Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
Subaru has never seemed to take a big interest in marketing this car. Most of the buying public doesn't even know about it. And you know what? That's just fine by me. In fact, you're more than welcome to stop reading right now. Let this car be a little-known secret, a fringe player.
Still reading? Please, go away. Go read up on a Windstar or something, will ya?
Hmm, I can see you're determined. Very well, then. Knowing about the existence of the Subaru 2.5 RS is like knowing the location of a small, hidden Mexican restaurant that sells killer tamales -- you simply don't want to hype it and then let the subsequent mass hordes ruin it. But my job is to inform, so here ya go: This car is one of the best affordable sporty cars you can buy today. And it's made even better by the fact that so few even know what it is. So let's keep this a secret between you and me, hmm?
There's little money to be made in sporty subcompacts right now. That's why Subaru (and parent company Fuji Heavy Industries, now partly owned by General Motors) has focused much of its advertising budget on the impressively successful Outback and Forester. Think about it; have you seen a prime-time network television commercial for the 2.5 RS?
If you were to travel to Japan or Europe, things would be considerably different. In either place, the Impreza dominates on both the street and racing circuit. In the FIA World Rally Championship, the Impreza is a formidable contender. It won three straight world championships. On the street, monster versions like the Impreza WRX and 22B sport turbocharged engines producing close to 300 horsepower. The 2.5 RS is based on the exact same platform as these cars, though it's heavily Americanized for your protection.
Subaru introduced the 2.5 RS at the 1997 New York International Auto Show as a '98 model. Much more striking than the frumpy base Impreza L, the 2.5 RS has the same exterior styling as the WRX. There's the Jay Leno chin, the two saucer-sized fog lights, the huge hood scoop, the hood air vents, the side sill extensions, and the big wing tacked on the back. Sadly, the fog lights are the only functional bit here. The scoop and hood vents might serve a purpose on the race car, but they're blocked off on the 2.5 RS. Drag coefficient isn't too hot, either (0.35 Cd).
The big news for 2000 is the addition of a 2.5 RS four-door model to the lineup, which just so happens to be what we used for our road test. In 1998 and 1999, the 2.5 RS came only in two-door coupe form. Out of the Subaru's closest competitors -- Acura Integra, Mitsubishi Eclipse and Toyota Celica -- only the Integra can be ordered with four doors.
Both the sedan and coupe have the same exterior and interior dimensions, virtually the same curb weight and the same mechanical hardware. About the only styling difference is that the sedan has a spoiler instead of the coupe's elevated rear wing. From our point of view, the sedan is the better choice here. The extra doors smooth out the styling and considerably improve access to the rear seats.
Just don't think that because it's a sedan that this car has great expanses of rear-seat room. This isn't a BMW M5. Adults will find the rear seating tight, though that is pretty much a given for this type of car. The driver and front passenger fare much better. The 2.5 RS features supportive sport-oriented seats, as well as white-faced gauges, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, special "checkered flag" upholstery, and a sunroof as standard equipment.
This really isn't enough to cover up the fact that this interior seems to be a leftover from the early '90s. There's no nighttime illumination for the cruise control buttons, the power mirror switch, or the power window buttons. The intermittent control function for the wipers cannot be adjusted. Many of our editors also found fault with the small audio controls, the dash-mounted cupholder and the climate controls.
But on to better things. Both the 2.5 RS Coupe and Sedan are motivated by a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed SOHC four-cylinder engine. This is the same engine found in the larger and heavier Legacy. It produces 165 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 166 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. Over and above the Impreza L, the 2.5 RS has a sport-tuned suspension, a standard limited-slip rear differential, larger four-wheel disc brakes with twin-piston front calipers (from the Legacy GT), standard ABS and larger wheels and tires.
Like all Subarus, the 2.5 RS is all-wheel drive. The type of all-wheel-drive system differs slightly depending on which transmission is ordered. When equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, a viscous-coupling center differential built into the transmission case (this is a completely mechanical system) divides engine power 50/50 between the front and rear wheels during normal conditions. Wheel slippage at the front causes more power to shift to the rear, and slippage at the rear transfers power to the front.
With the four-speed automatic transmission (an $800 option), 90 percent of the engine's power is applied to the front wheels and 10 percent to the rear wheels under normal conditions. An electronically managed variable-transfer clutch housed in the transaxle tailshaft takes readings from several different sensors to determine if weight transfer is affecting available traction, and then changes the power bias accordingly.
What's immediately apparent when you start driving this car is that it is not like other Japanese sport coupes or hatchbacks. Both the Integra GS-R and Celica GT-S are front-drive with smaller inline four-cylinder, 1.8-liter engines. Interestingly, they both make more horsepower (5 for the GS-R, 15 for the GT-S) than the Subaru. But this power comes from revs, not displacement. Both have peaky power deliveries, and the Celica, in particular, is a complete bore until its engine hits 6,000 rpm.
In contrast, the Subaru is just about done by 6,000 rpm. But for everything before that point, it's full of vim and vigor. The boxer engine belts out impressive torque as well as a very enjoyable engine note vaguely similar to an old VW Beetle or Porsche 911. Our test car came equipped with the five-speed transmission. The gearing is noticeably short, aiding in quick squirts through traffic. But it also means frequent shifting, especially because the redline is relatively low. We didn't mind this much, but we did mind the shifter's tight gates, as well as the touchy throttle and clutch pedals.
For pure numbers, the 2.5 RS is a bit of a disappointment. Around town, the gearing and torque make the Subaru feel like a winner. But on the test track, our 2.5 RS ran from zero to 60 in 7.9 seconds and made it through the quarter-mile in 16.0 seconds at 85.9 mph. These numbers are slower than what an Integra GS-R, Eclipse GT or Celica GT-S can pull. For example, our recent test of the Celica GT-S netted a zero to 60 of 7.3 seconds and a quarter-mile of 15.8 seconds at 89.5 mph.
Part of its slowness is due to the difficulty of launching the Subaru from a dead stop. The engine simply doesn't have enough power to overcome the traction provided by the all-wheel drive, causing the car to bog off the line.
That is about the only negative characteristic associated with the all-wheel drive. In every other driving situation, the AWD provides solid traction and secure handling. The AWD advantage is particularly useful in poor conditions, such as rain or snow as it is constantly maximizing traction provided by all four wheels.
On dry pavement and normal driving, the AWD is transparent. We did notice that during hard acceleration, shifting between gears caused the drivetrain to emit an audible thump as the center differential sorted out torque transfer. It doesn't sound very good, but Subaru says it's all perfectly normal and nothing to worry about.
During spirited handling, the 2.5 RS plays the AWD card once again. This car excels in slow- to medium-speed corners. With most other front-drive cars like the Integra, mashing the throttle right after a corner apex is a sure way to spin the inside tire and cause understeer. But the Subaru actually seems to like having the power put down early. You can feel the torque being fed to the wheels, allowing the Subaru to claw its way around the corner.
The 2.5 RS also happens to have one of the best steering systems in its class. The thick-and-meaty (sounds like a type of soup) steering wheel is light, direct and communicative. The suspension also gets high marks. The ride is quite acceptable on city streets and the car feels well balanced on curvy canyon roads. It's not a perfect 10, though. The Subaru is kind of a porker, weighing in at 2,825 pounds (the other negative of the AWD). Consequently, this extra weight dulls the Subaru's responses somewhat, and it never feels quite as sharp as a 2,500-pound Celica GT-S.
That's ultimately a minor point, however. Here's the big picture: For a price that is at least a couple thousand dollars less than the competition, you get a car that is unique in nature and personality. Particularly in foul-weather climates, the 2.5 RS Sedan can be as practical as Alan Greenspan without losing any of its excitement. If you do buy a 2.5 RS, you won't be disappointed. But keep it on the low down, OK?
Impreza 22B: The Ultimate Subaru
In the United States, Subaru's most powerful Impreza is the 2.5 RS. This is a pretty good car. It features a normally aspirated 2.5-liter flat-four engine that produces 165 horsepower. But compared to Imprezas sold in Japan, the 2.5 RS is as feeble as a flu-ridden field mouse with three legs.
High-performance Imprezas in Japan are given a WRX moniker, usually with various designations following. For example, the top Japanese-market Impreza for 2000 is called the "Impreza WRX TypeRA STi Version VI." It has a 2.0-liter engine that generates an "official" 280 horsepower. This car is fast.
The Impreza 22B is faster. 22B doesn't quite have the ring that WRX TypeRA STi Version VI does. It sounds more like an IRS tax form, actually. But behind the short and stubby name is the fastest "from the factory" road-going Impreza ever built.
In 1998, Subaru Technica International (STi), Fuji Heavy Industries' motor sports division, built a limited-production run of 400 Imprezas. These were street-legal versions of the championship-winning Impreza race car used in the 1997 World Rally Championship. The entire lot sold out in three days. When the 22B went on sale, the suggested retail price was 5,000,000 yen, or about $50,000. Most of them sold for considerably more than that.
Actually, that's not quite right. Only 399 cars were sold. Number 13 of 400 found its way to Subaru's American headquarters. Subaru had a purpose for Number 13: to show American journalists what the Impreza is capable of.
Even at rest, the 22B looks like it will rip your head off. The original WRX fenders are gone, replaced with steel wide-body fender flares. A huge rear wing is mounted on the trunk and its blade can be adjusted manually to change the aerodynamic angle of attack. The 22B also shares the same hood scoop and hood vents that the WRX and 2.5 RS have. On the 2.5 RS, these are merely decorations, but 22B takes full use of them. The hood vents allow hot air to escape and the hood scoop funnels air to an intercooler mounted atop the engine.
This engine is a turbocharged flat-four engine similar to the one found in the WRX. An increased bore has raised the displacement from 1994cc to 2212cc. Because of an agreement in Japan, no manufacturer can list more than 280 horsepower for any given car. So officially, the 22B makes 280, just like the WRX. Unofficially, the 22B makes considerably more than that, perhaps close to 325 horsepower. Maximum torque is rated at 253 foot pounds at 3,200 rpm.
The look and feel of the interior is still Impreza, but it's more sparse and purposeful. No airbags, no radio. A big tachometer (bigger than the speedometer, actually) sits in the center of the gauge cluster. The steering wheel is a grippy and compact three-spoke Nardi unit. The seats themselves are heavily bolstered and feature Schroth safety harnesses. The only hint of flair comes from blue suede inserts used in the seats and door panels to match the exterior paint.
Strap in and turn the ignition key. The 22B's engine doesn't sound particularly special at idle. But once underway, there is no disguising this car's purpose. The heavy-duty racing clutch makes standing starts tricky. You can afford neither to hesitate nor rush its release. Do either and you'll stall. Which I did. On a number of occasions.
I'd like to say that my first time driving the 22B was some sort of magical experience. Instead, it was more like that "other" first time -- uncomfortable, scared, sweaty and, by the end, not at all impressive. My first trip required an hour of city driving. By the end, I was a mess. I had a giant headache and couldn't wait to give the keys to somebody else. The concentration required by the right-hand drive layout, plus the responsibility of driving such a rare and powerful car surrounded by idiotic drivers was just too much.
It was only on successive drives that I learned to appreciate the 22B. It does ride quite stiffly. Custom Eibach springs and Bilstein shocks are used, as are upgraded suspension bushings. The front track is 20mm wider than the WRX's, while the rear grows by 40mm. The lightweight 17-inch BBS wheels are shod with 235/40ZR17 Pirelli P-Zero tires. Bumps and potholes do not get along with this car. Open roads do.
Flooring the throttle in first gear brings about explosive waves of acceleration. The short gearing sends the tachometer needle slinging towards the 7,900 rpm redline, so it's best just to keep your hand on the shifter. Slot it into the next gear, and the 22B does it again, blasting forth like a Tiger Woods drive. It can do this in any gear, there is so much torque. Only an electronic speed limiter set at a rather frustrating 112 mph keeps the 22B reigned in.
It would take weeks or months to get the most out this car. Around corners, the 22B confidently grips to levels that mere mortals are unwilling to go. All the while, you're thinking, "This is a Subaru?" Yes, it is.
You can't officially buy this car, nor officially drive it on U.S. soil. But it does show how Subaru knows a thing or two about building brawny little sport coupes that can hang quite easily with Porsche 911s and Chevrolet Corvettes. And there might be hope in the next version of the Impreza sold in America. One rumor claims there will be a turbocharged model. A 22B? No, but a WRX would do quite nicely, thank you.
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