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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Is the Subaru WRX still a rally legend like its Impreza predecessor?

Renowned for its rough-and-ready racing capabilities, the Subaru WRX STI can still get up to mischief, despite rumours of its imminent demise, as Adam Workman finds out

There probably isn’t a car as intrinsically linked with modern-day rally driving as the Subaru Impreza. In recent years, that has even been acknowledged by its name-change to the WRX – an abbreviation of World Rally Cross.

But after propelling legends such as Colin McRae and Richard Burns to World Rally Championship titles in the competition’s latter-day golden age of the mid-1990s to early 2000s, has its heyday now passed? At the same time as the Japanese car maker celebrates its 50th anniversary in its main market in the US – last year, more than two thirds of its sales were in the States – there have even been rumours that the WRX may have its production cancelled entirely. A “Final Edition” of the top-ranking WRX STI in the UK hardly helped to quell such talk, where apparently the car will indeed no longer be available after this model year.

But while the future is still a little hazy, the present is rather blurry if you’re in a WRX STI – and I can confirm that latter proclamation is very much in a good way. I have the pleasure of (legally) liberating one from Al Adiyat Automobiles, the Subaru dealer in Abu Dhabi, for a day – and quite an enjoyable day it is too.

The fun of stick-shift driving is, sadly, all too rare in the UAE. Sure, you don’t miss it in rush-hour traffic, but nothing quite beats the thrill of manually dropping down a gear, applying your right foot to the right-hand pedal and feeling like: “I did that.” It always takes a few minutes

to fully reacquaint yourself with clutch control, but hey, this is a mighty fun car to over-rev and, with its whale tail spoiler, live out some of your teenage-racer hooligan fantasies – within the speed limits and laws of the road, naturally.

My test car is in the classic Impreza blue that will be familiar to McRae and Burns fans. McRae was so revered by Subaru owners that more than a thousand of them gathered with their cars to pay tribute to him after his death in a helicopter crash in 2007. You can’t say that about the relationship between many car makers and civilian drivers.

The WRX STI retains the visual spirit of the car that propelled those two pro drivers, who are both sadly no longer with us – McRae’s demise followed Burns’ equally untimely death from a brain tumour in 2005. The modern-day car’s snubby grille certainly gives off a dose of menace, as does the trademark bonnet scoop.

Colin McRae competing in the World Rally Championship in his Subaru Impreza. AFP
Colin McRae competing in the World Rally Championship in his Subaru Impreza. AFP

What the WRX doesn’t get its fair due for is that it is actually a rather practical proposition. The Impreza was originally meant as a family car – decent space for rear passengers and the proportions of the averagely large boot are continuing testament to that fact. It has useful tech for everyday use, such as rain-sensing windscreen wipers and dual-zone air conditioning. Keep things sensible and you could easily take the children to class in one – although, as a colleague once found out on a previous stint in such a Subaru, your offspring’s mates may think you are (to use a politer equivalent) a flashy show-off.

Once you’re behind the wheel, though, there is no doubting the chief purpose of the WRX STI, with flashes of angry red everywhere, from the gear lever tip to dials and STI logos. The secondary display atop the dashboard, showing engine vitals on a far more technical level, will leave no illusions that this isn’t a school-run staple in spirit.

The turbocharged 2.5-litre engine is good for 300hp, or as near as matters, and can tear you from 0 to 100kph in 5.2 seconds. And when that turbo kicks in, there is a glorious moment where you can’t help but know that it is doing its work – it is a scaled-down version of that sensation when an aircraft jets into its final take-off launch.

The all-wheel drive keeps things on the straight and narrow on-road, and also means that any McRae/Burns-style diversions on to dirt tracks and the like are entirely stress-free. More than that: you will savour them.

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In my native Britain, perceptions of the Impreza/WRX have been clouded by a couple of decades of modification-happy owners doing all kinds of inhuman things to the car, often resulting in exhaust systems that could start a sonic war and paint jobs fit to catalyse migraines. But in the UAE, there are no such preconceptions: the WRX STI’s relative rarity makes it stand out splendidly.

More than a quarter of a century since the model was originally introduced, it continues to make a cultural impact. When last year’s slick heist movie Baby Driver needed a car for its chief protagonist to sling about with handbrake-wrenching abandon in its opening scenes, a bright-red 2006 Impreza was sourced. It looked, frankly, cool as heck.

In the wake of the movie’s success, that very car was sold for US$69,100 (Dh253,811) on eBay. Not much more than half of that will buy you a brand new WRX STI. With or without Hollywood magic sprinkled all over it, the WRX STI is still something special that isn’t ready to join the great car yard in the sky quite yet.