2006 Subaru Impreza Preview

As a part of its mid-life rework, the 2006 Impreza becomes the second car in Subaru’s lineup to wear its controversial new “family” face. The good news is that it carries the oval grille and flanking air inlets with far more poise than the B9 Tribeca. Indeed, the new look transforms the Impreza from a rather doe-eyed car to something that actually looks little angry, even sinister. It is an expression that hints at what lurks beneath the new bright work, especially in the WRX and STi models.

All versions – the 2.5i (which replaces last years RS), Outback, WRX and STi – now share a very similar look thanks to the new grille, front bumper, fenders, projector-style headlights (xenon HID on the STi) and aluminum hood. Likewise, the new rear lights and bumper fascia give the cars a brighter appearance. For some this is a good thing (2.5i drivers), for others (STi owners) it may be a little off putting, as it takes a lingering look to differentiate between the two from the front. From the rear, there is no difficulty spotting the STi, as it gets a new rear window spoiler and under-car diffuser, both of which combine with the oversized wing to reduce rear end lift by 30%.

All also earn smart air bags (with driver’s seat position sensor and occupant detection system for the passenger’s seat), side head/thorax air bags and a dust/pollen filter, which is good news for those with allergies. The WRX and STi also earn a much needed immobilizer system that will help keep the cars in the rightful driveway (it is endorsed by the Insurance Bureau of Canada and so should reduce the average premium by about $250).

All also benefit from an upgraded interiors. The various models now use better materials that are spliced together in a more coordinated manner, although the fact that all come in two-tone grey makes for a rather somber look. Only the STi and its black/brilliant blue cabin breaks the mould.
The entry-level 2.5i now uses an engine that employs Subaru’s i-Active valvetrain. The latter improves things by altering the lift of the secondary intake valve according to the driver’s demands. This brings more power, bumping it from 165 horsepower to 173. This is enough to put it at the top of power chart when compared to its immediate competition – the Honda Civic (58 more), Toyota Matrix (50 more) and Mazda3 GT (13 more).

The WRX also earns better power from an enlarged engine. In place of last year’s 2.0L, turbocharged boxer comes a 2.5L motor that’s closely linked to the Legacy GT’s engine. This means active valve control on the intake side, 230 hp (up 3) and 235 pound-feet of torque. Again, this takes a good car and makes it better. While the torque increase is only 8.3%, the fact it is developed at a lower rpm (10% lower) makes a big difference to the driving experience, regardless of whether it is teamed with the five-speed manual or reworked four-speed automatic.

Simply, the car feels livelier from the get-go and as soon as the tachometer sweeps through 3,000 rpm the turbo starts to blow at full gale, which brings a massive surge of power. The biggest advantage, however, is that rather than being a little peaky (the previous car tended to develop it best power in a relatively narrow band), the 2.5L engine spreads it out over a much broader range. According to Subaru this shaves 0.3 seconds off the 0-60 mph time – in reality the car feels much faster.

The STi takes all the good things going for the WRX and ramps them up to a higher plane altogether. To begin with it pushes 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque through a reworked version of Subaru’s wonderful all-wheel drive system. The upgrades include a more efficient centre differential and a new steering wheel position sensor. Combined they make the system even more proactive than it was before.

It also changes the torque split slightly, upping it from 35% front/65% rear to 41/59. This helps minimize oversteer when the engine’s considerable oomph is put to good use. As before, the STi has a switch that allows the driver to control the actual split – the Driver Controlled Centre Differential. When left in the automatic position, it works just fine; for track use dialing in a little more rear drive helps when the driver wants to hang the tail out.

Turning hot laps around Mont Tremblant’s serpentine race track in an STi is enough to convince any mortal driver just how sweet the car is – put Chris Atkinson, one of Subaru’s professional WRC drivers, behind the wheel, sit back and enjoy the ballet he dances so effortlessly.

Before taking a bunch of we hacks around the track for some high-speed excitement, he demonstrated his considerable car control skills by turning doughnuts on the front straight. No big thing you may think, except that the front straight is one seriously narrow piece of tarmac – I would need a football field-sized bit before attempting anything remotely similar. Running hot laps with him also proved why rally drivers are the most revered and talented in the racing world – he drifted through corners and pulled full 360s just about anywhere he fancied and without warning his unsuspecting passenger. Truly amazing!

The tire-shredding exercise not only demonstrated that the STi’s power is enough to overwhelm the all-wheel drive system and near-slick tires, it shows what happens when the technology used to compete at the highest level – the World Rally Championship – trickles down to a road car. Simply put, you have to spend thousands more to get a car that is anywhere near as agile, tossable and yet so entirely predictable. In Canada, the STi is without peer – the Mitsubishi Evolution sold in the U.S. is the only other car that comes remotely close.

The new Impreza will be priced as follows: the 2.5i sedan and wagon start at $23,495, the WRX sedan and wagon at $35,495, the Outback Sport Wagon at $27,895 and the STi at $48,995.