefit so much from the pumped up addenda that surround the Lancia. Spats, slats, scoops and wings cloud the lines Giugiaro penned for the Delta almost to the point of complete obscurity, but where you might expect the results of such bastardisation to be a caricature, it is, in fact a marvel. Low and squat on its special Bilstein struts, this Integrale exudes purpose like few road cars at any price. Stop anywhere for even a short period of time and passers by will stop. And they will stare.

The inside, frankly, is a mess but still a wonderfully enigmatic mess. Where the Subaru makes do with minimal instrumentation, the Lancia provides dials for oil pressure, oil temperature, volts and turbo-boost pressure, doubling the number of gauges in the Subaru. Here too you’ll find such dubious delights as electric window switches by the handbrake, three column stalks, and a clock where the roof meets the windscreen.

Yet the things that matter, as is so often the case with cars of such Italian eccentricity, are right. There’s more legroom here than boasted by the Subaru, and easier heel and toe downchanges afforded by the perfectly placed pedals. The steering wheel, sadly and misguidedly smaller than those of earlier Integrales, still feels lovely to hold and look at, in a way the airbagged circular blob Subaru provides fails entirely to emulate. Climb aboard the Integrale, strap yourself in and you feel immediately ready for action. Do the same in the Subaru and you’re as likely to feel inclined to head for the nearest Sainsburys.

Creating this homespun impression is the Impreza’s best trick. Anyone could be fooled into thinking it a mildly warmed saloon, born to fight it out with tepid Vectras and Mondeos. And it is only when you have run it to the red-line in the early gears, looked in the mirror and seen just how far behind the Integrale lags that you realise that the Impreza, this Impreza at least, was born for rather greater things than it might at first suggest.

Make no mistake, a Subaru Impreza Turbo 2000 is formidably fast, proving an urge that’s not only stronger than that of this fastest of road-going Integrales but one which arrives earlier and lasts longer, too. Side by side you’d never think the Subaru would be quicker but, in the event, it’s not even a contest. There are two factors at play here. Both cars deploy 2-litre, turbocharged, twin-cam 16-valve engines, the Lancia’s noted most for its beautifully smooth manners thanks to its counter-rotating balancer shafts, the Subaru’s for the rasping exhaust note resulting from its flat-four configuration. Of the two, it is the Integrale which is more powerful, providing 215bhp compared to the 208bhp of the Impreza; so you’ll not find the source of the Subaru’s extra urge here.

It’s all in the kerb weight. Bald statistics show the Integrale bludgeoning the scales at a fraction less than 3000lb, while the Subaru, seemingly the bigger car, is fully 500lb lighter. Which means the more powerful Lancia has 159bhp for every tonne of weight while the Impreza provides 186bhp per tonne.

Which is not to say the Subaru has it all its own way. The Integrale engine, the final development of the twincam engine once found in the Fiat 132, is a fine motor, providing smoother delivery of its torque than the Impreza whose power can come in with a bit of bang if you are not careful with throttle. It also has fractionally the better gearchange though its innately tall and wide ratios suit the turbo engine less well than the broadly shorter-geared Subaru.

So far then, the Impreza has mounted a challenge against the supremacy of the Integrale as unlikely on the road as it has been on the special stage. Corners, however, present a rather different challenge.

The Lancia Integrale has always been famed for its attitude to corners and with good reason. This Evolution model, with its still wider track and stubby 205/45 ZR 16 tyres, propels the legend to rarely seen heights. What is remarkable is the way that it seems to shrug off its weight the moment a corner appears in its path. Any race or rally driver will tell you that a heavy car is a cumbersome car, that weight, mathematically, militates against a car’s ability to change direction and such weight slung out ahead of the front axle is the worst enemy of agility. The Integrale defies this logic. What is extraordinary is how easy it is to drive at supercar speeds with scarcely any effort. Hurtle up to a third gear corner, stab hard at the meatily reassuring brake pedal before turning in and the Lancia will simply flick on to your new course and stay there. The delay you expect from all such nose-heavy hatches as they swing into a comer seems scarcely to exist.

More than this, it will cling to dry bitumen to a point which seems scarcely believable for anything this side of a well-developed, mid-engined supercar and, in the wet, leave all twowheel drive opposition for dead. Perhaps more importantly, the legendary Integrale steering remains as sharp as ever and its responses, once you finally find room to prod safely beyond the limit, are as predictable as you’d wish: it simply pushes its nose wide until you ease off the throttle, then snaps cleanly back into line.

The Impreza is truly humbled in the face of perhaps the most blinding blend of agility and stability yet to set foot on the public road. Drive it hard, use every morsel of its straight-line advantage and, true enough, the Subaru will stay with the Lancia on all bar the most twisting roads and, by conventional standards, you’d have to say it handled well.

The standards here, however, are anything but conventional. Like the Integrale, the Impreza uses straightforward, strut-type suspension at each corner but it carries softer springing and a steering rack which, while using the same 2.8-turns across an undeniably tighter lock, feels decidedly less controlled than the super-precise Lancia steering.

As a result, the Impreza feels altogether more vague; a blunt instrument compared to Lancia’s scalpel. Its smaller brakes may have less weight to control but, despite their undoubted powers of retardation, they never give quite the same air of breezy confidence boasted by the Integrale’s fatter, wider discs.

Most of the time, it corners like a conventional hot hatch, albeit it one with fabulous traction. It heels into corners where the Integrale flicks, and feels restless in really fast curves where its rival seems impregnably clamped to the road, committed to following and relaying every change in the surface. Its 205/55 VR 15 tyres provide notably less grip than those of the Integrale and, once they start to slip, its reactions, while easy to contain, are never as clean as the Lancia’s.

It does, however, have a trick up its sleeve. Find the space, far away from the public road, to really hurl it around and suddenly it will start to behave like a not-so distant cousin of a rally car. On a loose surface, it drifts beautifully through quick curves and, if you time correctly the moment you unsettle the tail, it will slide into graceful oversteer into a hairpin and keep the back out of line all the way around, even when you come back hard onto the power.

Sadly, life on the open road is rarely punctuated by loose gravel surfaces and, too often in our day with the two, I was left longing to trade all the Impreza’s extra urge for so much as a slice of the Lancia’s reactions.

Even so, by the end of the day, it was the Impreza which had improved most upon my expectations. What I had approached imagining to be not much more than a conventional but crude hot saloon, I left with new respect. Quite apart from its undoubted dynamic abilities, it is also a credible family car with a big boot and a reasonable amount of space inside. More importantly, I discovered a car which was genuinely enjoyable to drive hard for reasons other than the punch it packed between the corners.

An Integrale, however, it is not. While the Subaru feels like the ultimate performance derivative of a range of altogether more homespun machinery, which it is, the Lancia, despite relating to the Delta range in exactly the same way as the Subaru does to the Impreza range, does not; it feels like a purpose-built performance machine, one whose only purpose, it would seem, is to provide some kind of ultimate on-road thrill for the practically minded.

This perhaps explains one of the reasons why, three years from now, this Impreza, which costs £19,110 now, should resell for about £11,500 while this Integrale, which would have cost £23,249 three years ago, is now for sale for £21,750.

On the Portuguese Rally the Subaru Impreza challenged the legend of the Lancia Integrale and on the highways of Britain it has now done the same. The outcome in both cases was the same; the Subaru came close, closer perhaps than any would have betted but, in the end, it was the Lancia which emerged, still clutching its claim to be the finest road and rally car of our times. Thanks to Richard Thorne Classic Cars, Reading (0118 983 1200),for the loan of the Lancia Integrale.

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