Now that we've had a preview of where the Subaru WRX will go within the next 24 months, Mate Petrany over at Jalopnik put together a fine, tight history of a favorite street legal rally car. I tried to do it last year and got a little carried away.
This story of an all new WRX began back in the Spring of 2011, when Subaru told the press at the New York International Auto Show that the Impreza and WRX would go separate ways. They have kept their promise. At this year's show, they told the press that all non-perforance Subarus will one day be fully electrified. I think they will also keep that promise.
We Subaru fans must have seen this coming following the April debut of the 2012 Impreza. While we applaud the longer, roomier, smoother, and hopefully, more marketable Impreza for young singles and families, the new Impreza strays away from the rally car architecture from which it was born.
And so, the Impreza and WRX will go their separate ways this fall. It is for the best, I think. While I really like the current generation Impreza. It is for the best, as Subaru just can't continue to neglect or alienate its performance fans. Subaru means different things to different people. In New England, it is the only car some people want to drive. But in the hills of New Jersey and Pennsylvania and the desert roads of Nevada and Southern California, the WRX and STi are the only cars some people want to show off, modify, and burn rubber in.
So the Subaru roadmap looks lik this: The third generation Impreza will continue to be sold worldwide in its WRX and STi versions only. The fourth generation Impreza will arrive on the streets of Japan, Australia/NZ, Europe, and North America this November. Both cars will continue to be built in Subaru's plant in Ota (Gunma), Japan.
As for which new platform the all new WRX will ride on, no one knows. Subaru has a history of releasing concept cars to a hungry press and fan base, which end up being models for the Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) only. At this weekend's Frankfurt Auto Show, Subaru is revealing its latest car, the XV Crossover. There has been speculation that it could be the platform for the next generation Impreza. But one look at the car, plus a visit to the Subaru Australia site reveals that the XV is what we Americans call the Outback Sport. It's a raised Impreza with slighty more rugged bumbers and fender flares, plus a roof rack, which has proven to be a sales hit thanks to its sub $20K sticker price. So for the record, the XV is a taller fourth generation Impreza.
Meanwhile Subaru is readying its new coupe, based on its joint project with Toyota, the FT-86 (which is it's Toyota chassis code, maintaining a naming convntion that goes back to the 1970s). That coupe might be sold under the Scion brand in North America as the Scion FR-S. Subaru will sell a varient called the Subaru BRZ, which is making its debut at the Frankfurt show this weekend. It is unknown if the BRZ will be sold globally, or if will exlcude North America in order to bolster Scion sales.
The Subaru fanboys and fangirls waiting for the next all new WRX will just have to wait, which they should be used to, given that the first generation WRX was on the market for nearly eight full years (1992-2000). Besides, the current generation has been refined just enough to compete well against the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. It's still a great car, and it has the full support of the Subaru tuner community, led by aftermarket performance component manufacturers such as Cobb Tuning.
Back when General Motors owned 20% of Subaru, it decided to utilize Subaru's platforms for it's least appreciated brand, Saab. While Saab enjoys a healthy cult status among New Englanders, 1970s lberals, college professors, and gay men, it has had a tricky existance in the US. After all, how do you convince customers looking at BMW, Audi, and Mercedes Benz to consider a front wheel drive car from Sweden, containing a mix of engineering architectures from Alfa Romeo, GM, and briefly, Subaru?
Mercedes buyers buy the brand primarilly for the status and the safety innovations. BMW buyers are in love with the brand for its sport luxury blend and, until recently, universal insistance on rear wheel drive. Audi buyers used to be from left field, like Saab drivers. But in the last 20 years, under guidance of their parent Volkswagen, Audi has become the German auto afficiando's alternative to Mercedes and BMW. Saab has always been trying to compete against the German sport luxury segment, but for decades, they did so with a hatchback using a front wheel drive platform. Saab was more known more for its winter-proof features, such as heated seats, than its peformance on the road.
That was supposed to change in their partnership with Subaru. More all wheel drive vehicles would be introduced (in the end, only the leather-clad Impreza clone 9-2x was produced). Saab would share GM's new global platforms such as the Theta. Subaru's new flagship, the B9 Tribeca, would be the basis of Saab's first SUV, the 9-6x. In the spring of 2005, a prototype of the 9-6x was produced.
But it was too little too late to turn Saab into the next Oldsmobile. GM sold its stake in Subaru to Toyota that October. As a final product, GM quickly developed a Saab SUV based on the Chevy Blazer / GMC Envoy, dubbed the 9-7x. By 2009, Saab was forced to find a buyer or shut down as an auto maker.
Saab was rescued (twice, actually), and they remade their entire image. They embraced their heritage of rounded hoods, wrap around greenhouse windshields, and the coolest car cup holders of all time. They chose to make their vehicles part time all wheel drive, using Haldex rear differentials made in Sweden and used in proven platforms by Ford and Volvo. And they renovated both their design center in the UK, hired a highly talented, American-born design director, and are remarketing themselves as the car brand with the edge in design.
And so now, over six years after the 9-6x prototype was put together, it has been revealed in the Saab museum and on the Saab blog. It's essentially a B9 Tribeca with the more conservative body panels of the current Tribeca. In fact, the body panels shown here were designed for the Saab 9-6. When Subaru decided to tone down the original Zapatinas design in 2007, they simply copied what you see here for the sides and back of the current Tribeca.
The interior, however, is all Zapatinas. The electroluminescent guages of the Tribeca have been replaced by green LED lit dials, and the logo on the steering wheel is different. But otherwise this is the same interior that the Tribeca has used since its 2005 debut.
Perhaps I should go easy on the third generation Ford Focus. It might not be as family friendly as the fourth generation Subaru Impreza. With its tiny back seat and swooping, mobile phone like center stack, it is the sporitiest Focus yet.
But I should back up a bit. What do I mean by "rally car?" There are a few requirements that separate a genteel, front wheel drive hatchback from one that shares its chassis with race cars. So here goes.
First of all, rally cars are based on road cars, not the other way around. Rally cars are a stroke of worldwide marketing genius. Take a car -a small hatchback that might be the first car of a young couple- strengthen the chassis, lighten the car, increase the power and ground clearance, and go racing in dangerous environments -on asphalt, gravel, and dirt. Under the contemporary rally car standards, there are minimal requirements for a car that can be converted into a rally racer. It must have a four cyllinder engine. It should weigh under 3,000 pounds before modification. Ideally, it should have a wide stance, with a low center of gravity. And also ideally, it should have rear wheels pushed as close to the corners as possible.
The car that successfully linked the sport of rally racing, manufacturers, and automobile marketing was the 1968 Ford Escort Mk I, which won what becme the WRC in 1970. It was a rear wheel drive car with a V6, but that would change as both the sport and the industry changed. Just 14 years later, the Escort driven worldwide would be front wheel drive, and would set a long standing record as the best selling car worldwide for several years. It would be accompanied by cars such as the Audi Quattro, Peugeot 200 series, Toyota Corolla and Celica, Subaru Impreza, Citroen models, and the Mitsubishi Lancer.
In 1998, the Escort was repaced by the Focus, and Ford kicked things into high gear. Customers had more choices of body styles and engines. But there was a catch. Like the Escort before it, there was an international version, and a slightly less agile and exciting North American version. A combination of customer demand and economic conditions prompted Ford to synchonize and globalize most of their products. Ford sent the US market a few international products over the years, notably the Freestyle crossover wagon. Ford fans will remember that some things would never be globalized, such as the muscle cars for the Australian market, the Falcon coupe and sedan. But Fors has been able to globalize its most popular products: the subcompact Fiesta, the compact Focus, the midsize Mondeo (Fusion), and soon, the C-Max minivan, and next generation Kuga (Escape). That's five global models under the "One Ford" banner.
Ford has not only embraced the economic practicality of global platform integration and manufacturing, but it has also embraced the reality of peak oil. If Ford keeps its promises, over half of its new cars sold will be fully electric in 20 years. A way off, but if that holds it will be a significant shift. And Ford is putting its money where its mouth is, with plans to offer EV versions of the Fiesta and Focus in North America over the next few months.
The electric Focus. Please make it available, Ford.
So the US has finally gotten the global model of the Focus 5-door hatchback. How is it? Well, without having driven it, I can report that the Focus is closer to the concept of a four door sports car than it has ever been before. With a tight, swooping cockpit, soft touch materials in the dash and center stack, layers of technology, and very firm, Volvo-like leather seats available, the Focus feels like a premium car from the driver's or passenger's position. Less so for the rear passengers. The back seat is smaller this time around for the Focus. A six foot passenger like me would be very cramped. Rear passenger room was sacrificed for style, as the roofline drops beautifully into an egg-like rear section, with speared tailights and an available rear spoiler. Audio system is by Sony. The user interface is what Ford brands as MyTouch. It includes the latest generation of Microsoft Sync, now with video playback support and the ability to stream Pandora internet radio. Everything is fed through an 8 inch touchscreen that supports Sync, bluetooth phone piggybacking, navigation, a driver's log, car information center, and all in-car entertainment. Instrument illumination appears to be LED, and a digital display climate control is available. Very nice all around.
Engine wise, gone is the very good aluminum block EcoTech engine, which generated 140 horses. In is a new 2.0 liter, direct injection engine generating 155 horses, which consumes less fuel per mile. And coming soon is a 1.6L EcoBoost turbocharged power plant, which will produce 200HP in a future, rally inspired ST model. I like the Japanese philospohy of a front wheel drive car not generating more than 170HP, but 200HP, if balanced and throttled correctly, might be a blast in the Focus ST.
Suspension is the expected MacPherson in the front and multilink in the rear, with a stiff stabilizer bar and firm springs. Much like my Hyundai Elantra Touring, the Focus has fuel saving electric power steering. But unlike my Touring, the Focus gets a six speed automatic, dual clutch transmission, making it even more fuel efficient. A Focus Platinum (the primium model right now), with all the electronics options, leather heated seats, sunroof, and the standard 2.0L engine and six speed automatic, should get about 24MPG in the city and 34MPG on the highway. If the customer drops an extra $2,000 for the SFE powertrain, then 38-40MPG on the highway is obtainable. But we should focus on the non SFE models (pun intended), since those are the models that will sell the most.
So comparing the new Focus to my 2009 Elantra Touring, I would say that it has no advantage in terms of steering and suspension. Both are identical and fun to throw into turns. But the Focus is lighter, has 17 more horses, and probably squeezes one or two extra miles per gallon. The Elantra beats the Focus for interior comfort, as it has a longer wheelbase, a smoother ride, and about double the amount of rear legroom. And the Elantra Touring qualifies as a rally car, since it has wheels pushed to the corners, and the turbodiesel verion has been driven in the Targa Tasmania rally down under the past two years.
If the Focus chassis is anything like its Peugeot and Citroen competitors, then it should be a thrilling ride. Hopefully, I can drive one soon and give a driving impressions review.
Now onto another four door sports car that might be in danger of losing that title, the fourth generation Subaru Impreza hatchback.
I would argue that the Impreza and BMW 3 series are the two greatest four door sports cars ever sold in the US (Audi A4, Mitsubishi Lancer, BMW 5 series, Porsche Panamera and Maserati Quadraporte fans will certainly disagree). Consider that the Impreza never became a midsize car. It did grow from subcompact to compact size, like the BMW 3 series. But the Impreza's basic formula never changed. It always was a lightweight, 4 or 5 door car with all wheel drive, independent suspension, a very low center of gravity, and a flat four (boxer) engine - not too dissimilar to what used to power early BMWs or Porsches.
From its introduction in 1992, the Impreza has been a contender on the rally circuits and the streets. It's a favorite of the tuner crowd in cities, as well as left of center folks in New England. It's a rare automobile that somehow took the place of the Saab 900 as the ultimate "Liberal's" car (perhaps the Forester is even more so). Driving an Impreza was and is an act of rebellion. It's a cult car. And it's a car that, again, like the BMW 3 series, has demonstrated the evolution and refinement of a successful automobile platform.
Here are some of the Impreza's greatest hits.
The 1992 US TV commercial staring a young, adorable Jeremy Davies:
A fully tuned, second generation Impreza WRX STi beating a Lamborghini in a European urban drag race:
The infamous crash of Alec Osenbach behind the wheel of a tuned, 350HP Impreza WRX at over 140MPH at the first annual Subifest in 2006. Amazingly, his injuries were minor:
US rally car driver Ken Block successfully jumps an Impreza rally car 170 feet.
Subaru introduces the third generation Impreza (2007-2012) with a jab at Volkswagen:
And the crowning stunt for the third generation Impreza, Travis Pastrana successfully jumps a rally spec car 269 feet in Long Beach, CA:
I like the third generation Impreza. I like the LED taillights and the four wheel wishbone suspension (unheard of in a car of that size and price). The STi Spec C is a triumph. I love the 2.5L boxer engine, the most successful engine in Subaru's history.
However, the enthusiasts and auto press was very clear about this Impreza - it's chassis had fallen behind to the Mitsubishi Lancer in terms of handling, character, and weight distribution. The stock Impreza 2.5i weighed in at 3,100 pounds. Also, the DVD navigation offered in the current car, from what I understand, is sub optimal. Subaru reliability and safety has never been better. But something had to change.
And so, Subaru, which ran the two previous Impreza generations for six years each, had to cut the third generation short in its fifth year of sales. Call it an intervention.
At the 2011 New York International Auto Show almost prcisely four years after the debut of the third generation Impreza, Subaru unveiled the fourth generation sedan and hatchback. The new car can be summed up in one phrase: do over. Instead of making the car bigger, Subaru only lengthened the wheelbase and added crucial rear seat legroom. Instead of modifying the venerable 2.5L boxer engine, Subaru has given the next Impreza the smaller, more fuel efficient 2.0L boxer already being used in the European Forester. And it is an all new platform, weighing 200 pounds lighter, at 2,900 pounds. If there's anything enthusiasts want more, it's a stock Impreza that weighs less than 3,000 pounds.
The first thing most Impreza fans will notice is the sub-A pillar on the front doors. This was added to increase visibility in turns and to lengthen the front doors. It's a feature we have seen on a few new cars lately, namely the Honda Fit, Honda Civic, and second and third generation Toyota Prius. When I see that triangle of glass, I immidatey think 'family car.' But now that I've had over a week to admire the new Impreza, it is actually growing on me. It helps the car look longer than it actually is. And the front fascia is one of the best Subaru has designed in a long time (the best since the Dr. Zapatnas facelift, I think).
From the rear, the new Impreza has a bit of a Toyota Matrix look [photo], with a big rear bumper piece that adds utility, and can also be swapped out for a different design in the future should Subaru desire it. The rear doors have a sub-C pillar that complement the front door design. The fender flares are muscular and modern. And the car combines nice angles and seams in an attractive egg-like shape. I'm liking this new design.
So while there won't be any driving reviews published for a while, we do know a few appealing aspects. It's lighter. It has a smaller boxer engine, that finally features a timing chain instead of a timing belt. It gets 30% better fuel economy, while retaining a wonderful part-time all wheel drive system. Tall adults can now fit into the back seat. And Subaru has partnered with Harmon Kardon to improve the audio system and (hopefully) factory navigation system. The guages are still trademark Impreza orange-red. And the car is winterized, as always, with wiper deicers, heated side mirrors, and heated seats, all of which should be standard on the 2.0i Premium model. And the price will be about $50 more. So this 5-door, with navigation, bluetooth, and satelitte radio, should come delivered around the $23K mark.
Subaru knows that it can't keep the Impreza a cult car forever. Subaru was the only auto brand in the USA besides Ford and Hyundai to see a record sales increase in 2010. The Impreza has to compete against the Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus. I'll return to this car later with a review of whether or not it delivers the classic Impreza feel and fun factor to a potentially larger market. Subie owners really love their cars. Subaru wants millions more to join their club.
Just wanted to tip my hat to the short-lived Alfa nose on Subaru automobiles. In a failed effort to give Subaru's a recognizable face, the company hired Andreas Zapatinas as its design head in 2005. Mr. Zapatinas had designed the Alfa 148 hatchback. His admiration of Alfa Romeo led to an inverted Alfa Romeo nose being given to at least five Subarus: the Impreza, R1, B9 Tribeca, and the B9 Scrambler and B11 concept cars. But this past winter, the final batch of Imprezas with the Alfa nose were sold. They were special editions of the Impreza in the UK, the Impreza RB320. That model completed production of the GDx / GGx Impreza (2002-2007).
The nose was hated at first. Later it was loved. And now it is missed.
Ok, it looks a lot like the Mitsubishi Outlander. That bugs me a little. It seems to have a ton of headroom (either that, or that's a wicked short driver). But overall, I think it is a very good car. Surely it's better than the Toyota Rav4, with the better interior, better suspension, and more practical rear hatch. I love the rear wishbone suspension, just like the Tribeca and new Impreza. That makes for better handling and a little extra cargo space.
But I will miss the boxy look of the current Forester. It was the all-wheel-drive alternative to the Scion xB (bB). This looks more like a family vehicle. At least the hood scoop on the turbo model is less pronounced on the new Forester. Not sure if my girl will let me get a turbocharged Suby, even if the scoop is more subtle. Hood scoops are a turn off. However, I think she will find the power seats with heaters very nice, not to mention the iPod jack. The highlight of the new Foreseter is the interior. It's beautiful - light years ahead of the current Forester. And the cargo and passenger room is tremendous. If I do get the chance to buy a car within the next 4 years, this Forester is on my short list.
Foresters are still made in Subaru's factory in Gunma, Japan. And they are on their way. Expect to see them on the streets this spring.
I expect the base model to cost around $19k. The LL Bean edition will be around $25k. Turbo models with the limited package top-out around $27k.
I thought I had to wait until the 2008 New York International Auto Show. But Subaru in Japan have decided to make the unveiling a Christmas present to the fanboys and fangirls out there who have been begging for an updated Forester. It is the final car in Subaru's North American lineup that is due for an upgraded interior (in both design and quality), and obviously that had to wait for the complete re-design.
Spelling error aside, we'll be watching this space. The spelling error could have been more embarrassing. But still, it is inexcusable.
UPDATE 11/30/2007: The spelling error on the Subaru Japan wibsite has been corrected.
On Thursday, Subaru officially unveiled the third generation Impreza here at the New York International Auto Show. There are two trims so far, the 2.5i and the WRX. The new design has Subaru fans like myself puzzled. We've got questions. Is this a new design direction for Subaru, or does this new face belong to the Impreza only? Does Subaru not care about a lack of uniformity in its sheet metal and grill design across its model range? Is this all part of Subaru's charm? Or will eventual ownership by Toyota wash away that charm?
When I think about it, I'm all for charm. The SVX had a unique shape, face, and interior (thanks to Giugiaro), and it was considered to be all-Subaru. So why not this new ugly duckling? It is sure to grow on me.
A couple things about the exterior design. First, the high, round rear section looks a lot like the BMW X3, which is also a favorite of mine (and also considered to be BMW's ugly duckling).
Second, it features a contradiction. Despite being taller than its predecessor, this Impreza has a lower center of gravity.
The interior is gorgeous. Word from the auto show floor is that the materials inside the car are every bit as good as the Legacy and Outback, which received an upscale cabin in 2004 (and they arrived here in 2005). I even like the light-colored steering wheel in the 2.5i model. Can't wait to drive one.
Well, Edmunds and Motor Trend have leaked official photos of the third generation Subaru Impreza. The car will be officially unveiled on Thursday April 5th at the New York International Auto Show. The current generation is one of my favorite cars on the road thanks to its unusual styling and rally-inspired full-time all-wheel-drive system (on manual and turbo models only). But the automatic transmission is dated and sluggish, and the interior, while sports car material, lags-behind the cleaner, contemporary cockpit of the Legacy and Outback siblings. A serious redesign was needed. And the initial offering coming this fall is a mixed bag.
Still built in Japan, the Impreza will offer solid mechanics. The suspension has been upgraded. The engine is the same, reliable 2.5-liter flat-4 that drives the Forester and most Legacy and Outback models. With the optional turbocharger, it generates 225HP. However, those who cannot drive stick, including myself, will have to wait for an upgraded gearbox. The dated 4-speed transmission will be carried over to 2008, and it is not practical for use with the turbocharger. So for full-time AWD, you must order the manual tranny.
Subaru's strategy is to dramatically increase sales of the most affordable and practical model, the 2.5i automatic. It will compete against the Volkswagen Rabbit, Golf, Mazda 3, Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Lancer, and Toyota Matrix, which all start under $18,000. The high beltline and increased headroom should make it more appealing, especially for those who are turned-off by a low-riding sports car. The 2.5i Impreza will use the current part-time AWD system, which is shared with the base Forester, Legacy, and Outback. With the exception of the rally-style underbody spoiler in the rear, the exterior styling is more conservative this time around. The compact, chrome grill and low-profile headlights remind me of the 5th generation Toyota Camry, Mazda 3, or even the Nissan Murano crossover.
Subaru enthusiasts are all asking the same thing: "Chrome?" Even the Camry Sports Edition trades-in its chrome grille for one in matte black. So Subaru still does not have a unified grille or face design across its 5-vehicle range. Subaru calls this grille the "mustache" grille, and it is is used by the Outback and Legacy in Europe, as well as the 2008 Tribeca and Impreza. But the Forester and North American Legacy and Outback get something else entirely. On the positive side, the famed Stars of Pleiades emblem on the new Impreza will be extra-large compared to all other Subies. It is no longer the badge for a cheap, inferior car.
The interior is the most significant improvement, and it is a welcome change. It features bigger guages, slightly fewer seams, an available navigation system, and a sculpted dashboard similar to Subaru's flagship, the B9 Tribeca.
So this first-year Impreza is going to try to appeal to everyone who is open to driving a hatchback. No word if the Outback Sport (based on the Impreza) will still be offered in 2008. My guess is that it will be dropped and customers will be encouraged to opt for the Forester if they want a compact car with raised suspension.