Proving once again that we know precious little and aren't afraid to flaunt it, we loved Subaru's 2.5RS so much when we first drove it (Dec. '97) that we predicted it would never catch on and be killed quickly. Its intoxicating combination of poise, balance, and power were so captivating that they could never possibly sell (as with previous ill-fated rally-based specials like the Mitsubishi Galant VR4 and the Mazda 323GTX).
Well, color us embarrassed. Much to our surprise (and delight), this little monster lives on in its third year, quietly building a devoted cult following of folk who realize that torque is as important as horsepower and who believe that there's more to handling than cutting out the bumpstops and slapping on a set of 17s.
New for 2000 is the four-door body style, which was actually the only way you could get the Impreza when it first came out back in 1993. (The two-door arrived in 1995.) The spoiler, hood scoops, foglight-intensive front fascia, polished exhaust tip, and aluminum five-spoke rims (no longer gold, thank heavens) give a hint that this isn't some grandmanonymous little crackerbox. But it's more than just visuals that make the 2.5RS; it's the experience of driving.
The exhaust isn't particularly loud; the dash seems less than sporting; the gauge faces a tad generic. Supportive bucket chairs lined in grippy cloth help, but the shocking amount of headroom does not; how can this be a sporting car if there's ample room for a 6 foot 2 frame? Most of the rest is grey plastic, and nicely colored and subdued, if not terribly special. Get rolling, however, and you start to understand. Model year 1999 saw the introduction of a SOHC head design, replacing 1998's DOHC mill; though it seems a bit backwards technologically, it made for better low-down torque to the tune of 166 lbs-ft at 4,000 rpm. If you like revving to 9 grand, you'll be disappointed, but if real-live torque in usable, cruisable rev ranges are more your speed (do you really cruise around town at 6,500 rpm?), the flat-four delivers smiles. Suddenly, driving a stick shift car in unyielding L.A. traffic becomes a less crappy proposition.
But it's the handling that will widen your eyes. Offramps, canyon roads, no matter the full-time all-wheel drive brings the 2.5RS a cut above the abject understeer that plagues so many stock FWD machines. All four tires receiving power bring a reassuring calm to the cabin. No matter how high the revs get or how fast the scenery blurs by through that gigantic windscreen, you know it'll be alright. What other car can you buy that will actually let you come out of an offramp faster than you entered it? None in the $20,000 price range. The variable-rate steering is single-finger light in parking lots, adding heft and delicious feedback at speed. The tires (205/55-16s) managed nary a squeal as they were hammered around the backroads of New Jersey's rural Monmouth County. At the limit, mild understeer is present just to keep most folks out of trouble, but in normal driving, handling is as balanced and as chuckable as it could be, even though 3,000 lbs is a bit porcine to be truly chuckable.
The driveline isn't perfect; most notably, the clutch can be a little snatchy if you don't time your foot right, and lifting your foot off the gas after acceleration (or even cruising) produces a surprising, momentary lurch. We suspect these animals are inherent in the AWD driveline, since we've felt it on other 2.5RS models. They are livable, but a little offsetting to the new driver.
This is about it for this body style Impreza. For 2001, Subaru is said to be introducing a new one, complete with the (optional) legendary 2.0L turbo flat-four that has made Subaru a latter-day performance legend in Japan, Europe, and Australia. No word on what it'll look like (though we suspect it will differ little in concept from the current model), but with a blown 215hp powerplant, we expect it'll take on Diamond Star-style cult status from the get-go.
The measure of this car's success can be directly attributed to the intro of the upcoming turbo model; enthusiasm for the current model has helped bring a still-faster one into our future. Without this one, there would be no future performance Subaru to look forward to. We were never more happy to be wrong.