First Drive: 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX fills out with big bro's wide body

2011 Subaru WRX – Click above for high-res image gallery

My, how the 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX has grown. The plucky little sedan has gone off to summer camp and returned as a full-figured looker. Now donning its bigger sister's widebody dress and uprated wheels at all four corners, there are few tells this thing isn't fully capable of stopping at a moment's notice. And all we can say is: It's about time.

Even though the WRX has always had plenty of pep and other worldly grip, its outer shell never quite managed to hint at the go-fast fun lurking underneath its sizable hood scoop. No more.

Photos by Zach Bowman / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

The car has ditched its Clark Kent glasses in favor of a look that's been distilled from the mighty STI – one part Gundam, two parts track-hardened awesome. The move is destined to give the oft-neglected Rex the attention it deserves in the Subaru stable for the first time in years, though the change is more than a set of fenders. Subaru's engineers have poured over the car to wring even more potency out of one of the tuning universe's most capable platforms straight from the factory.

It's easy to think that the big news here is the WRX's new sheetmetal, and to some extent, it is. By gracing the WRX with the same wide shell as the more sinister STI, Subaru was able to incorporate a few mechanical feats that would have been otherwise impossible under the old skin.

The new metal has added 1.3 inches to the width, and the 2011 model immediately looks stockier and more muscular than its predecessor. Where the 2010 car used the same doughy lines of the base Impreza, the 2011 now wears the ripped body of an MMA warrior.

Up front, you're likely to recognize the hood, fascia and fenders – they're the same kit tacked on to the 2010 STI – and predictably, they manage to look right at home on the less athletic WRX. Move toward the rear, and the wider track is somewhat more pronounced. The car now has hips the likes of which you aren't going to see anywhere outside of the show car circuit. It's not going to be for everyone, but we're digging it in more ways the one. However, we have a harder time with the rear fascia. The inverted scoop design is neither functional nor flattering, and for once, we found ourselves pining for the same faux-diffuser look every other designer is playing with at the moment. It's like the tail of the WRX just won't stop smiling at us, and that's just not natural.

While the exterior is a far cry from what we saw on dealer lots last year, you won't see too many revolutionary changes in the cabin. Subaru designers swapped most of the simulated metal accents on the dash in favor of a more subdued black plastic. It's certainly an upgrade, even if it has the unintended effect of darkening the cabin. It was hard to tell given our limited time with the vehicle, but we're thinking the new material will stand up to more abuse without scarring. At least we hope so. If you even looked at the old trim the wrong away, it would demonstrate its offense in the form of unsightly scratches.

Otherwise, the interior is familiar territory. The seats are comfortable and wear the same splashes of red stitching that crop up on the steering wheel and door panels, and while the dash and doors are lathered in plenty of hard plastics, the overall demeanor is pleasant given the price point. Don't expect a calm ride, though. Subaru makes no qualms about the fact that the majority of WRX buyers are guys who are under 40 – a segment that is more apt to sacrifice ride comfort for a little performance – and as such, things aren't exactly church-quiet inside.

The saucier bodywork is stylish and all, but its big reason for being has more to do with grip than fashion. Shoving an extra 1.3 inches into a car's track is a move that is bound to pay off on the skid pad, but the change also allowed the minds in the Subaru engineering department to bolt on a new, wider set of wheels. While last year's model hit the road with 17x7 rollers, the 2011 model comes from the factory with 17x8 alloys wrapped in 235/45R17 Dunlop SP01 summer rubber. Despite the upsize, Subaru claims that each new wheel is 1.5 pounds lighter than the narrower, outgoing piece. Progress is good, especially when it keeps unsprung weight to a minimum.

Even with the lighter shoes, the WRX now weighs around 33 pounds more than it did last year. If you're wondering where those pounds came from, look no further than the extra sheetmetal, though we're told there's some additional bracing at work as well. Subaru also swapped the rear subframe bushings for stiffer units, though odds are you would have to spend some time really flogging the car around a track to tell the difference. The company claims that along with the wider stance, the bushings have helped reduce body roll compared the 2010 car.

The engine and transmission remain unchanged, and as such, buyers can look forward to a plenty gutsy 265 horsepower, 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine churning out 244 pound-feet of torque. The flat-four is bolted to a five-speed manual transmission – the only gearbox Subaru offers in WRX trim. As with the rest of the Pleiades fleet, the 2011 WRX boasts full-time all-wheel drive. According to the EPA, the combination is good for 19 mpg city and 25 mpg highway – numbers that continue to disappoint in this day and age, but are par for the boxer. Still, it's funny how quickly you learn to forget about unimpressive fuel economy when you're behind the leather-wrapped steering wheel.

As much as we would have loved to rack up a few hard laps around our favorite track in the all-wheel drive beastie, we were left to play with the WRX in the hills around Aspen, Colorado. One could do far worse than the undulating tarmac that snakes through the Rocky Mountains that surround the town, but less-than-trivial worries like an unnaturally high bicyclist population and a moratorium on the laws of natural selection kept us from being able to do more than string a few apexes together.

Even so, the WRX is plenty of fun. While 8,000 feet isn't exactly the best altitude for internal combustion engines or the human lung, the turbo four-pot had little problem getting off of its haunches and going. Subaru has given the car a conservative 0-60 mph time of around 5.4 seconds – a figure that felt about right, even with the car suffering from altitude atrophy. Rowing through the five gears is second nature thanks to the chunky gearbox, though we wouldn't mind a slightly stiffer clutch for cog-swapping. The whole experience made us wishful for a stint at the tiller in a location that's a little closer to sea level.

While power felt a little lackluster while we were tickling the clouds, the car's grip and brakes could care less about elevation, and as such, the little Rex had no problem clinging to the ribbon of asphalt that snakes up to Independence Pass. On the street, you would have to be doing something seriously wrong to out-drive the car's physical capabilities. The platform is planted well beyond the punch of the turbo four, even with all 265 ponies kicking at the transmission. Similarly, the brakes can take the kind of beating that comes along with shedding 2,000 feet of mountain in around 20 minutes without fade or complaint.

Complete with its new suit, the 2011 WRX remains one of the best performance buys on the market. Subaru has upped the car's MSRP by a full grand to $25,495 for both the four- and five-door trims, which seems only fair given the wider track and more sinister sheetmetal. The upgraded sticker seems completely worth it in our eyes and should pay for itself the first time you turn a wheel in anger.

Photos by Zach Bowman / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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