30 years ago, on October 22nd, one of Japan’s smallest car manufacturers debuted a brand new production car destined for the World Rally Championship (WRC). Today, during its birthday month, we celebrate the legendary Subaru Impreza WRX.
You’ve all seen one, and if not you’ve most definitely heard one. The Impreza’s distinctive boxer burble is as recognisable as the famous blue and golden yellow colour palette from its WRC glory days. This is a car that really needs no introduction, but for the sake of ceremony, let’s have a quick recap…A Star Is Born
Prior to the Impreza WRX’s development, Subaru had, since 1980, been championing their Leone RX Turbo and Legacy RS models on the World Rally Championship stage. Both of those cars used the same recipe that the Impreza would inherit and become famous for: a turbocharged boxer engine mated to a 5-speed transmission sending power to all four wheels via a symmetrical all-wheel drive system.
Subaru finally achieved WRC victory in 1991, with Colin McRae at the wheel of a Legacy.
Development of the new Impreza took note of all the little niggles that the Legacy RS had presented, and put all the necessary corrections into a road car destined for rally. Big air scoops built into the front bumper, a large hood scoop for the improved intercooler design, and a rear wing to help with downforce were all design cues that Subaru implemented.
From the get-go, the flagship Impreza model was called the WRX (World Rally eXperimental), a pretty big hint as to its intended purpose the following year.
Development of the Impreza was guided by Prodrive, and when I met with Akira Teshima (one of the original designers of the car) last year, he told me that rally was very much on their minds. In fact, the front air ducts of the WRX were heavily influenced by the front end of another successful rally car – the Lancia Delta Integrale.
When the Impreza first appeared on World Rally Championship special stages in 1993, it hit the ground running (after flying over a long crest of course). It would have almost certainly taken victory on its first event if the windshield hadn’t fogged up, making it impossible for driver Ari Vatanen to see where he was going.
There were quite a few works cars prepared by Prodrive, some of the famous ones recognisable by their licence plates – N555 BAT, L555 REP (pictured above) and the most coveted of them all, L555BAT. Unfortunately we couldn’t get an audience with the champion, but we did find another of McRae’s cars at Prodrive HQ.
N1WRC is the last car that Colin McRae drove before Subaru switched to WRC cars.
Today, this car is kept safe at Prodrive headquarters. Not only is it an important piece of rally history, but also testament to the sheer brilliance of Prodrive and the Scottish driver who took them to the top.
Group A was Subaru’s most successful period in rallying, with lessons learned from the Legacy rally program applied to the newly-released Impreza model. Group A regulations mandated a strict set of technical guidelines, but as with any high-end motorsport, a degree of interpretation followed.
Subaru pulled no punches when it came to their production model for Group A homologation – the STI (Subaru Tecnica International) Type RA. There were no concessions to comfort; no air-conditioning, ABS or electric windows inside, and a redundant 5th injector in the intake manifold, aluminium bonnet and more aggressive differentials fitted externally. The Group A rally car then went a step further and introduced active differentials, a first in the WRC.
With McRae, Sainz and Vatanen (amongst others) in the drivers’ seats over the term, Subaru had a winning combination.
In 1997, the FIA simplified the rules, ditching Group A in favour of a new set of restrictions (or lack of). This gave way to the World Rally Car era.
Motorsport’s governing body wanted to attract more manufacturers into the sport, so changed the number of production cars required for homologation and gave a little more leash on modifications, harking back to the glory days of Group B rallying.
Subaru decided to throw all its resources into building a new Impreza to take advantage of the new regulations. This is when things started getting spicy.
Nothing says late-1990s than bold colours and rock star attitudes. The new Subaru WRC car had both in spades.
Prodrive turned to McLaren designer Peter Stephens to conceive an iconic car that would stand out from the competition. The new car was based on the two-door coupe version of the Impreza, with 80mm extra width, sculpted in clay and tested at the MIRA aerodynamic wind tunnel in the UK.
The new car was far more balanced than its predecessor; the Group A machine had more lift than downforce, so the work carried out by Peter Stephens helped immensely in this respect. The side skirts, front bumper, larger front splitter and now unmistakably Subaru rear wing all helped to quell the original car’s tendency to waft rather than stick.
That, and everything else, transformed the rally car into something other-worldly compared to the production road car.
But the new cars not only looked like rock stars, they performed like virtuosos. Working under Subaru World Rally Team technical director David Lapworth, the team at Prodrive pioneered a few technical advancements on the Impreza which would later become standard fare for all WRC cars. Hydraulically-controlled paddle shift transmissions and electronically adjustable suspension were two things that gave the Impreza an edge in competition.
Both W24 SRT and R30WRC, shot especially for this feature, are Prodrive prepared WRC cars which benefited from such technology.
After the global financial crisis in 2007/2008, Subaru reluctantly withdrew from the World Rally Championship stage. For a small company that had become the David to many Goliaths, it must have been a tough decision to make.
Luckily, the Impreza isn’t just a rally car though. It’s also a great road car, time attack car, grip car and autocross car. There are even people who drift and drag race them. Sure, the production Imprezas don’t quite live up to the durability of the works-built machines, but the peppy turbocharged flat-four engine and all-wheel drive makes them one of the most engaging affordable cars you can get your hands on.
They continue to bring joy to thousands across the globe, and 3o years is an Imprezive milestone (get it?). The loyalty is still strong in Japan, and on this anniversary weekend, I made the pilgrimage to the iconic Mt Haruna (the real-world setting of Initial D) to join Teshima-san and a few hundred other GC8 nerds to celebrate the anniversary.
More on this plus a closer look at a very special Impreza soon.
Additional Photos by Chaydon Ford
New WRX isn't a bad car - biggest problem is that it lives in the shadows of its predecessors. This is common amongst many current Japanese cars that are compared to their bubble-economy era forerunners.
Twitter finger haters will continue to hate. But take one out for a drive, sit in the cabin, take a minute to realize its almost 2023 and that the world moves on. Be grateful the nameplate still exists and its not an EV
Yes absolutely! The new WRX is a really good car for what it is and yes it does have some flaws but for the value you;re getting it's hard to fault for it, even I have considered getting one
It's just that Subaru as a brand is just falling off as the WRX and BRZ are the only cars worth getting whereas the rest of the lineup just falls behind the rest of the competition even cars like the Forester and Legacy used to be cool now they're just like any other traffic car on the road there is also the Levorg which is also pretty neat but sadly it's only available in specific markets outside of America I wonder why Subaru didn't think of making the Levorg for the North American market knowing that they already have a big fanbase for the WRX
And the fact that the STI as a halo car is no more that almost hits the final nail in the coffin as I would say that was Subaru's last great car yes it's not the 90s anymore but c'mon even Toyota has more exciting cars now especially with the GR Corolla which fills the void for the STI
Still it's great that there is a new WRX that is not an EV and still has a manual and still is affordable but that's about the only new car worth getting from Subaru along with the BRZ unless you prefer the GR86
Legacy Wilderness is the only "cool" vehicle outside of WRX and BRZ. Its pretty cool but not in the enthusiast kind of way. More like a Defender 90 kind of cool.
Subaru does not offer Levorg likely because cars of this size and configuration do not do well in North America. Look at smartly packaged cars that failed in that market yet excelled elsewhere. First gen Honda Odyssey, Mazda 5, Chevy Orlando, etc...
Yeah I guess so and sadly the only cool wagons that are available are the V60 Polestar which is like 70k then you have the Panamera Sport Turismo, E63S Wagon, RS6 Avant, and Taycan GTS Sport Turismo which are well over 100k so it's sad that we don't have any cool wagon that is in the affordable range
I just thought the Levorg would be a great idea because it is just like the WRX but a wagon which is more practical and more versatile and it is still around 30k which is attainable for a lot of people that has got to work somehow... right?
Want to drive affordable cool wagons? Time to move overseas hahaaa
Closest wagon similar to ones you mentioned would be a Benz C43 wagon but that's only available in Canada (-_-)
Oh yeah lol how come they always get nicer things than us right?
Well I have been living in the US my entire life and I actually like it here I love this country especially the community and culture there's a lot of diversity here too
There's still a lot of great cars on the American market (Yes really! No I'm not talking about crossovers) so there's that
But depending on my job and my career, I might get a chance to live overseas so we shall see about that
I love the way the door panels fit around the cage....
I’ve owned 3 GC/GF bodied Imprezas over the years. None of which were the spicy WRX versions. We didn’t get those until the ‘bugeye’ in Canada. However, I still loved every minute of driving them in the snow. Timeless design. I’ve been looking at them lately and have the go ahead from the Mrs to buy one when the right one pops up! Great article. Happy Birthday Impreza!
I bought the 1998 RS2.5 brand new off the showroom floor and fell in love with Subaru instantly. Alot of people I worked with along with my friends and family started looking at Subaru in a whole different way. The 98 impressed everyone that was around me. I purchased the 2012 STI and it did not disappoint me at all. I still have both cars, 98 has 275,000 miles on it, 2012 just short of 60,000 miles, and my love for them continues on. Looking to expand my garage by getting a WRX next. I will never get rid of the 2 I have. Subaru fan for life. Thank you Colin McCrae
Happy birthday dear Impreza, the car that moves my heart always your fun.
I really hate to be that guy, as most of this article is awesome... buuuuuuut McRae didn't win the WRC in N1 WRC. He was driving the legendary L555 BAT, which isn't even mentioned in this article!? It's literally the most famous Group A Impreza, come on guys! N1 WRC was his less than legendary 96 car.
Glad to see that Subaru is still making the iconic WRX despite the recent backlash still great value for what you're getting $30k for a turbo, AWD, manual car that is more fun than the GTI
It's quite sad to see that they discontinued the STI and it's one of the last great cars of Subaru really
Even in an age where EVs are dominant, you still have cars like the Civic Type R, Golf R which is probably the last ICE gen, the RS3 which still has the five banger, and now the GR Corolla quite a shame really it's a missed opportunity that Subaru didn't make a new STI and even if it will come back as an EV it will never be the same or as good as it originally was they lost an entire fanbase and market which have already moved on to something else