Subaru Impreza WRX (1994-98): Buyer's Guide

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Stuart Grant

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Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98)
Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98)
Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98)
Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98)
Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98)
Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98)
Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98) Subaru WRX (1994-98)

Backed by rally success Subaru’s pocket rocket redefined the performance car market

Subaru Impreza WRX (1994-98): Buyer's Guide
Subaru WRX (1994-98)

 

Subaru Impreza WRX (1994-98)

New parents during the 1970s who rocked to the rumble of Aussie V8s would have been shocked to think the sound that would inflame their offspring on the day they reached driving age would come from a Subaru.

For the first two decades of its presence in the Australian market, Subaru was characterised by utilitarian design and the chugging durability of a desperately underpowered ‘boxer’ engine. Then came the Impreza WRX.

Subaru’s World Rally car – the ‘X’ purportedly standing for ‘experimental’ – arrived here in February 1994. Where the standard front-wheel drive Impreza had 1.8 litres and was drabness personified, the all-wheel drive WRX used an enhanced version of the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine seen first in the RS Turbo Liberty.

With 155kW and 1245kg to propel, the WRX instantly acquired a reputation as a giant-killer. Magazines pitched it into comparison tests against more exotic and expensive models and the ‘Rex’ was never disgraced.

Wheels tester Paul Gover questioned at the time whether, 15 years on, the WRX might have been "relegated to irrelevance by a utility transport generation". Well, PG, almost a decade-and-a-half from the day you wrote those words, early WRXs remain absolutely relevant and probably more desirable than recent versions.

Subaru Australia could barely contain its glee. During 1985 and ’86, it had equipped some of the country’s better off-road steerers with ‘Group N’ versions of its RX Turbo sedan and been rewarded with back-to-back Australian Rally Championships, but nobody wanted an RX as a road car. The WRX was a vastly more saleable prospect and, in the teen-speak of the era, ‘sick as’.

Success took a while to manifest, but for a decade after winning its first title in 1996 Team Subaru led by the late and irreplaceable Peter ‘Possum’ Bourne owned the ARC. Overseas, WRXs cleaned up national titles in a variety of arenas and scored three World Rally Manufacturers’ titles.

Two versions were offered – a sedan and very useful five-door Hatch with enough carrying capacity to double as a very rapid delivery vehicle. Launch price was $39,990 but during 1995 that climbed past $45,000.

Interior trim was functional and equipment pretty basic for a car costing $40,000. Air-conditioning and ABS were standard, as were power windows, a leather-bound steering wheel and leather-topped gear-lever.

‘Special’ editions became a feature of Subaru’s marketing strategy for the WRX. Its first limited-volume variation arrived late in 1995 with the announcement of a ‘Prodrive Blue’ model that had been produced to commemorate Subaru’s first WRC series win.

Two years later came Club Spec versions of the sedan (200 made) and Hatch (140). These rarities cost $2500 more than standard versions when new but in today’s market are only slightly dearer.

The most significant adjunct to WRX driveability was the addition in late-1996 of a four-speed automatic transmission option. Instantly, the people whose only objection to Rex ownership was the need for frequent gearchanging had no further excuse.

 

ON THE ROAD

There is no doubt that this is an uncompromising car that requires a driver to bear clearly in mind the intent of its design.

Virtually nothing occurs until engine revs reach 2500rpm, so deft use of the gearlever is essential to ensure you don’t get beaten to that gap in the traffic by 30-year old Corollas. For city use, the automatic version offers advantages since the shifter can be flipped quickly between second and third gears to keep the turbo bubbling away.

Winding, bumpy bitumen and unsealed rural roads are the Rex’s element. Combining a short wheelbase with understeer-biased handling ensures that the car can be punted along at a decent pace without taxing the capabilities of most drivers.

Pushing the car closer to its potential demands far more from car and driver. Maintaining boost while under brakes is difficult unless you master the left-foot braking technique employed by rally drivers and recognise the punishment this inflicts on the brakes and transmission.

Rapid and secure progress on wet bitumen demands judicious use of the lower gears to maintain boost and cautious power application.

Luggage space in the sedan is reasonable but the hatch offers exceptional versatility for family or activity-minded owners. With the rear seats in use, load-space is equivalent to the sedan’s; lowering them uncorks sufficient space for your camping gear plus a couple of mountain bikes.

Fuel consumption depends to a degree on how and where the car is being driven. Puttering around the suburbs is likely to return better than 10L/100km but letting Rexie off the leash drops that figure by 30-40 percent.

Brakes are adequate for a car with the WRX’s performance potential but can suffer noticeably during long and fast mountain descents or on the racetrack. Upgrades are available if your car will be frequently used under competitive conditions.

 

Buyer’s Checklist

 

BODY & CHASSIS

Poor-quality crash repairs are a major issue with older WRXs. Check panel gaps, orange-peel paint and misaligned bumpers and windows that whistle due to poor sealing. A Subaru expert can tell at a glance whether the panels are original or replacements. Most cars won’t have done a lot of off-road work but a glance underneath for scarred sills and stone damage to the floorpan is advisable. The low-mounted foglights are susceptible to damage. Rust isn’t usually a problem but check the boot for water entry and any crash-repaired areas.

 

ENGINE & TRANSMISSION

WRX engines need to be evaluated from cold and when warm, so make sure your test drive gives the engine sufficient time to reach full temperature. At start-up listen for bearing rumble and timing chain rattles. Once the car has been given a decent run, allow it to idle and look for underbonnet oil smoke and coolant leaks. White exhaust smoke indicates imminent turbo failure. Oil changes every 5000km are recommended and coolant must be replaced annually. Clutch shudder is common and early gearboxes slightly notchy but not noisy. A gearbox that crunches on fast second-third upshifts has synchromesh problems. Rear differentials will normally clunk a little but serious thumps signify a costly problem. Synthetic transmission oil is recommended to reduce heat and prolong component life.

 

SUSPENSION & BRAKES

Undersized brakes are a WRX bugbear and hard use will warp rotors. Larger, after-market brakes are available and cost from $200 to more than $2000 per rotor. Front driveshafts cop a hammering so turn tightly at low speed and listen for clicking sounds that reveal constant velocity joint wear. Power steering and driveshaft joint leaks, exhaust system damage and scuffed wheel rims are other areas to check while at ground level.

 

INTERIOR & ELECTRICS

Interior squeaks and rattles are endemic but check that the roof lining is securely in place. The temperature controls look like throwbacks to Subaru’s bush-bashing Brumby utility and can jam or fail to operate. Seat trim is durable but the seat-squab adjusters wear. A seat that collapses under acceleration can leave the driver horizontal and unable to reach the brake pedal.

 

SPECIFICATIONS: FAST FACTS

Subaru Impreza WRX, 1994-98

 

Number built: MY94-98 sedan: 3216, MY94-98 hatch: 996 (Australia only)

Body: all-steel, integrated body/chassis, four-door sedan and five-door hatch

Engine: 2.0-litre, horizontally-opposed four-cylinder with double overhead camshafts per bank, fuel injection and single turbocharger

Power & Torque: 155kW @ 6000rpm, 270Nm @ 4800rpm

Performance: 0-100km/h – 7.1secs,  0-400m – 14.9secs

Transmission: all-wheel drive, five-speed manual or four-speed automatic (1996 onwards)

Suspension: Front – independent with struts, coil springs and anti-roll bar. Rear – independent with struts, coil springs and anti-roll bar

Brakes: disc front and rear with power assistance and ABS

Tyres: 205/55R15 radial

Contacts: WRX Clubs in most states

Website: www.wrx.com.au

 

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