A BOXER’S TALE
FOR READER SOFA CERTAIN AGE, THE SUBARU WRX WILL EVOKE VISIONS OF NOISY BOY RACE RS, EXHAUST TIPS THAT BURBLE INCESSANT NOISE, AND CAPS WORN IN SUCH A MANNER THAT THEIR INTENDED PURPOSE HAS BEEN AVOIDED ...
FUTURE CLASSIC SUBARUS
For readers of a different age, the WRX will summon thoughts of the 1990s World Rally Championship ( WRC), a Scotsman named Colin Mcrae, a Kiwi named Possum Bourne, and the dawn of the era of accessible all-wheel drive alongside the fearsome Mitsubishi Evolution (tai ho, Quattro fans, we’ll get to you). In this battle, just as with Holden and Ford, fans had their camps and they fervently stuck to them. The pop-culture success of the Subaru WRX in the late 1990s came on the back of the advent of actual race cars on console computer games. It meant that the fans of all things fast and enthusiasts of most things freshly digital had an opportunity. In between sips of Mountain Dew and bites of nachos, we got to drive our hero cars. We got to be Colin Mcrae behind the wheel of the WRX, flying over blind crests on New Zealand roads with our codriver Nicky Grist screaming unintelligible instructions across mono speakers.
Somewhere in between these differing views is a car that has become a staple for fans of everything fast, fun, and affordable. And I’d hazard a guess: these two camps will probably meet in the middle to shake hands, share rations, and discuss why the WRX (in particular, the STI) can now be considered important enough to be a classic.
In the beginning
Subaru was born of its parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries. Until quite recently, a nameplate bearing “Built for Fuji Heavy Industries” could still be found taking pride of place in the engine bay of modern-day Subarus. However, once the company was renamed the ‘Subaru Corporation’, this nod to a time past sadly fell by the wayside.
Subaru’s introduction into New Zealand came in the form of the Brumby and the not-quite-as-well-named Leone. The Brumby was and is a fantastic-to-look-at utility with two seats, a low ride height, and selectable all-wheel drive. The Leone was essentially the same platform as the Brumby, but in the form of a sedan and a station wagon — a format which we now appreciate as the backbone of the Subaru story. While the Brumby and Leone had a certain ‘quirk’ factor, they did little to whet the appetite of the Kiwi consumer.
But, in 1991, things changed for the burgeoning Japanese brand. It got serious about taking on some big hitters, not least of which was a little German brand named Audi. At that time, Audi had already gained an enormous amount of traction with its groundbreaking Quattro product (see what I did there?). The UR Quattro had proven a master stroke in terms of brand awareness and motor sport, with great success in both Group B and in the WRC.
So, in the late 1980s, as the UR Quattro was heading into its twilight, Subaru released the Legacy. A lot of Kiwis — myself included — will remember the RS Legacy as the barnstorming introduction of this all-new setup to the scene: transverse boxer engine with a big single turbo, a short five-speed manual with Japanese all-wheel drive — the recipe was pretty sweet. So, when the WRX was released to the market in 1992, the Legacy became a somewhat muted, family version of the new and sporty WRX ‘crossover’.
The performance car to own
The WRX ( World Rally experimental) took a good product (in the RS and GT Legacy) and made it better. A chassis to die for, grip for days, and pace unheard of for the money, the WRX, according to breathless automotive journalists here and beyond, was the performance car to own in the 1990s.
The reality was that times were different then. The old ‘there’s no replacement for displacement’ argument was strong. “Only milk and orange juice come in 2 litres”, the stickers shouted from the back of SSS and XR8S. It took some time before the market came to terms with the new kid on the block, and a competitive one at that. Not unlike the Nissan R32 Skyline when it took on Bathurst (which we will revisit in New Zealand Classic Car soon), the WRX was seen as an unfair competitor in a fight in which the rules were set in stone.
In hindsight, turbocharging was a step in the right direction. Back in the ’90s, it wasn’t uncommon for turbo cars to get poorer mileage than their V8 counterparts, but modern versions have tipped the balance, and we now know that we’re better off forcing some air through the engine than adding cylinders willy-nilly.