If you’re looking to have a bit of fun behind the wheel of a car all year long, the Subaru WRX is a no-brainer purchase. A turbocharged, flat-four boxer engine sits under its hood and a full-time all-wheel-drive system puts the power to the ground, while a nimble package makes the entire car stupid fun to drive. What’s not to like?
But the WRX formula has been pretty much the same for ages. When I drove the 2018 Subaru WRX STI, I liked the car, but I couldn’t get my head around the fact that it still feels like any other fast Subaru I’ve driven for the past decade. Where the hell does Subaru’s R&D even go?
So when I was given the chance to get behind the wheel of a first-generation Japan-spec WRX wagon from the mid 1990s, one we never got in North America, I jumped at the chance to find out if I was right.
Turns out I was.
(Full disclosure: the opportunity to drive a right-hand-drive, JDM Subaru Impreza WRX wagon came from a Canadian Jalopnik reader who owns one as a daily driver and wanted me to review his car.)
What Is It?
Introduced in 1992 as a replacement to the GL sedan and Loyale wagon, the Impreza was, and still is today, Subaru’s compact entry level car set to compete against cars like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.
The WRX, which apparently stands for World Rally Experimental, was a fortified Impreza developed specifically for rally racing. These cars only came in all-wheel-drive (back then not all Subarus were; some were front-drive), had a more powerful turbo engine, a hood scoop, a stiffened suspension and stronger brakes. The WRX was reserved exclusively for the Japanese and sometimes European markets until we finally got it in the early 2000s.
The model you see here is a 1996 car (GF8D), or the first year the WRX was offered in a wagon bodystyle. In Japan, this version was called the Impreza Gravel Express, which is delightful.
An STI version of the car was available with 276 horsepower. Many claim these cars were underrated due to Japan’s Gentlemen Agreement act which limited the power output of sports cars under 300 HP. A five-speed manual gearbox was the only way to get the WRX moving.
Why Does It Matter?
Along with the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, the ‘Rex one of the most iconic rally-bred machines of the 1990’s. But even more than that, it ranks among the top cars that inspired an entire generation of kids to fall in love with cars in the first place.
The 1990s were a glorious era for the Japanese car brands. Each manufacturer offered some sort of unique, high performance car. Mazda had the RX-7, Honda had the NSX, Nissan had the Skyline, Toyota had the Supra, and Subaru had the WRX. This is a car the millennial generation of car geeks grew up tuning and racing on Gran Turismo.
But the pre-2000 Subaru WRX matters even more because it was forbidden fruit here in North America for so long. A real WRX from the ‘90s is rare as hell in our neck of the woods, and the wagon version is even more of a unicorn. You Americans can’t import them, but we can up here in Canada, because the laws allow for imports after 15 years instead of 25. (And we get free health care too, suckers.)
Oups, Sorry, That Was The Wiper Stalk
This wasn’t my first time getting behind the wheel of a right-hand-drive car, my little brother once owned a JDM Honda Civic. Up here in Montréal these cars are quite common.
But it’s always weird driving on the wrong side. The shift pattern is the same as our cars, so first gear is a far fetch, and reverse is super close to your knee. That feels odd. Even more unusual is that the stalks are inverted, so the blinker is on the right side of the steering wheel, and the wipers are on the left.
This meant I looked like a jackass sitting at intersections with the wipers on full blast and the blinker off.
In Canada, JDM cars can be registered in some provinces as long as they pass a special inspection. The owner, Phil, purchased his car from a place called B-Pro JDM Auto Imports in Calgary, Alberta. They basically take care of finding a car for you in Japan, and then have it shipped to the port of Vancouver. The entire experience is turnkey, just like buying a car in any other used car dealership.
The moment our man Phil’s Subaru was dropped out of its container, he flew straight to Vancouver, paid an inspection and customs tax, gave the car an oil change, and made sure to introduce his JDM ride to a proper Canadian greeting by stuffing a Tim Horton’s coffee in its cup holder, and driving it across the country all the way back to Québec.
Phil works in Alberta, but returns to Québec during vacation and holidays to see friends and family. And he does it all in his old Subaru wagon.
To be fair, not many. Perhaps the only area where I was slightly let down was in the car’s interior and general build quality—which had been a common gripe about the brand for years. I had forgotten how much old Subaru’s feel like tin cans inside, with very little actual noise insulation and flimsy materials. The WRX is cheap speed, but here’s where the “cheap” part is most apparent.
There’s a cool Nardi steering wheel and shifter, but apart from that, the dashboard has absolutely no styling whatsoever and the seats aren’t really comfortable.
Also, everything is grey and boring in there. Except for a period-correct bolt-on stereo head unit, there aren’t many electronics.
But frankly, that’s pretty much it. The car itself drives formidably well. And feels—ahem—like any other Subaru I’ve driven. But I’ll get back on that later.
Since it’s essentially based on an economy car, the WRX has always been a great daily driver. And in wagon form, even more so.
For instance, a Toyota Corolla iM only manages 42 cubic feet of cargo room. A Volkswagen Golf SportWagen does 67 cubes. One more than this Subaru.
Even a brand new Subaru Impreza hatchback only hauls 55 cubic space of stuff. Makes you think, doesn’t it? So yes, a JDM WRX from 20 years ago does daily driving better than a lot of new small cars out there.
When I say this old Subaru feels the same to drive as a new one, I’m not saying that it’s actually the same car as a new one. I’m well aware that there have been a lot of revisions to the Boxer engine and the all-wheel drive system over the past two decades. What I’m saying is that the car feels the same to drive.
This means that you still hear the cool and sort of addictive rumble sound of the Boxer engine, which also makes it sound like it’s broken.
It also means that when you punch the accelerator there isn’t all that much low-end torque. Once boost finally kicks in, you get a satisfying shove in the chest as the engine picks up and goes, revving eagerly all the way to redline.
And as is traditional with all performance Subaru’s, the gearing is short, so you shift often. The clutch has a nice firm bite to it and is easy to catch. The car always feels securely planted to the ground, as if it was attached to the tarmac with Velcro.
And the excellent weight distribution quickly gives you confidence behind the wheel, where you’ll realize the car’s limits of adhesion are rather high, which in turn will motivate you to hoon the thing like a rally driver everywhere you’ll go.
So yes, the Subaru WRX is, and has always been, a kickass car to drive hard.
Our friend Phil paid $4,200 Canadian for his JDM icon, about $3,400 U.S. The car was delivered with 130,000 km (80,000 miles). It was in decent shape, but not stellar.
Phil had to invest a bit in his machine to make it look as pristine as the way you see it here. In total, he estimates the car cost him about $10,000 Canadian after all the aesthetic mods, which include a full body job, JUN front lip, Tein coilovers, and wheels from a 2003 Bugeye WRX.
The place where he bought the car currently sells one for $5,999 Canadian. That’s amazingly cheap considering the amount of practicality, performance, and historical significance you’ll be getting from your car.
When I asked Phil if he’s had the traditional head gasket and oil consumption issues that have plagued Subaru’s for so long, he answered no. He claims his engine has been bulletproof ever since he bought the car, now reading 210,000 km (130,000 miles) on the odometer.
He’s only had one major issue with the car: the transmission blew at around 125,000 miles. It cost him $4,000 for a new gearbox, which also included a new clutch and flywheel.
I got out of my experience driving this future classic of an automotive icon with a huge question mark on my head. Should the fact that the car feels mostly identical behind the wheel as a new Subaru be a good or bad thing for the brand?
There are two ways to look at it: either Subaru’s been sitting on its ass for the past two decades not innovating much and sailing casually on the fact that it sells cheap AWD drives to the masses.
Or maybe Subaru has mastered a solid recipe and decided to stick with it. Kind of like what Porsche has been doing with the 911 for half a century.
I prefer opting for the latter. Because although these cars constantly keep feeling like mom’s familiar soup recipe when I drive them, they remain solid machines to drive, and get the job done as far as having a shitload of fun behind the wheel of a car.