What’s old is becoming new again. New and very expensive. This week’s announcement from Prodrive that it is set to launch a high-end restomod version of the first-gen Impreza, created plenty of drooling in the comments at the car’s mouth-watering spec. But also a high degree of consternation at the P25’s £552,000 pricetag, before options. As PHer Speedbadger put it “you could buy a 991 911 GT3, Caterham 620, Nissan GT-R Nismo, Impreza P1, Impreza 22B and still have £50k odd left over.”
Bringing us to this bargain alternative, a freshly imported version of a rare, rally-inspired Japanese limited editions being offered for £539,000 less. Which is a fairly significant saving - this one even has the gold wheels the Prodrive car lacks.
I spent much of my early career as a motoring journalist writing about various iterations of the Subaru Impreza, which was one of the hottest cars of the era. The UK-spec Turbo 2000 was still relatively new when I started out in 1998, and was one of the most impressive cars I had experienced to that point thanks to its combination of 204hp and a chassis as forgiving as an indulgent uncle. When I took a press car to my parent’s house for a weekend I was the coolest guy in town, my mates being much more impressed than they were with the 996-gen GT3 I drove up a few weeks later.
But even then, realisation had dawned that the Imprezas coming to Europe were leaving a fair amount on the table. Japan already had a hotter WRX with a more powerful 240hp flat-four – the EJ20F4, fact fans – plus the all-important option of gold alloy wheels. It didn’t take long for ‘grey’ importers to spot a gap in the market, much to the consternation of official distributor IM Group, with lightly-used WRXs being sold for significant discounts over the ‘official’ car.
But even back then there was already a harder-cored version in Japan. The Type RA was a stripped-out WRX that was officially sold to be more easily converted for motorsport. It had (much) less sound deadening, manual windows, a natty three-spoke Momo steering wheel and no ABS or air-con. Mechanical changes included a closer ratio five-speed gearbox and intercooler water spray. From memory, these were even delivered from the factory with base model Impreza seats, so that these could be thrown out and replaced with motorsport buckets.
While the Type RA was intended to race, it quickly developed a following among those seeking the lightest and least compromised Impreza. It was, to get the nineties references out of the way, Raw Like Sushi. (Great album, by the way.) When I got to drive a grey import in the UK as part of one of those early Impreza megatests it felt much louder and more exciting than the regular Turbo 2000. The Japanese market STI, with 250hp and an electrically locking torque-splitting centre differential, followed soon after.
An arms race soon developed. Prodrive, which was running Subaru’s increasingly successful World Rally Championship programme getting in on the act in Britain. First came the Impreza Turbo ‘Series McRae’ a run of 200 launched in 1996 to celebrate Colin’s win in the previous year’s WRC, this featuring Mica Blue paintwork, gold wheels and – somewhat strangely – spackle pattern ‘fishnet’ Recaro seats. This was followed by a Prodrive handling kit offered for the standard Turbo, although Impreza fans quickly discovered this was mostly easily copied suspension geometry changes. A brawnier WR Sport power pack followed, then the Richard Burns inspired RB5 and then – in 2000 – the P1. This basically combining the STI’s powertrain with the two-door shell and a body kit designed by Peter Stevens, who also did the P25.
But specials were being built in Japan, too – culminating in the wide-bodied 22B which most reckon sits at the top of the first-gen Impreza pile. Bringing us to our Pill. It’s not a 22B – those are into six figures and still climbing – but it is a limited-edition rally-inspired Impreza boasting the all-important combination of blue paintwork and the gold wheels.
Fresh from Japan, our Pill is an Impreza WRX Type RA 555 Edition, one of 1000 cars that were built to celebrate the 1999 rally car. It has gained a couple of extra doors over the actual WRC challenger, which used the two-door shell, and it got much more toys than the vanilla RA. These included air con, electric windows and front sports seats in blue fabric. The engine should be making 280hp, presuming it’s not been tweaked over the years.
Our Pill is being sold with a limited description and, lacking numberplates, no MOT history. Underbody pictures bear out the specialist dealer’s claim that this is a rust-free example having spent its life on Japan’s salt free roads. The advert claims 100,000 miles, which is high for any Japanese car and may instead refer to kilometres. Interested parties should make their own enquiries on that one. It has been slightly modified with coil-over dampers and a front strut brace which looks to be similarly aftermarket.
There is also some obviously non-original wiring under the bonnet, with some more visible in the interior pictures. This is likely down to some aftermarket gauges sitting on top of the dashboard, or maybe the aftermarket double DIN head unit. The steering wheel seems to be a Momo, or certainly has the boss from one, but has to be non-original: surely even Japanese Imprezas had airbags by this point?
So not original, and definitely not as cheap as it would have been even a few years ago. It’s not long since £5,000 was a realistic budget for bagging a nice JDM-spec first-gen Impreza. Beyond the likely desire of the next owner to simplify and add lightness to the extra electrical gubbins, risks should be fairly slight. The biggest danger to any Scooby of this era is the rust this one clearly isn’t suffering from. But, for what it’s worth, the only time I’ve ever had a car suffer an unflagged, catastrophic engine failure while I was driving it was an Impreza STI. But it’s hard to argue too hard when this one costs 2.4 percent of what Prodrive is asking for the now sold-out P25 – bargain!
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