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SUBARU IMPREZA WRX-S

As you step inside the Subaru Impreza WRX-S, the chunky three-spoke steering wheel and Momo gearknob are the kind of rally-esque adornments you expect, and once slotted in to the supportive seats the Impreza has you in its grasp. crack

This is a story that was never supposed to end. As far back as 1993, Subaru has competed in the World Rally Championship with the Impreza, and the number of wins and world championships that followed proved its dominance in such a competitive sport. Not only was it good for the sport, it was good for the sales of Mica Blue Impreza STis and matching rally jackets. A generation of car fans have lived and breathed hot Imprezas, but now the WRC car is no more. Perhaps then this is the best time to savour the current Impreza, especially as this recently launched WRX-S version benefits from some choice enhancements.The shape should be familiar to all by now: the surprise that greeted the switch to hatchback format from saloon has long disappeared, and instead been replaced by an acceptance that the Impreza is distinctive, if not loved by all. The hotter models do make the most of the shape however, and the WRX-S benefits from some tasty 18-inch anthracite alloy wheels as well as some of the body add-ons usually reserved for the top STi model. So only the true anorak-wearers will know that youre not driving the full-house model.It's an attractive visual boost over the regular WRX, and it certainly gets you in the mood for some enthusiastic driving, which is what hot Imprezas are all about. As you step inside, the chunky three-spoke steering wheel and Momo gearknob are the kind of rally-esque adornments you expect, and once slotted in to the supportive seats the Impreza has you in its grasp.

The cabin itself is a pleasant place to be: Subaru has made noises about it being a premium cabin, and while it cant quite match up to the levels of quality you get in a European car at this price tag, its still appealing all the same. The audio unit sits helpfully high on the fascia, and the layout is sensible and attractive. The dials are smart and the driving position good, while the equipment list is as healthy as you would hope: climate control, hill start assist, six- disc MP3-compatible CD autochanger with an MP3 jack too. You can even get full leather, but a true rally fan wouldnt consider it.Theres more to the WRX-S than visuals though. The rally car builders over at Prodrive got their laptops out and had a prolonged fiddle with the Imprezas electronic brain, and in the process released an extra 25bhp and, more importantly, 51lb/ft of torque, bringing the total up to 288 lb/ft. Thats surprisingly close to the STi, reflected in the fact that it sprints to 60mph in only 5.5 seconds - just 0.6 of a second slower than the £26,000 STi.That performance is easy to tap in to, always there and ready to power you forwards with vigour. Some may be disappointed by the relative lack of drama from the engine - despite the modified exhaust the WRX-S is relatively civilised, but its keenness is undiminished. Get a few thousand revs on the 2.5-litre boxer unit and it really starts to fly, powering it round to 130mph in quick succession. The performance is helped by the slickness of the gearbox, and although it lacks a sixth gear which the engine could happily pull, it slots keenly between ratios and strings together the mighty efforts of the engine. Its the kind of performance that makes the WRX-S such a delight to use on a back-road drive.The WRX-S brings the range of hot Imprezas to four, which is more than most of the competition. However, that doesnt mean that biggest is necessarily best. The WRX-S has a significant visual and mechanical boost over the standard car for a modest price increase, yet it does without some of the add-ons that take you the truly ballistic STi versions. Unless you feel that more is definitely more, then get behind the wheel of the WRX-S first: the S definitely stands for Special.