In the Nineties Ford shied away from big horsepower motors. The Escort RS Cosworth was the last of an era, and under the Karmann bodywork it was a shortened Sapphire Cosworth anyway. The tide was turning, and it was from the East that a new generation would get their turbocharged kicks.
Subaru has already tasted rallying success with Colin McRae at the wheel in the British Rally Championship in Subaru Legacy. But it was with the Impreza that the Scot – and Subaru – made their way firmly into the affections of rallying-obsessed youth.
The Impreza WRX was known as the Impreza Turbo 2000 in the UK. It first appeared in 1992, offering 208bhp. This meant 0-60mph in less than six seconds and a top speed of 137mph. In 1994 Prodrive modified 25 cars with bodywork mods, suspension tweaks and interior trim upgrades.
A year later, to commemorate Colin McRae’s World Rally Championship victory, Prodrive released the Series McRae. This had 240bhp, uprated springs, dampers and anti-roll bars and trim tweaks. This meant better mid-range performance and more incisive handling.
In 1997, 200 ‘Catalunya’ editions were built to celebrate Subaru’s Manufacturer’s Championship win in the WRC; this was more a cosmetic upgrade than anything more serious. It was a trick repeated with the Terzo edition in 1998, celebrating the team’s third championship win – 333 were built. During this time Prodrive offered a conversion kit – unsurprisingly called the Prodrive WR Sport Conversion – which provided 240bhp and 0-60mph in 5.6 seconds. Top speed was 141mph, and the suspension had been tweaked too.
Things got more serious with 1998’s 22B. Built to celebrate 40 years of Subaru, just 16 were intended for the UK market. However, many have been imported privately. Resolutely two-door only and sporting a pumped-up bodykit and truly epic rear wing, it needed a powerplant to match. It came in the form of a 2.2-litre, 276bhp engine that could fling you and your Subaru-branded teamwear to 60mph in 4.7 seconds. That low figure led some to question whether that 276bhp was truly accurate; some suggested anything up to 380bhp but Car & Driver reckoned it was closer to 300bhp. To compensate for all this, there was a twin-plate clutch, forged aluminum lower control arms, Eibach springs, Bilstein dampers and a carbon fibre strut brace. It remains the most prized version of the Impreza.
The RB5 of 1999 was introduced to celebrate Richard Burns’ arrival at the Prodrive office; 444 were built. The optional Prodrive Performance Pack offered 237bhp and tuned suspension. With the options ticked, the RB5 was widely heralded by journalists as the finest of all the UK special editions. It hit 60mph in 5.2 seconds and carried on all the way to 145mph.
In 2000 Subaru released the P1. Based on the two-door coupe bodyshell, 1000 were built. It developed 276bhp, which you could deliver through suitably loud large-bore exhaust for a few extra coins. Bigger brakes were also optional. The gear ratios, ECU and interior were changed, and perhaps incongruously for such a hardcore machine, you could specify leather chairs. This all adds up to a 155mph top whack, 0-60mph in 4.6 seconds and, one would imagine, a keen eye for GATSO speed cameras.
The P1 was made to counter the rise of ‘grey’ imports. These cars were Japanese-market cars that were being sold in the UK at a price that undercut official UK cars. Therefore it’s entirely likely you’ll come across the many, many Japanese-market special editions. It is, therefore, wise to tread carefully; the specifications vary widely and mainly involve an endlessly confusing arrangement of letters and numbers. On the plus side the Japanese cars can have anything up to 300bhp. It’s a list far too long to go into here, but the dedicated and enthusiastic owners’ club will be able to assist.
The Impreza was always inexpensive for the performance it provided. They are tough, robust cars that can take punishment – Colin McRae did win the WRC in one, after all – but skipped maintenance, crash damage and dubious modifications are all in the mix should you choose to step into Scooby land. The very best cars will be cherished, however, and are more than worth the premium over more tired examples.
But buy carefully and you have one of the iconic cars of the Nineties at your fingertips, and your favourite road will never feel the same again.
Subaru Impreza Turbo
Power (bhp@rpm) 208@5600
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 201@4800
Top speed 143mph
Gearbox 5-speed manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Rust can break out in the rear wheelarches, subframes and steering arms; there was a recall for the latter problem. Everything is available to effect repairs, with glassfibre rear wings often fitted to sort out the frilly wheelarches. These aren’t seen as a bodge either, as they permanently eradicate corrosion.
Crashed cars are common, so look for poor repairs; an HPI check (www.hpicheck.com) is worthwhile. The front wings are bolted on, so see if the paint around their retaining bolts is intact. Also see if the rivets that hold the slam panel to the inner wing have been disturbed; if they have, the car has seen some fresh panelwork. Beware of aftermarket sunroofs; factory-fit items are rare, so some owners fit their own. Usually badly.
The boxer engine isn’t stressed in standard form, so it’ll soldier on reliably for high mileages. But it needs a service every 7500 miles (and a new cam belt every 45,000) or it’ll wear quickly. Hard-driven Imprezas need an oil change every 3000-5000 miles, but cars rarely driven in anger can almost double these figures, as long as a top-notch lubricant is used. The engine should have been fed a diet of 99 octane fuel such as Shell V-Power. Anything less isn’t good enough and an octane booster will cause more problems than it solves. Even 97 octane super-unleaded will damage the engine as it’ll just pink, leading to long-term damage.
Turbochargers are strong but not infallible, so look for blue exhaust smoke as the engine idles. This belies worn turbocharger seals; £150 sorts things. More of an issue is tired big-end bearings, so ensure the engine is cold when you first start it up. Bottom-end rattling betrays the fact that a full rebuild is needed; expect to pay £3000. Few used engines are healthy, so buy with extreme care. If an aftermarket exhaust has been fitted, check it fits properly and that it’s not unreasonably loud. Some bigger-bore systems are insanely noisy and really uncomfortable on a long journey.
Transmissions are strong but an abused car may have a slipping clutch or notchy gearbox. Oil leaks from a worn crankshaft seal can also lead to clutch slip, but repairs are straightforward, with new clutch kits costing £210, or £480 fitted. Automatic transmissions were available overseas, but not in the UK. All UK Turbos got a five-speed manual ‘box, which is tough but the cogs can get damaged through abuse, while wear can be accelerated through the fitment of a short-shift. Both will mean a full rebuild is needed, at around £1000.
The suspension is durable, but the anti-roll bar bushes wear out, given away by road noise through the bodyshell. It’s worth replacing the bushes with polyurethane items at £60 per pair, with two needed at each end of the car. Swapping the standard 20mm anti-roll bar for a 22mm item is worthwhile as it reduces understeer and costs just £90. Also check for worn bushes and drop links. For the sake of durability, upgrade to polyurethane items in the case of the former and swap the plastic drop-links for steel items at £39 per pair (two are fitted at each end of the car).
Change the rubber steering rack mounting bushes for polyurethane items to improve steering precision; they’re £14 each and take an hour to swap over. If the tyres have worn unevenly it’s probably because the wheels have been kerbed. If you’re lucky it may be just misaligned tracking, but the whole of the suspension may be out of kilter.
An untouched electrical system will be reliable, but many looms have been butchered. So look out for aftermarket stereo or security systems or extra lighting and inspect any wiring you can see (under the dash and in the engine bay). If there are nasties here, there’s a good chance it’ll be worse out of sight.
You’ll struggle to find a completely original-spec Turbo, but many upgrades make the car more usable – be wary of engine modifications that compromise reliability though. Also look out for abused cars that have been driven mercilessly on one track day after another; the Turbo is great on a circuit, but such conditions are notoriously harsh for any car.