The Independent Road Test: The supercar for supermarket money: Phil Llewellin finds the Subaru Impreza Turbo mighty impressive

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The mantra 'Competition improves the breed' has accompanied countless decisions to spend oodles of money on motor sport. The classic example cited in its support is Jaguar, whose race- winning exploits at Le Mans in the Fifties enhanced the all-round performance of its six-cylinder 'XK' engine, and led to the use of disc brakes on road-going cars.

'Competition improves the image' is a variation. Rally fans now link the Subaru name with young Colin McRae's challenge for the world championship title in his Impreza Turbo. But it is easy to approach the off-the-shelf version of the Subaru Impreza Turbo in a cynical frame of mind: a gulf of Grand Canyon dimensions often separates the road car and the one used for rallying.

Priced at pounds 17,999 ( pounds 500 more than the saloon version), the five- door Impreza Turbo 2000 4WD is said to offer 'a unique combination of estate and hatchback'. In fact the truncated shape makes one wonder if a section was lost between styling studio and factory - although the result does provide extra luggage space and versatility.

The Impreza's startling performance makes it a supercar for supermarket money. The 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine does not deliver a lot of power at low revs, so the gearbox has to be used a lot, but it becomes very potent when the turbocharger starts earning its corn at about 3,000rpm.

The 0-60mph time of 6.1 seconds puts this practical, five-seater runabout in the same class as the Ferrari 348 and Porsche 968. Equally impressive mid-range acceleration - what matters on the open road - makes overtaking

easy. This Impreza offers an excellent example of power increasing safety.

Few manufacturers can match Subaru's experience with four- wheel drive. What used to be considered suitable only for mud- pluggers is now just as likely to be found in a high-performance car. Wet roads enabled the Impreza to demonstrate its rock-solid composure in conditions where 208bhp could have been a wheel- spinning, nose-sliding, tail-twitching embarrassment. In wet or dry conditions, the engine, transmission, brakes and suspension combine to make this a delightfully agile car that is fun to drive.

Crisp handling on Michelin

Pilot 205/55 tyres is not achieved at the expense of a rib-rattling ride. The suspension is firm and sporting, but carefully engineered to provide an acceptable degree of insulation from the road's irregularities.

The main quibbles include tyre roar, notably on coarse surfaces, and enough wind noise to attract unfavourable comments from passengers in the rear compartment, where leg-room is less than generous. Fuel costs are high, but they have to be set against the Impreza's high performance and relatively low price.

The package includes an impressive warranty, but a warning sign on the driver's door - 'When stopping the engine after heavy highway driving, allow it to lidle for one minute' - is a reminder that turbocharged engines appreciate more mollycoddling than the naturally aspirated type. One wonders how many drivers will bother to twiddle their thumbs for 60 seconds after rushing to be on time for an appointment, or while anticipating the first sip of gin and tonic at the end of a long, hard day.

And there is a little snag for those who want to compete on equal terms with Colin McRae. The road-going Impreza is powerful and keenly priced; the full- blooded rally version is very powerful (400bhp) and extremely expensive, representing an investment by the rally team of almost pounds 190,000.


Ford Escort RS Cosworth, pounds 22,535

Even more powerful than the Subaru and reasonably discreet, if you choose not to have the enormous optional rear wing. The latest model, with a more responsive engine, goes on sale in mid-June.

Volkswagen Golf VR6, pounds 19,049

Lacks the turbocharged Impreza's blistering performance, but VW's 2.8-litre V6 is a superb engine in a good chassis. A commendable alternative if you can live with the rather bland styling.

Lancia Integrale HF, pounds 25,000

Lancia has pulled out of the British market, but the Integrale is still held in sky-high regard

by the marque's supporters.

This is the road version of the car that won the World Rally Championship six times in six years.

Renault Clio Williams, pounds 13,275

Do you need a bigger car than this? Named in honour of Renault's role as engine supplier to the world-beating Williams grand prix team, this tempting tiddler is hailed by many experts as the best of all hot hatchbacks.


Subaru Impreza Turbo 2000 4WD five-door, pounds 17,999

Four-cylinder turbocharged 1,994cc, 208bhp at 6,000rpm. Five-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive; 0-60mph in 6.1 seconds, top speed 139mph. Average fuel consumption 24.5mpg.

(Photograph omitted)

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