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1998 Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS

To leverage its success in rallying, Subaru has launched yet another variant on the wildly adaptable Legacy/Impreza platform: an Impreza twodoor coupe decked out to look like its World

Rally Championship winning cousin.

Problem: despite the fact that rallying is closer to real world driving than road racing; and despite the fact that it's hugely entertaining to do and to watch, there is only a handful of people in this country who know or care what the World Rallying Championship is.

It's tough to leverage something when you have neither a fulcrum that's very strong nor a lever arm that's very long?

Never mind. This is a fun car.

The Impreza coupe is a pleasant if unremarkable looking car.

Subaru adds the giant (fake) hood scoop which my neighbour Cathy loves on her Legacy Outback (she also drives with her fog lights on all the time) and a giant rear deck spoiler that slices

across the rear window about one third of the way up, hindering your view to the rear and occasionally catching your eye, as if someone is sneaking up on you or trying to pass you on the

right. (Cathy's 14 year-old son thinks it's cool, there you go.)

APPROPRIATE IMAGE

Then again, I rather like the trick gold alloy wheels, we all have our little peccadilloes, and the black mesh grille insert and rocker panel ground effect extensions aren't inappropriate

for the image this car is projecting.

My test car was bright red, one of three m'astuvu colours offered on this car, along with a sinister black pearl metallic and a handsome blue pearl metallic that mimics the real rally

cars. Shrinking violets need not apply.

Inside, all 1998 Imprezas benefit from the interior upgrades added to this line with the Impreza based Forester sportcute.

The new dash is still all black, but more rounded in contour, more userfriendly. It also appears to be better assembled from higher quality materials.

The handsome, grippy and durable feeling cloth upholstery on the supportive and comfortable bucket seats is nicely picked up in the door trim panels, although the uncovered vanity mirror on

the passenger's side looks pretty cheap in a $27,000 car. (Okay, it looks really cheap in a $475,000 Bentley Azure convertible.)

The lid of the cubby bin in the centre console is too far back and too low to be an armrest for anyone but an NBA centre. The cupholder is in the bottom of this bin, not terribly handy, but

better than the old Sube design, which blocked access to the radio.

The right front seat automatically glides forward when you pivot the backrest, to ease access to the back seat. Once there, you'll find acceptable if not bingo hall accommodations for two

medium-sized adults.

Neither the 2.0 L turbo four-cylinder engine from the WRC rally car (limited by regulation to 300 hp; yeah, right) nor the similar mill in the Impreza WRX, which my Georgetown neighbours

Trish and Tom McGeer are driving in the Canadian rally championship, have a hope of meeting emissions regulations.

For the road going 2.5 RS, Subaru reached for the 165 hp four-cam 16-valve 2.5 L flat four from the Legacy and Forester.

To hear Subaru Canada's technical guru, Richard Marsan, wax eloquent about the advantages of flat (i.e., horizontally opposed) engines, a la original Volkswagen Beetle, you'd think

this layout was divinely inspired: low centre of gravity; compact; inherently balanced.

So why has virtually every other engine designer in the world abandoned this principle? Is everybody out of step except our boy?

Marsan takes no small pride in the fact that the only other adherent is Porsche. Not bad company.

Every time you fire up any Subaru, you think you've flipped the switch on a washing machine full of walnuts. The pockety pockety of the starter motor is followed by a series of harsh

rasps and wheezes. Geez, is something broken in there?

DISTINCTIVE GRUMBLE

But once it warms up a little, it smooths out to a distinctive grumble; fans of the old Beetle may recognize the exhaust note.

And while it is surely not mainstream for a car to make noises like this, it does add a bit of character to today's increasingly bland and homogeneous field of cars.

And the 162 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000 r.p.m. and a relatively high 9.7:1 compression ratio make this engine punchy and satisfying to drive.

Subaru has a clever TV ad going that takes a shot at Volvo for introducing four-wheel drive as a safety feature, but on only one of their cars. Subaru, a true pioneer in four-wheel drive,

notably in the lower price classes, makes it standard across the board.

Two entirely different systems are available, depending on which transmission you order.

The manual gearbox, like my test car, has a viscous coupled centre differential, splitting torque equally front to rear. If either end loses grip, the centre diff locks instantly and

directs motive force to the other end.

In automatic equipped cars, a sophisticated computer controlled multiplate clutch in the centre diff actually predicts which end of the car is going to need power, based on

wheel slip, throttle position and road speed, and sends just about any proportion of torque to either end as required.

In operation, however, both of these systems are transparent to the driver. No levers to pull, no buttons to push. Stand on it, you go, end of story.

The 2.5 RS also handles crisply and with some feedback; many four-wheel drive cars dull the feedback to the steering wheel, leading to a rather numb, if quick, passage.

And of course, poor road surfaces bother this car barely at all.

My standard caveat, however: if all four-wheel drive does for a pickup truck is get you stuck deeper, farther from home, then in a sporty car, four-wheel drive can let you have your crash at

a higher speed.

You still have to corner, and you still have to brake. The 2.5 RS is handy at both, but don't get seduced by this car's grip.

There is some snatch in the driveline, and I occasionally heard a thump from under there somewhere when trying to accelerate quickly.

Maybe I have to learn to be smoother.

The car is a tad oversprung, the springs are stiffer than necessary, leading to freeway hop on undulating pavement.

It won't bother the sort of person who's attracted to this car, and harshness is well controlled, although there's a fair degree of road noise transmitted through the body shell. This

platform isn't the newest or stiffest in the world, and the knobby tiresprobably don't help.

The Subaru 2.5 RS offers an interesting alternative to more conventional sporty cars. It's an involving car to drive, full of flair and entertainment. There is a fair degree of hooligan

factor built in. It invites spirited driving.

Yet with four-wheel drive and fourchannel ABS, it's safe, too.

At $26,395 ($1,000 more for the automatic), it's good value, coming with such goodies as air conditioning, power sunroof and high-end sound system as standard.

Cruise control is available, but would Tom McGeer or Colin McRae use snooze'n'cruise on a rally?

This car is also well built. I drove a 2.5 RS back to back with a Honda Accord coupe at the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada testfest last fall, and when Subaru is in

the same league as Honda is assembly quality, again, they're in good company.

I wonder, could they unbolt the rear spoiler and hood scoop?

1998 Subaru

Impreza 2.5 RS

Bodystyle 2-door hatchback

Drivetrain All-wheel drive

Engine 165 hp 2.5 L DOHC 16V H4

Transaxles 5-speed man./4-speed aut.

Exterior mm (in.)

Length 4375 (172.2)

Wheelbase 2520 (99.2)

Width 1705 (67.1)

Track front 1468 (57.8)

Track rear 1461 (57.5)

Front seat mm (in.)

Leg room 1094 (43.0)

Shoulder room 1360 (53.5)

Curb weight (base) 1281 kg (2824 lb.)

These specifications are supplied by the manufacturer and can change at any time.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with an Impreza 2.5 RS provided by Subaru Canada. You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at noon.

Email: jbkenzie@interhop.net

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