Insider guide: Make the most of your 2002-'07 Subaru Impreza WRX

Robert
By Robert Bowen
Apr 15, 2023 | Saab, Subaru, WRX, Buyer's Guide, Impreza, 9-2x | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Feb. 2009 issue | Never miss an article

Photography credit: Jerry Doctor

Back in the mid-1990s, if you had told your average American auto enthusiast that Subaru would soon be known for its performance cars, you’d likely have been laughed out of the room. In the U.S. market at least, Subaru specialized in building quirky front- and all-wheel-drive compact cars that featured conservative styling, flat-four engines and no-frills interiors—hardly the stuff that excited most enthusiasts.

However, Subaru did—and still does—enjoy one of the highest percentages of repeat buyers of any car maker. Back then, this was thanks to Subaru’s popularity among young, educated buyers who lived in the snowbelt and weren’t particularly interested in power or luxury. 

In the late 1990s, the marque’s market changed. Subaru of America added the Impreza 2.5 RS to its lineup for 1998 and gave us a glimpse of what was to come: rally-ready, all-wheel-drive performance. This non-turbo, 2.5-liter Impreza was not particularly fast in a straight line, but it became popular with amateur rally racers and autocrossers. It was torquey, sure-footed and looked the part. 

The 2.5 RS was one of the first Subarus in recent memory to attract widespread attention from enthusiasts, and it did a lot to raise the brand’s profile here in the States. The resulting positive press and customer response clearly set the stage for the later WRX and STI models. Without the RS paving the way, it’s likely Subaru wouldn’t have added the later performance-oriented cars to its American lineup.

If You Build It, They Will Come

With the new millennium came a new Impreza, as Subaru of America expanded its lineup in 2002. While the non-turbo Impreza 2.5 RS was still available, this batch of cars featured a special standout: The U.S. finally had its own WRX, turbocharger and all. 

The timing was nearly perfect. The import tuning scene was really exploding, and few manufacturers offered a model that could compete with the well-developed WRX.

Photography credit: David S. Wallens

The WRX was new to Americans, but the model line actually stretched back to 1992 internationally. Developed to battle the Lancer Evolution and similar rally-ready cars, the WRX was a little less hardcore but appealed to a broader audience. It was a home run.

Our version of the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive car—available in both sedan and sport-wagon guises—was slightly detuned from the Japanese and European versions. Instead of the 250-horsepower turbo engine and close-ratio gearbox found in the Japanese-market WRX sedan, we got a 227-horsepower, flat-four boxer plus the wide-ratio gearbox found in the home-market WRX wagon. Subaru raised the final drive ratio from 4.11:1 to 3.90:1 to lower the revs when cruising. The U.S.-market cars also lost some of the frills found on the JDM versions, as we didn’t get the trick front brake calipers or wider wheels.

Photography credit: David S. Wallens

Despite the differences, the Americanized WRX still performed well. Zero-to-60 times were in the 5.5-second range—pretty amazing for a car costing less than $25,000. Brakes, handling and grip were also well above average. 

Subaru also offered the WRX with an automatic transmission. Even though this version came paired with a more sophisticated all-wheel-drive system, few enthusiasts embraced it due to its lack of zing and even greater lack of low-end torque.

Outside, the WRX shared the same wide-body styling and unique bug-eye headlights as rest of the Impreza lineup. However, the WRX package added a distinctive hood scoop and side skirts; most of the WRX sedans also came with the optional spoiler.

This new Impreza exhibited typical Subaru build quality plus an interior that was neat, simple and basic. A refreshing lack of “gee whiz” features combined with a purposeful leather steering wheel and shift knob gave the car just the right ambiance for performance piloting. In fact, everything about the car seemed to be focused on the task of driving. 

Photography credit: David S. Wallens

Front Page News

The WRX was a hit with the press, winning awards from nearly every American automotive publication. Contemporary road testers praised the car’s driving manners and performance, with only minor quibbles aimed at the steering feel, road noise and lack of low-end torque. The positive reviews must have worked, as fresh buyers snapped up every WRX that rolled off the assembly lines, sometimes paying even more than sticker for the privilege in the beginning. 

The new WRX also came with an unconventional feature: a free SCCA membership. Of course, the membership wasn’t without controversy, as some dealers were quick to deny warranty claims based on the possibility that issues resulted from competition. 

Many of those claims revolved around the clutch and transmission, two components that often served as the driveline’s fuse. This was no surprise; between the turbo engine and four contact patches, something had to serve as the weak link. Justified or not, these claim denials soured some owners’ attitudes, both toward their dealers and toward Subaru of America. However, the controversy did not smother enthusiasm for the car. 

Photography credit: David S. Wallens

It wasn’t long before American tuners and their customers grabbed hold of the WRX. The turbo engine responded well to mild boost increases, a free-flowing exhaust system, and the removal of one or two of the three power-limiting catalytic converters. The smallish 16x6.5-inch wheels and thin rear anti-roll bar limited the WRX’s on-track grip, but the aftermarket had plenty of cures.

Since the WRX had been available in other countries for some time, it was already accompanied by a well-established aftermarket. Within a year of its release, the car had spawned a massive following. In the years since, it has become one of the most well-developed chassis in the American market. From drag to autocross to stage rally, few cars enjoyed such aftermarket support.

Still a Fan Favorite

The American-market WRX matured during the next few model years. It got new noses for both 2004 and 2006, and the second rhinoplasty came with a displacement bump. Even though the stated horsepower only climbed by 3 units, the new-for-2006 2.5-liter engine was massively underrated. Stock for stock, the new engine cranked around 20 more horsepower to the wheels and gave the WRX a new lease on life.

Subaru released an all-new Impreza lineup for 2008. Even though a WRX was still available, many testers—and buyers—started to wish for the simpler, lighter days of the original model. Add a couple of years of depreciation into the mix, and the earlier WRX pretty much equaled the new car’s performance for about half the price. Not a bad formula in our book.

Photography credit: Rupert Berrington

Things to Know

The WRX was a good buy when new, and it’s still a strong value today. We have seen early cars advertised for less than $7500, while the latest STI Limiteds top out near $30,000. The Saab 9-2X wagons are a little less expensive than comparable 2005-’06 Impreza WRXs, meaning you should be able to find a decent, low-mileage example in the mid-teens.

Since its introduction, the WRX has been an excellent weekend racer. The 2.0-liter car has done well in the SCCA’s Street Touring Xtreme class, taking the top two positions at this fall’s Tire Rack Solo Nationals. In rallycross, stage rally and even track day events, the WRX is in its element.

Photography credit: Wayne Flynn

  • Drivetrain

Most WRX transmissions shift pretty well once underway, although some shudder when cold. Don’t worry about a hard-to-find reverse or first gear, but do check for a crunchy third gear. A hard-driven WRX will often have weak synchros. The STI transmission is much sturdier and should shift very smoothly.

Even light power modifications can destroy the stock WRX transmission—unless the car is driven with care and mechanical sympathy. The same goes for the 2.0- and 2.5-liter WRX. Only the STI drivetrain can handle high-horsepower engines, but the swap is not for the faint of heart.

Replacing a clutch is a weekend job, although it requires removal of either the engine or the transmission and front suspension.

  • Chassis

WRXs tend to be hard on front brake rotors when driven hard.

The best bang-for-the-buck upgrade for the standard WRX is better tires on wider wheels. However, the STI is nearly perfect out of the box.

Like most strut cars, the WRX likes more negative camber. Aftermarket eccentric bolts are your friend.

Most WRXs—even those running stock springs—will benefit from a larger rear anti-roll bar and better shock absorbers. Here’s a low-buck tip: Replace the wagon’s 18mm rear anti-roll bar with the 20mm piece found on the sedan. Legacy GT brakes are larger and will bolt right on, while the later four-piston calipers use the same rotors as the early WRX. Both brake upgrades require larger wheels. The STI brake swap is much more difficult because of the car’s different spindles, bearings, axles and wheel bolt pattern.

Heading to a stage rally or rallycross? Don’t forget your skidplates. Primitive Racing has them plus everything else needed to prepare your car for battle. You can also find factory Subaru skidplates under the Impreza-based Outback Sport in many junkyards.

  • Body and Interior

The interiors stand up well, and the plastic is actually less scratch-prone than the material found in many contemporary Japanese cars. Except for the beige seats found in the Saab 9-2X, the fabrics generally last a long time. The carpet tends to wear quickly and become patchy, so don’t be alarmed at its condition.

The paint is generally thin and scratches easily. Repainted bumpers and hoods are normal for early WRXs. The sheet metal in the fenders and doors is thin, too, so don’t rule out a car with a few dings or wavy panels. (Make sure to never lean against a WRX’s fenders and quarter panels.)

  • Engine

Subaru engines are tough and low-maintenance, but that doesn’t mean they’re maintenance-free. The timing belt and spark plugs should be replaced at 105,000 miles. Both jobs can be done at home, but neither is very fun.

Look for a car that has not been modified—or at least one that has been properly modified. The open-deck 2.0-liter engine does not like sloppy tuning. Ring lands and head gaskets are the first to go if the engine sees much detonation, with the No. 2 rod bearing following close behind. The stock shortblock is tough, but in many cases it has failed at or near the 300-wheel-horsepower mark. The 2.5-liter engine is tougher, but the same warnings apply—ring lands are generally the first to go.

Listen carefully for rod knocking, and test the compression if the engine has been modified. Don’t worry about an odd “clicking” or “tapping” sound under load, as it’s a side effect of the Subaru engine’s odd exhaust system. Aftermarket exhausts and injectors along with missing heat shields accentuate the natural noise.

Wondering if a car has been modified? Look at the turbo heat shield located in the right-rear corner of the engine compartment. Any missing bolts, rattles or modifications indicate that the heat shield (and probably the downpipe and turbo) have been removed and replaced. 

Peek underneath the coolant reservoir on the right side of the engine. A dark green steel bracket should be present; it shields the injectors. If it’s missing, the injectors have been changed at some point. 

Like all turbo engines, an exhaust swap pays big dividends in power. Be careful with the 2004-’06 STI and 2004-’05 WRX, however. When it comes to the STI, a free-flowing downpipe can cause the stock turbo’s wastegate to allow uncontrolled boost; the 2004-’05 WRX’s engine software can let the engine run too lean. 

If you’d rather not engineer your own setup, Cobb Tuning offers staged power packages.

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Comments
mr2s2000elise
mr2s2000elise SuperDork
9/2/20 9:54 a.m.
Robert Bowen said:

 

Back then, this was thanks to Subaru’s popularity among young, educated buyers ...weren’t particularly interested in power or luxury. 

That was certainly the truth when I traded in my 1981 DL Wagon, on a 1990 4 door Subaru Justy!!!!

Then I realized I was also interested in quality and reliability. After owning 7 of them, from 1981-2016, no more for me. I prefer to own Tier 1 Japanese cars. 

Timely. I bought my 04 WRX wagon in April. I chose to postpone driving it until catching up on deferred maintenance by the PO. I just got it on the road today.

outasite
outasite HalfDork
9/2/20 5:50 p.m.

Back in the early 2000s the family had an 03 and two 04 WRX wagons at the same time. Awesome 2nd and 3rd gear acceleration for the day.

wrex77
wrex77 New Reader
9/2/20 6:26 p.m.

I owned a 2006 WRX premium (leather seats and sunroof) and currently have a 2008 STi. Super fun cars to drive and love the all around capability of the platform. I live in the mountains and have four kids, so it can carry all my kids and fit groceries in the back while screaming around corners.

I second the warning on engines and ringlands and rod knock. Had a ECU pro-tune by Cobb and cat-back exhaust on the STi (which is a minor upgrade) and had cracked ringlands. Was replaced under warranty because at the time there were known issues with the STi ringlands.

Happened again to me a year ago but it made real mess of the engine. 

Decided to ditch the USDM 2.5l and purchased a JDM 2.0 from a 2014 STi in Japan. Similar power, but in a different way if that makes sense.

Added TGV deletes, bigger fuel injectors, catless downpipe.

The redline on the stock JDM STi is 8k (6700 on the USDM STi). My tuner discovered it makes power up to 7600 so we kept the stock redline. It really screams and sounds nothing like a USDM STi anymore.

AnthonyGS (Forum Supporter)
AnthonyGS (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UberDork
3/6/23 11:56 p.m.

These are terrible.  You totally do not want one :p.  

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