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Edmunds: First Drive: 2006 Subaru Impreza WRX/STI

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The WRX Goes Under the Knife. Again.
By Ed Hellwig
Date posted: 09-06-2005

We're still peeling open our eyelids as we head out of Los Angeles and into the sunrise. We've got enough sugar on board to keep us awake for a month.

We're driving the new faster and face-lifted 2006 Subaru Impreza WRX, but our final destination isn't clear. Subaru arranged the trip so we could check out the latest round of semi-serious changes for the Impreza and WRX, but was stingy on details. A note in the glovebox says nothing more than, "See you in Vegas."

"Vegas?!" says our co-driver between slugs of Red Bull. "Good thing we packed our ATM cards."

As Subie tries to keep its archrival, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, from biting too far into the WRX's sales lead in the high-performance all-wheel-drive sedan category, it keeps making updates to the road-going rally car. This round of changes is the second in two years, and includes a new face similar to the mug on the company's B9 Tribeca SUV, a larger, more powerful engine and a new range of models.

More Power Never Hurts
The old 2.0-liter turbocharged flat-four engine is gone, replaced by the 2.5-liter flat-four from the Subaru Forester XT. Its 230 horsepower is only three ticks higher than last year's 2.0-liter, but torque is up from 217 pound-feet to 235 lb-ft. The extra grunt comes in earlier, too, as the torque peak now rests at 3,600 rpm instead of 4,000.

Fully awake and free of L.A. traffic, we open it up. The new engine features a form of variable valve timing that Subaru says accounts for its more accessible power. Unlike last year's car, this WRX accelerates hard in top gear. The five-speed manual's new double cone first gear synchros and shorter shifter throws are also welcome upgrades.

We're barely two Twinkies into the morning before we start slamming across the desert at triple-digit speeds. Subaru also added extra sound deadening material to keep noise down, and it works.

Other improvements include a quicker steering ratio, standard 17-inch wheels wrapped in 215/45-17 Bridgestone rubber, and all models now get the same aluminum transverse links found in the top-of-the-line WRX STI (now all caps). Subie has even sprung for a completely upgraded set of brakes, with larger discs (11.5-inch diameter in front and 11.3-inch diameter in the rear), four-piston front and two-piston rear calipers.

Next Stop, Colorado
In Vegas, we're clued in on our final destination — the top of Pikes Peak in southern Colorado. It's the site of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, the second oldest motorsports event in the world and the perfect place to show off the Impreza's standard all-wheel-drive system.

Eastbound again on the dead straight interstates of Arizona our co-pilot gets so bored he actually starts reading the press kit. Turns out there are now four WRX models to choose from, the WRX TR, WRX, WRX Limited and the ultra-high performance WRX STI.

Offered only as a sedan, the TR (Tuner Ready) is mechanically identical to the standard WRX, which is available as a sedan or wagon, but strips out content like automatic climate control and rear-seat cupholders to give it a base price of $23,995. It also gets an 80-watt single CD player, and black instead of body color mirrors.

Spend another grand for the standard WRX and you get all the stuff the TR cuts out along with a 140-watt stereo, upgraded seats and projector beam foglights. The new WRX Limited starts at $27,495 and is the only WRX you can get with an automatic transmission. Also available as a sedan or wagon, this model offers upscale content that was previously unavailable in a WRX, like leather heated seats, a sunroof and heated mirrors.

The WRX STI remains the ultimate Impreza. It gets the new nose and revised taillights along with reshaped side sills, a roof spoiler just above the rear window and an underbody diffuser. Complaints about poor visibility in last year's STI also prompted a return to a standard-size WRX hood scoop. Sad, but true.

The 2006 STI rides an eighth of an inch lower on structurally stronger inverted struts that provide better control under load. Subaru also added a steering angle sensor and a mechanical differential to the Driver Controlled Center Differential (DCCD). Subaru says the extra diff improves the system's responses to changing terrain while the new steering sensor betters the computer's ability to determine where you're trying to go and how best to get you there.

The improvements also allowed Subaru's engineers to change the standard torque split from 35-to-65 front-to-rear to 41-to-59 and give the DCCD system a greater range of torque distribution. They also gave the six-speed manual transmission carbon-plated synchros in fourth, fifth and sixth gears for smoother engagement and improved durability. Its 2.5-liter 300-hp flat four remains unchanged, although liquid-filled engine mounts have been added to reduce vibration.

Climbing the Peak
A half dozen double cheeseburgers and four Indian reservations later we're in southern Colorado with just enough time for a nap before hitting Pikes Peak at sun up.

It's a 12.4-mile sprint to the top of the 14,110-foot peak on a mostly unpaved road with 156 turns and no guardrails. The plan is to drive the standard WRX half way up on the mostly paved section and then swap into STI models for the final leg in the dirt. It's like going to sleep on Christmas Eve.

As the sun breaks the horizon we head up the hill in the standard WRX and immediately appreciate its quicker steering, stronger brakes and wider tires. This car has more grip than we have guts. There's still considerable body roll, but it's an acceptable compromise when you consider we just drove it a thousand miles in complete comfort.

The STI is a monster in the dirt, accelerating ferociously and providing the kind of unfiltered feedback you need to go fast. Its ability to accelerate around a turn is just plain scary. So is the 2,000-foot drop-off that awaits if you make a mistake. It's definitely the most capable STI we've ever driven.

Well Worth the Drive
We return to base camp in one piece and take one last look at the new WRX. The car is clearly better than it has ever been and the new look is growing on us. It even made the trip from California to Colorado feel half as long.

There aren't many cars that would make us look forward to a 4 a.m wake-up call, but the 2006 WRX and WRX STI qualify. We'd gladly lose a few hours of sleep to drive either.

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I'm really diggin the new Legacy and Impreza. If only I wasn't such a die-hard Camaro guy, I might go for either of the suped up models. It's cool how you have the options for "lightweight," normal and Limited WRX's as well.

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