It’s amazing to think how much history and legend can be summarised in three little letters – WRX. Born out of Subaru’s dominance in the FIA World Rally Championship in the 1990s and early 2000s with the likes of the tragically departed Colin McRae and Richard Burns at the wheel, the standard Impreza’s evil twin is a car that has found favour with a diverse cross-section of motoring fans around the world.
Taking on starring roles as a mid-life crisis centrepiece, teenage boy’s bedroom wall poster, and a magnet for grotesque modifications and police attention, the Impreza WRX was the attainable sports car-killer you wanted to have if you weren’t old enough to have a license, and had to have if you were.
But with Prodrive pulling the pin on the Subaru World Rally Team at the height of the Great Recession in 2008, the WRX – which stands for World Rally Experimental – fell by the wayside it seems. With it’s best advertisement – blue and yellow bolts of lightning tearing up gravel globally – having been pulled, it became just another car, and an old one at that. Stone-age engine technology and facelift after facelift that has made it look more and more like an appliance than a champion rally machine for the road has diluted what those three letters stand for. WRX? More like KBN – Kinda Boring Now.
Yet as I looked up into the rearview mirror of the Audi A6 I was driving to a pre-determined photoshoot location and saw the frowning face of the stubby and be-winged 1999 Impreza WRX you see here appear from in the distance, it reminded me that things weren’t always like they are now, and there was once a time when those three little letters could strike fear into the hearts of, in particular, Mitsubishi owners everywhere.
From the time the first Impreza WRX – best known in Subaru circles by its chassis code, GC8 for the coupe and sedan, and GF8 for the hatch – hit the streets at the tail-end of 1992, the rally-inspired upgrades and technology that featured made it significantly different to your everyday Impreza.
Turbocharged engines, stiffer suspension, viscous coupling centre and rear differentials, and the standard fitment of all-wheel drive which, while now a Subaru staple, was not the case back then, these tiny packages packed an awful lot of oomph, especially for the time.
While it was the WRX STI that would come to be known for offering performance nearing the same level as the likes of the Porsche 911 and BMW M3 for a fraction of the cost, even if it couldn’t offer even a hint of the luxuries, that didn’t really matter in some regards as due to the even more attainable price point of regular WRXs like this and the insane tuning potential that these and many other Japanese cars from the period offered, this was a car that you could really make your own.
That’s why it’s so shocking to find one in such good condition as this particular example. Sure, with over 310,000km on the clock it might not be the lowest-mileage example you’ll encounter, but it certainly is one of the best-maintained I’ve seen.
I actually went with the owner at the time I drove this WRX – a friend of mine whose Honda Integra Type R I’ve previously written about, who has since actually swapped this WRX for the very same Subaru Liberty B4 I reviewed late last year – to go and inspect this car when he purchased it, as I noted in my recent review of the Range Rover Velar, the car we took to get there, which, in hindsight, is probably not the best car to take when you’re trying to negotiate on the price of a then-20-year-old Subaru. It’s safe to say that we were blown away by its history and condition when we went and saw it – every receipt and log book was with it and it had almost always been garaged, even if a few panels such as the notoriously flaky rear spoiler had needed to be resprayed over the years.
But while the largely original exterior is certainly impressive, it’s the all-original interior that astounded me. Underneath the dash mat added by the owner that just swapped it is a factory-fresh uncracked dashboard which, like the rest of the inside, is in astoundingly good condition given the higher mileage.
The red bucket seats have worn no more than you’d expect, the carpets still present well – the previous long-term owner kept cheaper mats over the top of the good originals which explains their immaculateness – and aside from an aftermarket head unit and STI shift knob, with the good original kept in the glovebox, all is as it would have come back before the turn of the century.
While it’s not what you’d call lavishly equipped – a leather-wrapped Momo steering wheel can only make up for so much, with cheap plastics and manual climate controls bringing the rest of the interior down a notch – but this is a car that was never about luxuries, but instead was focused purely on delivering the ultimate in terms of bang-for-your-buck performance.
With a 2.0-litre turbocharged flat-four tied to a five-speed manual gearbox and Subaru’s famed Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, it’s the performance of even non-STI models such as this that impresses most.
Making 160kW at 5600rpm and 290Nm at 4000rpm, the boxer engine under the bonnet may make numbers that pale in comparison to the current crop of similarly-sized hot hatches, the all-wheel drive traction and its 1270kg kerb weight combine to help this little pocket rocket scuttle from 0-100km/h in an impressive 5.8 seconds. And when I say impressive, I mean so by today’s standards, let alone those of yesteryear, with that figure equalling that of a brand-new Renault Megane R.S. 280 EDC.
Being an old-school turbocharged engine, there is definitely some detectable turbo lag off the line when you’re really throttling it, but it does start to pull more strongly a lot earlier than I was actually expecting it to.
Once you’re really on boost though, it pulls along very convincingly with it easy to feel that every ounce of power than can be put to the ground is being, with never a traction issue to be felt.
But being a small, light economy car with a brawny engine jammed into the front of it, it certainly doesn’t feel quite as serenely refined when you’re up at higher, lose-your-license speeds. It’s not that it feels unstable in any way – in fact, its high-speed stability is, like with most all-wheel drive cars, very impressive – but the sensation of speed is dramatically amplified due to its diminutive size and closeness to the ground compared to, say, the far more luxurious B4. As such, flooring it all the way through second and third really does feel like you’re hitting warp speed as the wind surrounds you and trees whiz past as you look out over that big bonnet scoop.
It’s the rush you get from driving it as a result that is all part of the attraction here – it’s a rollercoaster for grown-ups. Even that distinct unequal-length header sound – this car did have a mild aftermarket exhaust from the dump pipe back, about the only modification it did have, which wasn’t too loud but really opened up the sound of it – gets your heart racing, as it makes the car feel as though it has an off-kilter heartbeat of its own.
Through the corners, it’s easy to carry all of the speed you can build up on the straights, as with its flat ride due to its significantly firmed-up suspension compared to the regular Impreza, and some feathering of the throttle from you, the driver, it’ll likely out-corner many modern cars.
Yet for its brash speed and aggressive feel, it’s remarkably easy to drive on the daily commute. Sure, the hard suspension may deter some as it does make train lines and speed bumps less pleasant than you may hope for, but with a surprisingly easy clutch, tight gear change, and light-enough steering, it’s not as hard to live with as I expected it may be.
And that’s why it’s so common to see these things with this sort of mileage, because they are a performance car designed to be lived with given their attainable price point both now and when new. To find one in this sort of condition, however, is more difficult, but despite many talking down on the reliability of Subarus, when maintained properly and to schedule, they’ll last as long as you’d like, so make sure you know at least a little about the car’s service history if you’re looking to buy a GC8 or any other Subie yourself.
So the fact that GC8s, like all Subarus, can be very reliable when maintained as meticulously as they need to be and left in largely stock condition is definitely a selling-point, as is the fact that they can be driven everyday, but the same goes for a lot of cars so it’s not that which makes it so special.
For me, I think its the fact that not only does the WRX have such a strong and famed history on rally circuits that is reflected perfectly in the abilities of its road-going counterpart, but it’s the fact that it can do as much as it does as cheaply as it does it. While resale values have always remained strong on these, you can still find affordable but good GC8 WRXs today that still feel like the bang-for-your-buck road-going rally car experience many desire, and not simply an overpriced and underwhelming old car.
How long they’ll remain attainable for remains to be seen, as with US import legality soon approaching for the GC8 – which the US never received, with the first WRX available there being the bug-eye – values are no doubt set to skyrocket as they’re already on the rise here, and while this one traded hands a couple of times recently for under $10,000 many are listed at more than that.
If you really want one, or really want the cheapest car with investment potential I can think of, it really is a case of buy now while you can, because I can guarantee you you’ll kick yourself if you don’t. And even if values don’t go the way they look as though they’re going and the JDM bubble does burst, at least you’ll have a brilliantly fun car left over at the end of it. You can’t say the same about some invisible shares, now, can you?
If you have a well-maintained classic that you think would be worth us documenting, drop us a line on the Drive Section Facebook or Instagram accounts as we’d love to feature anything noteworthy from across the automotive spectrum, including cars like this WRX.