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BBC Autos

Impreza: Long live the king

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“It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” So sings Neil Young, on My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), a line later seared into the public conscience when Kurt Cobain quoted it in his suicide note.

The Subaru Impreza Turbo – the WRX STi in current parlance – should have blown out in a cloud of atomised rubber, roasted clutch and whistling overboost. Instead, it has ignored Neil and simply faded away. When Subaru’s UK operation quietly announced just before Christmas that it would no longer be importing the car once its current stock was sold, you probably didn’t notice. Even with a Mayan apocalypse looming then, this is a scandal.

You see, for some of us, the Impreza’s demise actually is an end-of-the-world moment. Well, the end of an era, at least. It seems like only yesterday that I was writing a fulsome tribute to the Subaru, adrift in memories of B-roads we had obliterated together, or the telephone-number-priced supercars we had comfortably outpaced, and proclaiming it car of the decade. Actually, that was 13 years ago, and a lot has happened since then, such as broadband, smartphones, and Simon Cowell. But believe me: the Impreza Turbo truly was the car of the decade. And now it is no more.

In fact, we need to go further back, to 1994, the year the Impreza Turbo arrived in the UK, with barely a blip on the radar. Following a nasty recession, life was getting good again, especially if you were young and male. Loaded magazine had just been launched, crystallising the ‘new lad’ subculture, which found fresh expression in booze, birds, and Britpop. But there was a strong automotive element to this subcultural rejuvenation, too. Max Power magazine reflected and stoked the burgeoning modification scene, to an often eye-popping degree. Meanwhile, on television, some bloke called Jeremy Clarkson had given ageing BBC warhorse TopGear a Cuban-heeled boot up the arse.

In other words, without really knowing it, the Subaru Impreza Turbo was the right car at the right time. Normally, you can spot these things, and clever marketing will make you buy something you never even knew you wanted. In the Eighties, that was certainly the case. It was the hot hatch we all aspired to then, the 205 GTI/XR3/ Clio 16v sub-breed eventually morphing into slavering beast-cars such as the Lancia Delta Integrale and Escort RS Cosworth. I remember driving both as a callow youth in his first job, but I was immensely lucky: I worked on a car magazine, which meant I didn’t need to worry about insuring the damn things. By 1994, even Croesus would have had trouble covering the premium on a Cossie.

Enter the Impreza, stage left. Rally stage left. So ugly it made a bulldog chewing its way out of a wasp nest look like Kate Moss, the Impreza quickly connected with those in the know in three simple but effective ways: it was powerful, it had all-wheel drive so it handled the typically damp British B-road with spectacular effectiveness, and it wasn’t that expensive. It was also a Subaru, the oddball little automotive division of Fuji Heavy Industries, popular with Cumbrian farmers and, it was rumoured at the time, American lesbians. No adland twonk with a coke habit could have dreamt up the Impreza Turbo, and he probably wouldn’t have bought one, either. It just sort of… happened.

Its success soon went viral, and this in an era when word of mouth meant exactly that, and the internet was still held together with sticky tape. The motoring media did its bit, of course, but fans of the Scooby found out for themselves what the fuss was about, then told their friends. It was a car that inspired a community of likeminded souls. The whole scene was as unpretentious as the Impreza’s cabin.

It was a British thing, too, and even more than that a Celtic thing, thanks to the World Rally Championship and one of its most noted protagonists. The Irish have always loved rallying, and the car was an absolute weapon on Ulster’s perilous drumlins. But it was a Scottish driver, Colin McRae, who really put Subaru on the map when he won the world championship in his Prodrive-backed, vivid blue 555 Impreza in 1995. McRae – whose mantra was “If in doubt, flat out” – was ultimately out-pointed by Mitsubishi’s Tommi Mäkinen and subsequently moved to Ford, but McRae’s protégé Richard Burns won the driver’s title for Subaru in 2001. Both men are indelibly linked to the Impreza. All three are now sadly gone.

It’s possible that you – or more likely your kids – still play the Colin McRae Rally computer game (the PlayStation generation having usurped the Loaded lads as Y2K came round). But one thing I can tell you is that in 20 years of doing this job, few cars have delivered the TKO of the Impreza.

All sorts of Imprezas, in fact. Once the UK importer realised what was going on, not to mention how many cars were invading the country as grey imports, we were carpet-bombed with different variants, bearing increasingly preposterous names.

The original – which you could probably swap for a portion of fish and chips these days – remains a personal highlight, if only because I’ll never forget my first go in one. The 208bhp, flat-four boxer 2-litre thrumming away, the agricultural yet strangely satisfying gearbox, all topped off with the most unbelievable handling: there’s not much to be said for Peterborough, but here was a car that made perfect sense on the city’s endless roundabouts, the greasier they were, the better.

Then there was the RB5, a 444-strong limited edition with 240bhp and a lusty 258 torques in Prodrive form. A driver-controlled centre diff meant no ABS on the 280bhp WRX STi V Type R, which was sort of grey and also had a carbon-fibre strut brace, Brembo brakes, a short-throw gearshift, and, yes, a water spray for the intercooler. The 280bhp P1 could do 60mph in 4.6 seconds, McLaren F1 designer Peter Stevens did his best to make it look conventionally sexy (the rear wing was mega), and the Subaru Tecnica International (STi) skunkworks bequeathed it top-notch aluminium wishbones, springs and dampers. All for £31k in late 1999.

We wanted them all. But the daddy, and a car I’d happily swap a limb for even now, 14 years later, was the 22B. This bruiser was based on the WRX two-door coupe, 20mm wider at the front, 40mm at the back, and packed a bored-out 2.2-litre engine, twin-plate ceramic-metal clutch, and anything up to 400bhp, depending on what grade of loony had tuned it and whose dyno you ran it on. The 22B also had a seamwelded chassis, and, boy, could you tell. Not so much a car as a series of controlled explosions, it was the one Impreza that would bite back if you weren’t paying attention.

Nobody could have topped that. In 2000, a willfully ugly all-new model appeared, and although 2001’s UK300 version was a belter, 2003’s facelift easier on the eye and the later WR1 managed to wring 311bhp out of that redoubtable 2.0-litre flat-four, the momentum was gradually, inevitably slipping away. In 2008, the next-generation car appeared as a too-soft, overly complex hatchback, and though the 395bhp Cosworth CS400 version got close to 22B levels of inspired lunacy, there were only 75 of them, and they cost £49,995 each. The game was up.

So, what did kill the Impreza Turbo? Partly economics: the unfavourable exchange rate meant it was hard to make money on it, even as its UK price headed improbably northward. Its poor emissions and fuel economy were marginalising it, too, and the sad decline of the WRC, and Subaru’s absence from the sport, robbed it of its USP. And maybe – whisper it – some of its core audience had simply grown up and moved on. It happens.

But aren’t we forgetting something here? The Subaru BRZ weighs 1,220kg, has 200bhp, is defiantly rear-wheel drive and costs just under £25,000. It’s on sale right now, and we love it.

Subaru, fade away? Not just yet.

This story originally appeared in the February 2013 edition of TopGear magazine.