Subaru Impreza WRX

There was a time when the Subaru Impreza could do no wrong - buyers faced a long waiting list and many would-be owners resorted to importing cars from Japan to jump the queue.

Those who like their Imprezas raw might want to wait for the STi model with 265bhp, a wild bodykit and blue interior. But from our first driving impressions, Scooby fans needn't fear. The latest 'mature' WRX might be more user-friendly, but it still knows how to grow old disgracefully.

There was a time when the Subaru Impreza could do no wrong - buyers faced a long waiting list and many would-be owners resorted to importing cars from Japan to jump the queue.

But the Scooby's reign as Britain's favourite performance machine was short-lived. Rivals' cars became more competitive and, when Subaru gave the Impreza a controversial facelift in 2001, sales nosedived. Dealers offered up to £3,000 off list price to get buyers into the last 'bug-eyed' models.

Subaru's designers went back to the drawing board to come up with this new 2003 model - the company's great white hope. But does it have enough bite? Some enthusiasts fear that the Scooby is growing too soft, so it's essential that Subaru gets it right in Britain this time.

Priced at £19,995, it costs £1,500 less than its predecessor. But can it stir souls in the way the original did? We climbed behind the wheel of the first car in the UK to find out. The newcomer certainly looks better. Gone are the gawky headlamps and in comes a neater front. Without the deep chin spoiler, the styling could be described as bland - but those waiting for a less sporty Impreza must wait until May to find out, as Subaru is taking the unusual step of launching the performance models first.

The WRX, though, looks purposeful. Flared wheelarches are filled by 17-inch alloys, while the rear sports twin exhaust pipes and a clumsy but effective spoiler. The bonnet scoop is now bigger, too. Inside, there's an updated centre console, improved radio head unit and better quality seat materials.

In terms of ride comfort and ease of use, the WRX is less aggressive than it's ever been. On perfect surfaces, the car's balance and agility are obvious, but whereas rough roads tended to upset the old model, the new one irons out bumps effectively and doesn't bang over potholes. As a result, it's a far more relaxing car for motorway driving.

Power delivery is more refined, too. No longer must you hit 3,000rpm before the turbo thrusts you forward. Instead, thanks to increased boost pressure and a new engine management system, 225bhp is transferred to the wheels sharply yet with the utmost composure throughout the rev range. It may lack the drama of the outgoing machine, but it seems even quicker.

The steering wheel feels alive in your hands, while excellent brakes and a sharp, positive gearbox add to the appeal. In fact, thanks to the smoother throttle, revised shock absorbers and a sharper steering rack, it's now even easier to exploit the Scooby's capabilities. Feed in too much power and the car drifts gently wide. Lift off and the tail wags slightly before tucking neatly back into line with a minimum of fuss.

Control has long been the byword of the Impreza's chassis, and it feels rewarding even if you don't drive the car in a textbook fashion. That means the newcomer is a superb point-to-point machine for enthusiasts. It's also easy enough for the inexperienced to use without being frightened, yet devastatingly quick if driven hard.

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