Purposeful, might be the most appropriate word to describe the new fourth-generation Subaru WRX.
With its yawning great bonnet-mounted turbocharger air scoop, sculpted bodyshell and 17-inch alloys shod with low-profile 45 series tyres, it looks as though it can really perform.
It can, too. This latest version of the legendary Subaru model line once again offers tremendous turbocharged power and torque, and the handling is brilliant thanks to its rally-proven symmetrical all-wheel drive.
Not only that, but compared to the WRX it replaces this car has a fully re-tuned suspension, stiffened body structure, upgraded brakes, a quicker steering ratio, and a system called Active Torque Vectoring that improves cornering performance by braking the inner front wheel and applying more engine torque to the outer one.
So when it wants to, this new Subaru WRX is quite capable of doing everything that the previous-generation versions are famous for. But the difference this time is that the WRX can also operate entirely normally as a standard four-door sedan.
Well, almost. Those big wheels with low profile tyres combine with the sports suspension to offer a ride that is firm, and the front seats are sporting in their design with backrests that are 60mm taller for greater support.
So the sporting intent is obviously there. But because the car's wheelbase has been extended by 25mm the cabin is roomier inside, and this combines with use of new soft- touch interior surface materials to give the vehicle a rather sophisticated ambience.
This is especially the case with the $54,990 Premium variant that's we've just had to road test. It also has an electric sunroof, leather upholstery, an eight-way adjustable power driver's seat, push-button start, rain-sensing windscreen wipers, dusk-sensing headlights, factory-fitted satellite navigation, and a prestige Harmon Kardon sound system with eight speakers, sub-woofer and amplifier.
As a result I quickly found the sedan to be quite a pleasure to drive around in the normal way. Helping things along was the fact that for the first time it was an automatic WRX, fitted with an eight-speed Lineartronic continuously variable transmission.
Fancy that - a WRX fitted with one of those sedate CVTs. But even though the transmission is based on the unit in the Forester XT it has been optimised for the turbocharged engine's high torque, and this has enabled Subaru to upgrade the car's AWD system to the variable torque distribution type which features a slight rear-wheel bias. Not only that, but the transmission can be operated manually using paddle shifters on the steering wheel anyway.
But if I owned one of these automatic WRX sedans I don't think I'd bother with the paddles - if I wanted to use it manually I would probably buy the six-speed manual model.
My reasoning behind that is because the automatic WRX has what is called the Subaru Intelligent (SI) Drive system which can transform the transmission from being a continuously variable ratio to one with eight-speed stepped shifting.
With this SI-Drive, if an I (Intelligent) mode is selected the transmission operates as a variable unit if the accelerator position is less than 40 per cent, but changes to stepped shifting when the accelerator position is greater than the 40 per cent. Then there's an S (Sport) mode which increases the use of higher engine speeds for sportier driving by changing to the stepped shifting when the accelerator position is greater than 30 per cent.
And finally there's a S# (Sport Sharp) mode which gives even sharper throttle response and eight-speed close-ratio stepped shifting right from the start.
It all works really well, to the extent that I'd argue whether any driver of the manual version could operate the gearbox any more efficiently. Obviously there are many WRX fans who much prefer manual simply because it is the more involving drive - but introduction of the auto model is an excellent move because it does mean this Subaru now appeals to a much broader range of motorists.
The auto also combines with an improved level of specification - especially in the Premium model - to give the WRX a more sophisticated ambience, and that will also no doubt result in the car appealing to more people.
This new WRX is powered by a new direct injected 2.0-litre engine that offers 197 kilowatts of power and 350 newton metres of torque, figures which are 1 and 2 per cent more than the power and torque developed by the 2.5-litre engine this unit replaces. The new engine is also 11.5 per cent more economical and its CO2 emissions are down 13.8 per cent.
It's actually a turbocharged version of the engine that is aboard the Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86 sportscar, and thanks to the turbocharging it appeals as a powerful and flexible unit that feels equally comfortable tootling around the town or rocketing along some country road.
Standard specification on all models includes climate control air conditioning, remote central locking and an alarm security system with Datadots, cruise control, trip computer, and a sports body kit with a nice- looking rear diffuser and subtle boot-mounted spoiler. And then on top of that there's all the goodies aboard the Premium version.
If there's anyone who worries that the Subaru WRX might have sold its soul a little in its efforts to become more sophisticated and appealing to a broader range of motorists, they shouldn't fret - because despite its more cultivated demeanour it is still a high-performance car.
Not only that, but the really high-performance STi version is due for New Zealand release next month. Now that promises to be something special.
- Taranaki Daily News