2006 Subaru Impreza; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
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By Chris Chase
2006 Subaru Impreza
Remember the Subaru Loyale? Neither do a lot of other people. That’s kind of a shame, because while they were slow and noisy, they were cool, particularly the all-wheel drive versions, and especially in the winter time.
By the early 1990s, though, Subaru needed a car that looked a little less, well, eighties, and could better contend with the compact competition from its Japanese rivals. Enter the Impreza, the Loyale’s replacement that was introduced for the 1993 model year. It was actually sold alongside the Loyale until that car’s not-a-moment-too-soon demise (not to be mean or anything) after 1994.
This week’s column picks up the Impreza’s story in 2002, when Subaru decided it was time North Americans got a taste of the turbocharged rally-bred WRX that had been on sale in Europe and Japan for a number of years. It was also the year Subaru updated the Impreza’s looks for the first time, creating a conundrum for many: they wanted the car for the gobs of grip and prodigious power, but had a hard time getting past its bug-eyed front end.
At least some people felt that way. Most of them must have gotten over it, though, because the WRX sold like mad, and in turn, made the rest of the Impreza line-up that much cooler in all its cross-eyed glory. The weirdness was short-lived, however, as Subaru gave the 2004 Impreza a more conventional face to pacify the masses. Also that year, the wicked, one-step-removed-from-a-rally-circuit WRX STi was introduced.
2002 Subaru WRX; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
In 2006, the Impreza was restyled yet again. The car also got some safety upgrades, as Subaru changed the front airbags to dual-stage units, and non-WRX cars finally got side-impact airbags. These cars, when equipped with the optional automatic transmission, also got a more advanced all-wheel drive system than previous auto-tranny cars.
As is Subaru’s tendency, these Imprezas used horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engines. In non-WRX cars, it was a 2.5-litre version making 165 horsepower, until 2006, when output was upgraded to 173 hp. The WRX used a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine making 227 hp until it was replaced by a 2.5-litre turbo unit, also in 2006. The bigger engine only gained three horsepower, but posted larger gains in torque – 235 lb-ft, up from 217 in the 2.0-litre engine. The range-topping STi carried on with its 300-hp, 2.5-litre turbo engine.
Transmission choices were a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic in non-turbo and WRX models. The STi was offered only with a six-speed manual.
Trim designations changed through these few years, but what remained constant was the fact that both base and WRX models could be had in sedan or wagon form, while the STi was sold only as a sedan. The Outback Sport was a neat choice, combining a taller ride height with body cladding that recalled the larger, Legacy-based Outback.
Reliability has been good, though there are a few trouble spots of which to be aware.
2002 Subaru WRX; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
The 2.5-litre engine is known for head gasket failures. It’s a very common problem, but so far, it appears Subaru has been unwilling to acknowledge it as a design flaw. However, it seems this mainly affects non-turbo engines.
Consumer Reports also notes transmission issues in both turbo and non-turbo Imprezas. While I couldn’t find any specific information online, my guess is that failed clutches and gearboxes caused by “over-enthusiastic” driving could be the source of these complaints.
A member of our forums and experienced Subaru owner says head gasket leaks on later 2.5-litre Subarus will be mostly external (as in, coolant will only leak out of the engine, and not into the combustion chambers and crankcase) and can often be avoided with “frequent coolant changes and the use of Subaru’s coolant conditioner.” The WRX’s turbocharged benefits from better headgaskets (to deal with elevated combustion pressures) and a different head design. Also, he says the transmissions in 2002 WRXs are weaker than those used in 2003-and-newer models; choosing the newer car is worth it, he says, for the peace of mind.
Despite the noted issues, Consumer Reports recommends the Impreza as a solid used car choice, and gives the car an above-average reliability rating for most model years as far back as 2002.
On the safety front, Imprezas sold as 2002 through 2005 models scored well in U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests, earning four and five stars for driver and front passenger protection, respectively, in frontal impacts. It also scored four stars for front seat occupant protection in side impact tests, but these earlier cars weren’t tested for rear-seat side impact protection.
2006 and 2007 models, which were tested for rear-seat side impact safety, scored four stars in this category.
From the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the 2002-2007 Impreza scored the highest “good” rating in that organization’s frontal offset crash test, while 2006 and 2007 models – the only years side airbags were standard across the line – scored a “good” rating for front and rear seat occupants in side impact testing.
2006 Subaru Impreza 2.5i Sport Wagon; photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge
While the Impreza’s powerful engines and standard all-wheel drive were standout features in its class, those same characteristics take their toll on fuel economy. In non-turbo cars, EnerGuide fuel consumption figures fall into the 10.0-11.0 L/100 km range in city driving and 7.0-8.0 L/100 km on the highway, depending on whether the car is fitted with a manual or automatic transmission.
In a WRX, official ratings fall between 11.4 and 12.2 L/100 km in the city and 8.0-8.5 L/100 km on the highway, again, depending on the choice of manual or automatic gearbox.
For the STi, official numbers are 13.4/9.1 L/100 km (city/highway).
My wagon leanings make my choice of Impreza a hatchback model. I tend to stay away from high-performance cars as a rule, mainly because they tend to suffer more at the hands of previous owners.
However, the suggestion that the WRX is less prone to head gasket trouble makes it an appealing choice, even if it is significantly more expensive than a non-turbo model as a used car. A 2005 WRX wagon is worth $14,225, while a 2006 version of the same carries a value of $19,075.
Compared to other used compacts, the Impreza is pricey. Factor in all-wheel drive, strong reliability and solid crashworthiness, though, and these little Subarus begin to look like a mighty good value to anyone who wants performance and practicality in a single car. Plus, you can actually look forward to winter driving one of these cars. Four-wheel-drift, anyone?
Red Book Pricing (avg. retail) January 2009:
The North American Subaru Impreza Owners Club is arguably THE place to be if you own an Impreza of any kind. A close second is ClubWRX.net, which isn’t quite as busy as NASIOC, but still offers lots of good information. Also worth a look is UltimateSubaru.net.
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Crash test results
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.
For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.