Ready, Set...

By Hannah Wallace September 30, 2007

Somewhere in the world right now a rally race is taking place.

A driver and co-driver, strapped into a street-legal car, are trying to travel from Point A to Point B on gravel roads cut into mountain sides, in rain or snow, in the quickest time. At timed intervals, more cars will follow the same course. Fastest wins.

Perhaps because the competition is not head-to-head, Americans have not taken to rally racing. The rest of the world has, however; rally racing is second only to Formula 1 racing in popularity among fans.

One reason is that real people can buy real rally race cars at local dealerships. The Subaru WRX Sti—the same WRX that has been rally-dominant for 15 years—can be yours for $33,495. It's the same Subaru WRX Sti that you saw competing in the X Games on TV last summer, the same model that competes for the World Rally Championship.

“I love this car,” the young delivery boy said as he exited the WRX Sti sent for a week of testing. He was grinning. I smiled slightly. I knew what I was in for. My last WRX test, four years ago, added some gray to my hair.

The basic platform for this racecar is the Subaru Imprezza, starting at $17,995. There's plenty to recommend any Subaru, including the mild-mannered Imprezza. Consumer Reports rates the Subaru among the most reliable cars. And all Subies have all-wheel drive, assuring safe handling in adverse weather or road conditions.

All are reasonably fuel thrifty, including our racing WRX Sti that returns 19 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway (but needs premium gasoline for its powerful four-cylinder engine).

But while the base Imprezza has a 173-horsepower engine, the WRX Sti uses a turbocharger and other power-improving tricks to pump out almost 300 horsepower from the boxer engine (a flat engine design with horizontal cylinders, so opposing pistons punch toward each other, like a boxer throwing jabs). The boxer engine, with less height than an inline-four, allows a lower center of gravity, improving cornering capability. And it doesn't vibrate as badly, either. With a weight of 3,200 pounds, this Subaru on steroids can dash 0 to 60 in well under six seconds.

Your eye is drawn first to a huge wing on the rear of a WRX Sti. This uses air force to hold the car down at high speeds, but partially blocks the view through the rear window. In addition to that wing, the WRX Sti has a large hood scoop that forces air into the engine intake system. Just know that this helps make it faster. The car is available in one color, blue, with gold wheels.

The Subaru WRX Sti, surprisingly, is a four-door. A racy sedan was almost a contradiction of terms not long ago. Racy cars were coupes or two-seaters. No Mustang or Camaro driver would fear a sedan in the next lane. Fear this one. It's faster, using half the cylinders.

Open the driver's door and you'll see something else unusual: the seats. Only a handful of sports cars have bucket seats with side bolsters this big. On both the seat base and sides, huge protective wings jut out to hold a driver in place during fast turns.

Instrumentation, thankfully, is straightforward. It cannot be otherwise in a car that will be raced. Information must be read in a split-second of eye contact.

The co-driver in rally races has “pacenotes” that chart the course. He rides in the front passenger seat and communicates with the driver through a helmet-mounted headset. To the uninitiated, his conversation is unintelligible. He refers to his pacenotes sheet, where he sees, “FR/Jmp 80 !ML - KR + C.”

He then shouts into his mouthpiece, "Fast right beyond the jump, then 80 yards to caution for medium left turn into a right and flat road crest."

The driver has no time to think. Pedals, instruments, gear shift must all be perfectly laid out for easiest use. And in the WRX Sti, they are.

There's only one problem with this setup: While it contributes to success on some of the world’s worst roads, it adds up to discomfort on many American roads. The WRX seems to lack any suspension. Every road imperfection is felt by anyone inside the car. U.S. 41 feels like a washboard on even its best surfaces.

And, to handle the stress of constantly shifting in rally racing, the clutch must be heavy-duty. That means depressing the clutch pedal to shift this six-speed racer is a task easiest for an athlete. At stoplights, I found myself shifting into neutral and rubbing my weary left (clutch) leg.

The brakes are super-quick, as they must be. And the acceleration, once the turbocharger kicks in, is neck-snapping. Gears must be changed quickly, and speed rises very rapidly into wildly illegal territory.

Fun? Sometimes. Just know that this is not a commuter car—unless you live in Baja, Calif., and work in L.A.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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