The Japan-Spec WRX Shows Us the Face of Its New Personality By moving the hood scoop forward, the new WRX's youthful aggression has been downplayed, while driver visibility is better. By Peter Lyon, Contributor, Japan Date posted: 06-11-2007 turbocharged 2.0-liter boxer-4 engine - 248 horsepower -Two-piston front brakes Just before we climbed into the long-awaited 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX at its presentation in Japan, we got some bad news. A Subaru stylist told us, "Our Impreza needs to reach a bigger cross-section of buyers." A lot of things have been done to the third-generation Impreza in the name of sales success, and our drive of the new car at the Subaru proving ground at Tochigi, Japan, makes us wonder if a wider audience is really what this car needs. The 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX (known here in Japan as the S-GT), is really about change. And when the U.S.-specification version of this car arrives soon, we'll see if Subaru gets the wider audience it longs for. Clipping Subaru's Wings The new WRX reveal Subaru's attempt to reinvent itself. Now that Subaru has abandoned its flirtation with the big-grille design ethic that has changed the look of so many cars in the last five years, its designers have gone for something more mainstream. The Impreza's new front end is bland at best. Its clean lines have been well-executed, but the nondescript headlights and grille clash with the dramatic treatment of the rear end. At least the former tacked-on, aircraft-inspired front grille gave the Impreza a certain distinctive identity, but the new car has the bland look of an overnight collision between a Toyota Camry and a BMW 1 Series sedan. From the C-pillar back, the WRX actually looks quite sleek. The combination of glass and angular sheet metal culminates in an aesthetically pleasing rear treatment with interesting taillights. Point an inquiring finger at the front end of this car, however, and the design team starts making excuses. After the overstyled second-generation Impreza and a failed attempt to find some heritage, it might be that Subaru is a little lost between what it has designed in the past and what it wants to design in the future. The hiring and subsequent dismissal of former Alfa Romeo designer Andreas Zapatinas has simply left the company in a creative uproar. Boy Racer No More Subaru is looking for a new mainstream audience for the Impreza, but we'll see if it finds its WRX audience. With the new WRX, Subaru wants to exchange the car's boy-racer image for a more mature, Euro-style vibe. Apart from the front-end treatment, the WRX-signature bonnet bulge has been de-emphasized. The scoop comes forward 6 inches to improve airflow to the turbocharged engine's intercooler and also give the driver a better field of view. Surely a less bulbous bonnet scoop is one way to tone down the car's visual aggression. This concern with reducing aggression has unfortunately affected the new WRX's performance as well. Subaru feels the car already has the grunt it needs, so there's not much beneath the hood that you haven't seen before. So if you're waiting for a big boost in engine power, you might be let down by the engine specification, which amounts to a collection of pieces from Subaru's parts bin. The Japanese-spec car we drove at Tochigi featured our local turbocharged 2.0-liter boxer-4, which generates 248 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 246 pound-feet of torque at 2,400 rpm. Based largely on the 2.0-liter boxer-4 of the current Subaru Legacy GT, the WRX version features a remapped ECU, revised intake ports and combustion chambers, and a significantly modified twin-scroll turbocharger. While this combination develops almost the same power as the engine combination it replaces, more than 95 percent of peak torque arrives at just 2,400 rpm. Yawning Rather Than Grinning The new sheet metal has shorter overhangs, although the front treatment looks a little awkward. Now that the WRX's torque curve is more user-friendly, the car doesn't deliver the same wow factor when you're behind the wheel. The progressive build-up of torque from low rpm makes the WRX feel like a far mellower machine. This car is quick when you've got your foot to the floor, but it's as if the volume has been turned down, and we don't just mean the newly quiet interior environment, thanks to added acoustic insulation. This Japanese-spec car still sprints to 60 mph in around 5.5 seconds, but you find yourself yawning rather than grinning. Bolted to the 2.0-liter turbo is the WRX's familiar five-speed manual transmission with double-cone synchros in the first three gears. The shift action is a bit notchy, but the gears engage precisely. From what we understand from our sources at Subaru, the same story will unfold for the U.S.-spec WRX fitted with a turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer-4 that comes from the U.S.-spec Legacy. As with the Japanese-edition car we drove at Tochigi, it will have modified intake ports and combustion chambers plus a new twin-scroll turbocharger. It's meant to produce better fuel economy and cleaner air emissions, so don't expect big power gains. Our source tells us that the 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX will generate around 224 hp and 226 lb-ft of torque, but more of that torque will arrive lower in the rpm range. A five-speed manual remains the standard transmission and a four-speed automatic is optional. On the other hand, Subaru also reports that we can expect a turbocharged boxer-4 diesel for the WRX by early 2009. The company is eager to drop a high-mpg diesel into the Forester and Impreza soon after the Legacy gets Subaru's first diesel next summer, so the WRX is part of the program. And word from inside Subaru City also confirms that the company is working on a five-speed automatic and a continuously variable transmission, and both these options could be offered as early as mid-2009. Some Magic Remains The WRX is so well-balanced that minor inputs of opposite lock and throttle control help keep the car on track. The WRX chassis has lost none of its magic, though. A redesigned rear suspension features a more compact setup with double wishbones that affords a more compliant ride and improves luggage capacity. On the road, there's far less body roll through the corners, yet the suspension is compliant enough to soak up the bumps, and a new feeling of stability is the result. But if you provoke this new car, the rear tires will slide. Even so, the well-balanced chassis encourages you to dial in a little opposite steering lock and use throttle control to keep the car on track. And even when you reach the limit of adhesion, the superb Subaru all-wheel-drive system with its viscous-type, limited-slip front differential helps bring the chassis under control. The optional Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) available on our test car also helps maintain a precise arc through the corners, a reminder that this technology should be standard equipment for every Impreza. This 2008 WRX has floating two-pot front brake calipers instead of the former four-piston design, but they seemed to deliver adequate stopping power in conjunction with the 205/50R17 Bridgestone rubber. An Upgraded Room With Quality Furnishings Higher-quality materials inside the car make the cabin a more desirable place to be. So what's the deal? Is the new WRX bigger and heavier as well as more refined and mature? Fortunately, no. The new model is 1.7 inches shorter, 1.7 inches wider, 0.5 inch taller, and sits on a wheelbase that's nearly 4 inches longer. Meanwhile, the 2008 WRX's curb weight remains almost identical to that of the former car. These dimensions create a five-door hatchback that has more leg- and headroom than before. Also the seat height has been lowered by more than an inch, so this helps enhance headroom as well. And there's more rear-seat legroom and more storage space to boot. Higher-quality materials are used throughout the new WRX's interior, while the dash design resembles the good-looking layout of the Tribeca. Quicker-ratio steering and a smaller turning radius complement each other. Still a Driver's Car This could well be one of the best angles for the WRX, as the character modeling makes the car look faintly European. You can't argue with a turbocharged engine, a tight chassis and exceptional poise on the road. While the 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX might not look as aggressive as before, it still drives well, and the upgraded interior package might indeed have a stronger appeal to mainstream car shoppers. But on the flip side, the 2008 WRX's lack of identity in the aesthetics department and the shortcomings of its engine enhancements might alienate current WRX owners. Perhaps they're supposed to move on to the Subaru Impreza WRX STI. Now there's a car worth waiting for, although it won't appear in public until the Tokyo auto show. It will look somewhat different, with a more prominent hood scoop and a bigger grille to enhance airflow to the 300-hp turbocharged boxer-4, and prominent fender flares will accentuate the 18-inch wheels. The hardware underneath will be familiar, however, including Brembo brakes, a more aggressive suspension setup and a recalibrated all-wheel-drive system. Apparently it will not feature a dual-clutch sequential manual transmission with steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. Aisin, one of the largest transmission manufacturers in Japan, is developing this technology for Subaru, but it won't appear until the 2009 Subaru Impreza WRX STI. Based on our drive of this Japan-specification car, we'd say that the 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX has a slightly different personality to match its new looks. It'll make a lot of new friends, but we'll have to see if it can keep its old friends, too. First Impressions: Striving for a wider audience, the new Impreza WRX has toned down its styling but still performs like a driver's car.