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2011 Subaru Impreza WRX: Fast and practical

Turbocharger adds fun to company's smallest all-wheel-drive vehicle
by: JAIME VALDEZ, The muscular look of the Impreza WRX is backed up by turbocharged performance and tenacious all-wheel-drive grip.

Subaru is best known as the Japanese car company that brought all-wheel-drive to the masses. By making all-wheel-drive standard on their affordable cars and SUVs, Subaru overcame the impression that only huge four-wheel-drive trucks were built to forge through snow or go off-road. As a result, everyone from cash-strapped students to recreation-oriented retirees now enjoy the increased safety and practicality of all-wheel-drive, both in Subaru's and other vehicles from other manufacturers who jumped on the bandwagon.

But, as auto enthusiasts know, Subaru also revolutionized the American performance car market in 2001 with the introduction of the Impreza WRX. Until then, most performance cars came with front-mounted V8 engines and rear wheel drive. Although fast in a straight line, many could be squirrely during sharp turns. The exceptions were primarily expensive imports, like Porsches, with mid or rear-mounted engines.

Subaru rewrote the rule book when it turbocharged the engine and upgraded the suspension of its compact sedan and wagon. Heavily-modified versions had been raced for years in rally competition. But selling a street-legal version created a whole new market for small, quick cars with additional traction. Subaru added an STI option to the WRX a short time later included an even more powerful engine, a more responsive transmission and an adjustable suspension.

Other manufacturers quickly followed, including Mitsubishi, which had also been rally racing with the Evolution-version of its Lancer. Some competitors, like Ford, answered with performance versions of small front-wheel-drive cars, like the Focus SVT. The Dodge Neon SRT-4 was also turbocharged.

Although fast, the first-generation WRX wasn't exactly stylish. The original Impreza was practical but drab. Adding an air scoop, an air dam, a spoiler, and wider fenders, wheels tires helped, but the result was still more funk than flash. Hardcore WRX fans weren't complaining, but Subaru changed the look entirely when it remodeled the Impreza line in 2008, replacing the rounded corners and blunt nose with sharp, sleek lines. Interior space was also increased, especially in the five-foor hatchback that replaced the small station wagon version of the Impreza. The 2011 WRX features all the body modifications of the previous generation's version.

The inside also got upgraded, with the T-shaped shaped dash and center console replaced with sweeping, wrap-around lines and more contemporary-looking controls. The result is an interior that finally looks as modern as the concept of a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive performance car.

On the road, our test 2011 Impreza WRX was a joy to drive - quick and stable, with tremendous grip that made us search out winding country roads. In downtown traffic, the hatchback was docile and easy to maneuver through crowded streets. But just a little pressure on the gas pedal brought the 265-horsepower engine to life, quickly producing enough oomph to dart through openings in traffic, merge into freeway traffic or pass long lines of semi-trailers. Like all turbos, the power continues to build as the speed increases, building exhilarating momentum. The suspension is also supple enough to absorb most surface imperfections while allowing flat cornering in fast turns.

Subaru is still offering the 305-horsepower STI version of the WRX. During a limited test drive, we found it fun but demanding, especially the stiffer suspension settings that transmitted every bump to the driver. Our initial impression is that the WRX without the STI package is easier to live with on a daily basis, but still plenty entertaining.

• Model: 2011 Impreza WRX.

• Manufacturer: Subaru.

• Class: Performance compact.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive (as tested).

• Style: Four door, five-passenger hatchback.

• Engines: 2.5-liter horizontally-opposed 4 cylinder (265 hp, 244 lb-ft torque).

• Transmissions: Five-speed manual.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 19/25.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $29,000.