I test drove a 2004 Subaru Impreza 2.5RS at a local dealership. My test drive lasted about half an hour, and covered city streets, the freeway, and an abandoned military base that served as an impromptu autocross course.
Many people will see the 2.5RS's engine as its weakest point, since it doesn't provide the turbo-induced thrust of the 2.0-liter unit in the WRX. Although it's true that the 2.5RS isn't nearly as fast as the WRX, I didn't find its engine lacking. Quite the contrary--on my test drive, I found it eager, pleasant, and loaded with character.
It actually felt like the 2.5RS stepped off the line faster than the WRX, because of its generous low-end torque, and the lack of turbo lag. It remained torquey and robust-feeling all through the midrange, with responsive, linear power delivery that remained consistent all the way up to the high end. There was a greater sensation of speed than I expected, which came as a surprise to me given the 2.5RS's very average acceleration times (its 0-60 run took 7.8 seconds in the hands of Car and Driver, and 8.3 seconds in Motor Trend).
I think this impression was due to a couple of factors. One was the immediate throttle response. Unlike the WRX, the 2.5RS responds the instant your foot twitches on the pedal. There's no lag and no delay, as one would expect from a naturally-aspirated (non-turbocharged) car. The other contributing factor, I think, was the engine's fantastic sound. The deep, raspy gurgle of the 2.5RS's flat-four is interesting, engaging, and totally unique. It sounds uncannily like an older Porsche engine, minus the overlaying whine. But it's also loud. I found the engine's guttural soundtrack entertaining on my test drive, but I can see it getting old on a long trip.
I must emphasize that the 2.5RS can't touch the WRX for pure speed or excitement--if you're looking for furious acceleration, you'll definitely regret not making the step up in price. Still, thanks to its characterful engine, I think the 2.5RS is a fun and involving performer in its own right.
The 2.5RS's transmission is almost identical in feel to that of the WRX--meaning that it works well, but isn't top-notch. While the shifter has reasonably short throws, its action is a bit stiff and gritty, and its gates could be better-defined. Third gear, in particular, is a bit tricky to find initially because it's at an odd angle in relation to the rest of the pattern. Still, I never missed a shift and the feel is at least better than average.
Also, the 2.5RS's clutch was pretty much flawless. It requires less effort than that in the WRX, giving it a lighter and easier action, with the same natural, intuitive engagement point. Stepping off the line was second-nature in the 2.5RS, and smooth gearchanges came naturally right off the bat.
In my review of the WRX, I was a bit disappointed with the lack of grip from the standard tires, and the chassis' strong tendency toward understeer. Well, the 2.5RS is built on the same chassis, with the same suspension tuning, riding on the same tires. But somehow, with the less-furious power delivery of the 2.5RS, the chassis' flaws were less apparent.
In the WRX, it felt like there was too much engine and not enough contact patch, but in the 2.5RS, the performance-to-handling relationship seemed just about right. When I threw the 2.5RS around in hard turns, it still understeered heavily and leaned quite a bit on its suspension, but the car couldn't build up enough speed for it to be really disappointing--at these modest velocities, it felt fun.
That said, whether it felt fun or not, autocrossers would be disappointed by how effortlessly a Miata, RSX, or Celica would leave this car in the dust on twisting roads. But that's not this car's element--where this car really shines is in the moderate-to-brisk driving that comprised the rest of my test drive. Under these circumstances, the 2.5RS was a very solid-feeling, maneuverable little sedan.
Its steering felt solid, firmly weighted, and very accurate. Its ratio was not quick, but it locked on to my desired path with almost no conscious effort, giving its handling a confident, reassuring feel. The chassis felt surefooted and honest, and very predictable when rushing around freeway off-ramps. I could feel traces of understeer when I carried some speed into these corners, but it always felt willing to play along.
In my test-drive of the WRX, I recommended opting for the 17-inch wheel package to improve cornering, but in the 2.5RS, the standard 16-inchers feel just about right. This isn't a performance car, and without the high expectations created by the WRX's turbocharged thrust, the lack of razor-sharp reflexes and super-glue grip aren't as relevant as the solid, stable feel in everyday driving.
The 2.5RS's ride was quite excellent for a car that fits into the genre of "sport compacts." It displayed the same well-balanced composure that impressed me so much in the WRX, and I would consider it among the best-riding cars in its class. It soaked up bumps effortlessly, but kept me in touch with the road surface just enough to allow me to feel in control. Ride motions were nicely controlled, with a near-ideal level of compliance--the car never felt jerky or floaty.
All this was enhanced by a very stiff body structure that gave the 2.5RS a sense of substance and solidity. This blend of compliance, body-motion control, and structural integrity is exactly what I look for in a car's ride.
The 2.5RS has the same economy-car interior that I noted in the WRX, with a couple of differences. One is that, although the accommodations are budget-class, they feel more appropriate in the 2.5RS, which is more budget-priced. But on the other hand, a Corolla offers much higher-quality materials, and the 2.5RS also loses some of the WRX's sporty touches, like the Momo steering wheel, making it seem even more downmarket.
Still, while it's hard to get excited about the 2.5RS's rather dull cabin, there are a lot of basic strengths here that deserve appreciation. Although the general ambiance says, "economy car," it at least recalls a well-built economy car, with good fit and finish and solid-feeling materials. The moderately upright driving position and large windows afford an expansive view out, with excellent visibility in all directions. The dashbaord design is sensible and logical, with all of the controls right where you'd expect them to be, making it easy to jump in the car and go. The plastics are at least of medium quality, and the chrome-ringed gauges and "eyeball" air vents add a little touch of style.
The big, four-spoke steering wheel is disappointingly bland, but then the impression you get of this car's interior is that it's designed to work, not to surprise and delight. And it works very well, with very supportive and comfortable front seats, and a back seat that's useable, if not particularly spacious. Although not the last word in high style, the 2.5RS's cabin is comfortable and user-friendly, and certainly won't be a turn-off.
The 2.5RS scores well on practicality. For one thing, it has four doors and a back seat that's tolerable for two passengers, unlike many of the coupes that it's priced close to. It also has a good-sized trunk, and although the rear seat doesn't fold down--care to explain that one, Subaru?--it at least has a pass-through for long items. The 2.5RS also offers the advantage of all-wheel-drive, which doesn't add much to practicality in coastal California, but could really come in handy in some regions--and I know I'd appreciate it on those winter road trips to Tahoe.
The only things the 2.5RS needs for an excellent practicality score are a folding rear seat and the option of a wagon body style. An Impreza wagon is available--it's called the 2.5TS--but it has skinnier tires and a softer suspension than the 2.5RS, so it's not really an apples-to-apples comparison.
The Impreza line, as a whole, receives an Average reliability rating from Consumer Reports. However, I can't help but wonder if this rating has been skewed by the legions of hard drivers potentially abusing their WRXs. The reason I doubt their assessment is because my parents own a 2000 Subaru Impreza L wagon, and in their 50,000 miles over four years of ownership, it has never required a single unscheduled service--just routine maintenance items like oil, filters, fluids, and brake pads. This anecdotal evidence is hardly conclusive, sure, but I'd be willing to wager the 2.5RS is more reliable than CR's rating suggests.
The 2.5RS's reputation suggests that it's the lame duck of the Impreza family, with lackluster magazine reviews to back it up. But I found the 2.5RS a thoroughly charming and entertaining little sedan, and one that deserves more credit than it gets.
I'll say this before I proceed, though: This is not a budget WRX. The 2.5RS is fun enough to be called sporty, but it's not a performance car, and those expecting forceful acceleration and super-glue cornering grip will be disappointed. If you're into speed, power, and acceleration numbers, just get the WRX--it'll be worth the extra $5,000 to you. I'll admit, if I had to choose one of the two, I'd certainly take the WRX over this car.
But I'm a bit on the enthusiast fringe, and not really representative of the average buyer. If you're looking for a sporty but handy runabout, I'd recommend the 2.5RS in a second. Buyers looking for something fun, affordable, and useful might actually prefer the 2.5RS's linear and immediate power delivery to the schizophrenic "lag... lag... whoooahh!" acceleration of the WRX, especially if they don't push their cars to the limit on a regular basis. Even with my performance bias, I have to say that the 2.5RS makes a more cooperative partner in moderate driving than its turbocharged stablemate.
So we've got that out of the way--for many buyers, this is a perfectly viable, perhaps more realistic alternative to the sling-shot WRX. Now, how does the 2.5RS stand up to other sub-$20K sport compacts? Well, if you're putting the 2.5RS in the same camp as the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V and Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, you'll find it more reserved and perhaps a bit too low on the fast-and-furious quotient. The Spec V is quicker and grippier--if less sophisticated--and the Ralliart is faster still, with excellent refinement to boot. Both of these cars would leave the 2.5RS for dead on a winding mountain road, and if that's a high priority for you, you'll probably prefer these competitors by a wide margin.
But the 2.5RS is quick enough to be fun, responsive enough to be satisfying, and has a quirky charm that none of its rivals can match. It's not a sports machine, but a solid and trusty daily driver with an entertaining personality. If a car's ability to make everyday driving fun is more important to you than track-star performance, you'll probably like the 2.5RS just as much its sharper-focused rivals, as I did.
Feel free to check out my reviews of some of the 2.5RS's competitors:
Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
Pontiac Vibe GT
Subaru Impreza WRX
Toyota Corolla XRS
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