Subaru – tuned to turbo tenacity

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IOL Mot feb7 subauroldnew a.jpg Steve Lawrence JUST RIGHT: Sanford Edinberry with his 1995 Impreza WRX STI Version 2 SportsWagon.

Subaru's turbocharged Impreza cars are a legend in the automotive world. Steve Lawrence looked at two silver Impreza flyers - the old and the new - and pondered the history and future of this quirky brand:

Sanford Edinberry's love affair with the Impreza began when he left our shores for greener pastures in New Zealand in 2001. It was there that he had the opportunity to drive his first Subaru, an experience that made him fall in love with the brand and decide he had to have one.

He shopped around Subaru dealers in Auckland and narrowed his search down to two second-hand turbo cars.

“So I go and ask the salesman to test-drive the car… and he just gives me the keys… he does not come with me, neither does he ask for my driver's licence… coming from South Africa this was really weird,” recalls Sanford.

The Imprezas he drove did not come to SA - but in New Zealand, there was a fanatical Subaru community.

Many of them were won over by the performance of the cars - in New Zealand they're almost as crazy about rallying as they are about rugby - and the fact that all the four-wheel-drive models were well suited to the wet climate and rugged countryside.

IOL mot feb7 subaruoldnew b JUST RIGHT: Sanford Edinberry with his 1995 Impreza WRX STI Version 2 SportsWagon. Steve Lawrence

Sanford also found out that there was a healthy business in New Zealand importing many special Subarus from Japan, where they also drive on the right-hand side of the road.

He fell in love with the station wagon version of the car that, although it might have looked like mom's taxi, was anything but, also being turbocharged.

Browsing through catalogues, he eventually found what he wanted: a 1995 Impreza WRX STi Version 2 SportsWagon in silver with 105 000km on the clock.

“I had to have it.”

Eventually, the arrangements were concluded and, for NZ$17 200 (R56 000) Sanford had himself the car he dreamed about.

He moved back to SA in 2003, paying R30 000 to ship his car to Durban and “I finally got to drive my car on home soil”.

He began syncing with the local Subaru clubs and other fanatics and found that this is the only Subaru model of its specific type legally registered in SA. Being in SA, without the rules and regulations there are in New Zealand, Sanford set about making his car better. The first thing was to remove the catalytic converter and install a free-flow exhaust, which gave more power and a great noise.

Next thing was an improved air filter, and the electronic control unit (ECU) chip was modified, mainly to remove the limited 180km/h top speed mandated by the Japanese traffic authorities.

BUT THE POWER BUG HAD BITTEN

With 167kW at the wheels (probably more than 200kW at the flywheel), Sanford decided he wanted more. After hours and hours of research, he got a new ECU and an intercooler, although he learned later that it was too small to cope with the power he wanted.

He then found a little cottage industry of Subaru gurus: “I started off with Steve Clark from No Sweat Racing and Tim Bridge from TRB.”

The car's 2-litre engine was replaced by a later-model 2.5, fitting it with a bigger Garrett turbocharger and a bigger front-mount intercooler. But unfortunately, when that engine was installed, there was a bearing knock and he had no recourse on the guy who sold him the engine, as another builder built it.

“If you are into car modifications, see who will honour a guarantee” he says. “So learn this lesson when buying: always check it out properly. The CPA (Consumer Protection Act) can't help you.”

It was a long three years before the car was running the way he wanted it, with forged internal parts, racing bearings, and many other performance tweaks that promised power and reliability at the same time - not always an easy compromise.

The car was finally dyno-tuned in January last year, producing the magical 300kW at the wheels. A week after that the gearbox broke. A stronger five-speed box has since replaced this. You have to sit in the car to experience the phenomenal acceleration.

These Imprezas, upon which the WRC-winning cars were based, are considerably lighter than the newer cars and are the ones collectors go for. It may look like an innocuous station wagon, but watch out…

THE NEW STI

“Still blistering, but you can keep sluggish auto”

The new Impreza STI sedan in automatic gearbox form is an impressive car: you can feel the bloodlines that go back to the era of Sanford's Scooby, but it is somewhat of a disappointment.

The drive train remains unchanged with the sure-footed allwheel drive system as rock-solid as ever. The auto version is 10kg heavier than the manual but disappoints

because it just doesn't have enough grunt in the get up and go department, because the STI motor has been detuned so that the power and torque don't wreck the auto box.

I felt very embarrassed when nailed by a Mini Cooper S at a set of traffic lights. The auto box was too sluggish during launch and the added weight didn't help.

The automatic shifts are very smooth and WRX STI auto comes with a nice pair of levers behind the steering wheel so you can select gears manually.

Thankfully, the manual still offers the blistering performance which we expect from an STI. The wider body contributes to the great lines on the car and results in a wider stance which helps with grip when cornering. Subaru has also used the opportunity to update the suspension with the braking system on the car being of the best available and it stops on the proverbial dime when needed.

Fuel consumption had me staring in disbelief. The auto appeared to be guzzling fuel at an alarming rate, so the manufacturer's figure of 10.6 litres per 100km is very doubtful.

Some great features are the Recaro seats that keep you pinned down behind the wheel despite the G-forces. The “Si-Drive” electronic control system is fitted to both versions and by simply twisting a rotary control, the driver can select from three distinct engine settings.

Subaru has come a long way since the WRC-winning days of the late Colin McRae and there are more creature comforts in the modern car than in Sanford's Sportwagon.

But these turbo Subarus are still full of street cred.

But I wouldn't buy the auto version. It's not the kind of car you can take by the scruff of the neck and thrash around. This car will do well in Joburg traffic where you don't have to exercise your quads on the clutch pedal. -Saturday Star

Click here to see Sanford Edinberry's 300kW Impreza on video

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