I’ve been writing this story in my head for a long time. Mostly in the shower, on the toilet and sitting at the bus stop. I’d been waiting to buy a Subaru Impreza for a year, and finally there’s one parked outside my apartment. Let me tell you the story of how it came to be.
Being without a car for so long has given me plenty of time to daydream, and it has been both torturous and calming. I’ve spent many evenings scrolling through auction sites, Instagram and other online resources, trying to guide my purchase toward the perfect slice of petrolhead heaven here in Japan.
After owning three Foresters back home in the UK, I thought it might be good to get something that wasn’t a Subaru. While my last Forester STI packed a hefty punch and gripped the road with genuine ferocity, this time I wanted a proper performance car.
Eventually I’d saved enough to start looking to buy, and decided that Yahoo! Auctions was a better bet than paying a broker to purchase me a car at one of the big auction houses. Yahoo! Auctions is mostly full of dealer cars, but there are private sellers too, and like anywhere in the world, private listings usually represent the best deals.
When I saw this 1999 WRX Type RA 555 Limited come up as a private sale, it instantly piqued my interest. Even though it was a Subaru and had two too many doors (I still have my heart set on a coupe), it looked like it would do nicely as a project car, so I decided throw some bids on it.
In Japan, first-gen Impreza values are definitely climbing, in part because there aren’t many left here. That’s true of most JDM legends; the overseas demand is just too high. So, surprisingly I was successful – although I did go well over budget.
The WRX was located a long way from my place in Yokohama, but having been click-happy with bids meant I could no longer afford to have it transported home. This of course meant one thing: road trip.
I took a flight to Kobe then a train to Maiko, and from there hopped on a bus to Anan, near Tokushima on Shikoku Island. It sounds like something out of a Studio Gibli movie, right? The bus journey, although almost four hours long, was actually one of the best parts of the trip; the scenery of Awaji Island is just breathtaking. We crossed over huge suspension bridges, traversed mountains and skimmed the coastline.
Arriving at a lock-up garage in the countryside, I instantly spotted my sight unseen purchase amongst a few other old bangers. As if to mock me, a GC8 STI coupe sat on its haunches nearby, devoid of an engine but enticing nonetheless.
Some of you may say, ‘But Toby, you don’t have a STI.’ That’s true, I didn’t buy an STI, it’s only a WRX – but it is a Type RA variant, which means competition-spec engine and gearbox/diff. In fact, it uses the same engine block, the same internals save for slightly different valves, the same turbo, intercooler and injectors as an STI. And here’s the thing – if I were to get a 22-year-old STI, I’d be replacing almost everything anyway. So, to me it really doesn’t matter if it has pink STI stickers or not; all it needs to be is a blue GC8 in decent condition. If I’m wrong, tell me so in the comments.
After completing the purchase, I stayed the night in Tokushima and then drove another three hours the next morning to a couple of shoots that I’ll share with you soon.
That morning drive through the mountains of Shikoku where special in every way. The punchy little Subaru winding through mountain roads, turbo spooling and the gentle rumble of the boxer engine was intoxicating. And what’s more, the scenery was pretty distracting. Mid-spring in Japan means vibrant green foliage on the mountain sides, the last of the cherry blossoms shedding their pink petals across the roads, and crisp bright sunlight reflections shimmering in the rivers and lakes.
Japanese highways are also amazing and the services are like mini boutique market centres with the cleanest toilets you’ve ever seen. But this level of perfection comes at a cost; the tolls are extortionate. In fact, I had to get off the tolled highways halfway through my journey home, or they would have bankrupted me.
To give you some perspective, the tolls alone cost more than my airfare down to Shikoku and petrol back for the 800+km drive combined…
So why did I decide to purchase a 22-year-old Impreza? Well, everything else I considered had a ‘but’ attached to it. For example, I love the look of the FD3S Mazda RX-7, but the rotary engine just seems like a bigger headache than an EJ boxer. I considered a few two-door performance coupes – the RPS13 180SX, A70 Supra and Z20 Soarer – but they would have just been impractical, and with the exception of the Nissan sit in a higher annual tax bracket. I could probably trade in some practicality for a GT-R, but they’re a bit above my pay bracket right now.
I just kept coming back to the Subaru, and here’s why…
I love the Subaru AWD system; there’s a reason why it took the rally world by storm – it’s fantastic. Sure, rear-wheel drive is cool if you’re drifting through mountains or shredding rubber on track days, but for me, attacking corners with agility and grip is a far more rewarding way to drive.
While the EJ mill may have its problems, I love the idea of a balanced, symmetrical engine with a low centre of gravity. And to be fair, with these engines a lot of the problems experienced are from user error. People drive Impreza production cars like they are works rally machines, thrashing them without the required upgrades or proper maintenance.
Subaru is a tiny company compared to Nissan or Honda, so cars sold to the general public in dealerships are built to deliver a certain level of performance while returning a profit to the manufacturer. Profits can only be made if production costs are kept low.
Sure, it’s not just the drivers, the Subaru boxer engine does have a reputation for blowing head gaskets, but luckily, EJ20 technology and rebuilding techniques have come a long way in the past 20 years. There are numerous ways to combat the characteristic flaws of the engine, and baffled sumps and improved gasket technology is all good progress.
This means that they can be dependable engines and make good power, and there are plenty of reliable 800hp Imprezas out there to prove it. But basically, if you want the EJ engine to perform like those used in rally cars, you have to build them like one.
So what’s the plan for this car? I’m not going to go crazy with it because I really still would like to get a coupe at some point, so I think the majority of the work will be replacing worn or tired components and tidying up anything that makes the car as a whole look a bit shabby.
If anyone has any other suggestions, however, I’m all ears in the comments section.