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Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Beauty of All Wheel Drive

Think back to the turn of this millennium and remember how good things were.  Y2K failed to do anything to the infrastructure, the economy was booming, and the Fast and the Furious franchise wasn't a franchise.  People were living their lives a quarter mile at a time, had jobs, were buying all sorts of extravagance, and 401Ks seemed secure.  Everyone was happy.  That is, everyone except the car enthusiast.

America was a land devoid of exciting, affordable, performance cars.  The popular offerings of that time were just that, too popular.  There was nothing new, fanciful, special or shout worthy about a Civic, Prelude, Integra, RSX, Sentra, Tiburon, or Golf.  While the barely 200 horsepower front wheel drive compacts remained, the Japanese muscle of yesteryear had long since been pulled from American shores.  New age icons like the Supra, RX-7, 300ZX, and 3000GT had all succumbed to the almighty dollar.  Their made in America competition were but a shadow of their former self.  The f-body twins were looking at a prolonged hiatus and the Mustang soldiered on delivering 260 horsepower to a 20 year old chassis.  The American public all agreed that $40,000 should be spent on a Corvette with 350 horsepower and a history not a Japanese import.

In a culture that puts an emphasis on cold, calculated numbers, the then new Honda S2000 sold in a niche category due to having "only" 240hp and costing around $30,000.  Just for comparison, 33,600 Corvettes were produced in the year 2000 while 15,100 S2000 were built with only 6,797 for American consumption.  As impeccable as the S2000 was as a performance car, it still couldn't outrun the much more expensive C5 Corvette in terms of the all important performance per dollar quotient.  Yet a funny looking four door sedan was about to start a performance revolution that the Honda powerhouse could never have imagined.

Enter the Subaru WRX.  Hold on, rewind that.

Enter the Subaru WRX sideways. Drifting through mud.  Perfectly controlled.  With five people inside.

At the time, conventional wisdom gave two formulas for making a performance car.  For the budget minded camp, cars were either a coupe or hatchback with a four-cylinder motor powering the front wheels.  The exceptions to this rule were the Integra sedan as well as the VW Golf and its turbo four or narrow angle V6.  Regardless, they all had about 200 horsepower or less and could do no better than low 6 seconds to 60 mph.  The high performance Sunday drivers who could afford a play car and throw some money around played with a different rulebook altogether.  It pretty much said rear wheel drive and go nuts.  The WRX took the conventional wisdom, tore it up, spread its carcass all over the Hundred Acre Woods, and was back in time for lunch with an impressive lap time and a pot of Pooh bear's honey to boot.

The WRX was a paradigm shift in the way people thought about a performance car in America.  A quick look at the spec sheet seemed like the ingredients list for a rocket powered, off roading, economy car.  AND IT WAS!  Of note from that spec sheet is the 227 horsepower 2.0 liter 4-cylinder turbocharged boxer and its requisite awd drivetrain.  Put that low center of gravity, high power density, and all weather grip package into any car and it would put up a fight in any weather on any surface.  Put it in a goofy, bug eyed, four door, 3100lb sedan with a Subaru badge and it will humiliate other drivers while kicking them in the testicles, slapping their momma across the face after open mouth kissing her, and not getting a second look by the boys in blue.

While the WRX has occasionally lost its way with mushy suspension and unappealing styling over the decade that it's been in the U.S., nobody can discredit its accolades.  It brought about a new way of thinking about cheap speed.  Once predominantly the realm of Hondas, the WRX showed the tuner scene that coffee can exhausts and two inches of ground clearance weren't needed to go fast.  It showed that sub-6 second thrill rides to 60 miles per hour didn't need to cost upwards of $30,000.  Best of all, Subaru showed other manufacturers that there is a need for this kind of performance at the $25,000 price point.  Interior styling be damned!  Without the WRX, we wouldn't have the STI, Mitsubishi Evo, Volkswagen R32, Dodge SRT-4, turbocharged Cobalt SS, or Mazdaspeed3.  Looking outside its direct competitors and at the performance versus price quotient, it could be argued that the Nissan 350Z and Mazda RX-8 should credit the WRX, as well as the S2000, for their inception.

Over the course of their lives, many cars lose the characteristics that have made them cult classics.  The Subaru WRX isn't one of those cars.  Over the past decade it has maintained not only its modest price but also its blistering performance, all wrapped in an "only a mother could love" amalgamation of sheet metal.  It's won rally championships at home and abroad while winning over enthusiasts from all walks of life.  The WRX is the perfect four seasons performance car for those not willing to dip into their 401K.

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