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Wednesday 28th November 2007


PH HEROES: SUBARU IMPREZA

It is a B road eater born on the rally stages of the world. Peter Dignan charts the rise of a car that created its own cult.

Gold wheels not essential for 'Ring work
Gold wheels not essential for 'Ring work
There is something character building about standing in a forest. Your breath at one with the early morning mist as it dissipates in front of your face. Hands colder than those school cross countries you did as a kid, the ones where buttoning up school shirts afterwards was a struggle. But in a forest standing with foe, marshal’s whistles filling the air accompanying the rhythmic pops, whines and bangs that make rallying, these things do not matter. And in the nineties be it Kielder, Dalby or Grizedale forest, many gathered to watch the speed of one car and the flamboyance of one driver.

The Subaru Impreza piloted by Scot Colin McRae.

It was a cold Monte Carlo rally in 1994 where the story of this hero began to take shape. An oversized, overweight Legacy was not competing against the rapid, nimbler Celica so the lighter Impreza was introduced. Its rallying success was immediate but not in the hands of the man that would make the car famous. It was a Spaniard, Carlos Sainz, who put the car on the podium in its very first rally. The event could have been different for the Scot but those pesky French rally fans placed snow on a corner and Colin’s Subaru slid into a snow bank. The British fans would get their own back.

McRae at his best
McRae at his best
It didn’t take long for the car to win and by the fifth rally - the Acropolis in Greece - the car crossed the final check point quicker than all its rivals, driven superbly by Sainz. Unfortunately McRae still had a fondness for finding non movable objects around the stages, a reputation that was allegedly not sitting well with the Subaru board. But the guidance of Prodrive supremo David Richards kept the young Scot in tow and with all other Imprezas out in New Zealand, Colin showed the precise quick driving that would earn him a World Championship the following year and took victory.

With growing respect for the Impreza, especially in the control of Colin McRae, the British fans flocked the stages for the 1994 Network Q RAC Rally hoping for the first British winner since Roger Clarke in 1976. They were not to be disappointed. A close battle ensued between the two Impreza drivers. Colin always had the edge, but after a few wayward British supporters redressed the balance of the French earlier in the year placing logs in front of Carlos Sainz's car causing the Spaniard to lose concentration and slip off, Colin went on to win.

Morette head lamp conversions better than the bug eye
Morette head lamp conversions better than the bug eye
The success of the Impreza over the next few years left kids big and small wanting to re-enact the feats of McRae and later Richard Burns in an Impreza. Ask any owner the reason they bought the car and primarily the answer is down to its rallying pedigree and the cognitive impulses invoked from watching the RAC Rally. It is no coincidence that the success of the car in the British Rally - nine victories in the last 13 years - is replicated by its popularity on the British roads.

But its rallying achievements were not the only draw. The sound evoked from the boxer engine through the use of uneven length manifolds gives the countryside B-road an unnatural but satisfyingly unique rumble. The use of the boxer engine also allowed Subaru to fit the engine inline with the transmission creating a lower centre of gravity, along with the balancing effect of pistons operating in cylinder banks opposite each other, the car minimised roll while hooning. All delivered by a cheeky 2.0-litre engine that could power the various guises of the UK models to 60mph in less than six seconds.

The boxer engine is suprisingly small in here
The boxer engine is suprisingly small in here
Supercar performance did not come at a sacrifice to the practicality of the car. Forgotten cooking ingredients could be picked up from the local supermarket before the rice boiled over and there was enough space to throw the kids, housemates, or whatever else was lying around in with you. With all but a few special editions there were four doors to jump in and out of and a boot big enough to carry two suitcases if you got carried away on country lanes and found yourself miles from home.

The price was also a big selling point. No Ferrari money needed here for your thrills. It was cheap thrills with an initial price of £17,999 and the car never ventured above £30,000 for any of its numerous rallying spin-off editions. The interior quality of the early editions did show this lacking in cost, which the car never really moved on from, and the looks have always been an emotive subject, but when the car is swallowing up the tarmac in front of it you neither care nor give onlookers time to look.

Price saving interior?
Price saving interior?
Many people dream of owning a Ferrari or Lamborghini, but not I. I always vowed to spend the money when I could on a Scooby and now five years of fun later I have never looked back. Though the buying decision with so many varieties was not an easy one. The development team at Subaru never seem to rest and out pop special editions, WRXs, STis that leave the budding McRae checking the slightest power differences and options. And that is before thinking about the Japanese variants.

For me, the shopping requirements were long: a tow car; an everyday workhorse; something that could get me to the Nurburgring and then lap it quickly; something to take out on a sunny day for a blast, or even a snowy one; and more. The choice of a WRX with a Prodrive Performance Pack seemed to fit the bill. Do I regret not having an STi? Sometimes, but after 100,000 miles in the car I don't feel cheated. Not many cars with such sporting pedigree would I risk driving to Greece for a summer holiday when 100,000 miles old, but the reliable Impreza didn't put a foot wrong across Alpine passes or 100mph plus Autobahn cruise.

Mountain climbing, Greek style
Mountain climbing, Greek style
The smile factor and big thrills never go away with the car’s immense ability to stick to the road on the twistiest of terrain. The AWD system pulling the car round a sweeping bend, with very little sign of the safe understeer invoked by later four-wheel-drive models I have driven. The car talks fluently to me as I drive around giving me utter confidence, and as yet, I have not found a car I feel as safe in to floor the right foot through an apex and know it will just pull me round and shoot me into the next corner. On roundabouts it always makes me grin, and it’s never too much of a detour to find a tunnel or bridge to drop the windows and blast through.

A company that was the reserve of farming folk should never really have succeeded by sticking in a turbo, and then sending it out to play in forests, but it did. As rally fans head off to test their blood circulation in early morning forest fire breaks for Rally GB, who’s to bet against the Impreza winning again. Let’s just hope 13 years after its rallying launch Subaru doesn't forget where it built its fan base - I certainly won't.

PH Hero Rating: 9/10



   

 

 

Author: RacingPete