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Soft-serve Subie

When it comes to wandering the wilderness, the Israelites have nothing on Subaru. Known and loved for a generation of woodsy all-wheel-drive sedans, wagons and refrigerator boxes (Legacy, Impreza, Forester), Subaru has also pulled boners of biblical proportions, such as the Giugiaro-designed luxury sports car SVX in the early 1990s. Subaru's flannel-wearing, Walden-dwelling fans were precisely as thrilled as you might expect. About the same time, Subaru of America hired the advertising firm Wieden & Kennedy, whose enigmatic and daft "What to Drive" campaign could well have been shortened to just "What?" It took years for Subaru to get back on message.

More recently, in 2005 Subaru ventured into the premium mid- to full-size crossover market with the B9 Tribeca (they have since dropped the "B9" on account of it being an inadvertent homonym of "benign," as in tumors). The Tribeca introduced the world to a strange, three-port grille array, meant to convey parent-company Fuji Heavy Industries' glorious history in aviation. You may remember them from the skies of Pearl Harbor. Perfect! Great message: I want a car like the plane that used to bomb granddad.

Subaru immediately began redesigning the corporate grille. The result is that now the Tribeca nose looks exactly like that of a Chrysler minivan. Meanwhile, every other product in the Subaru lineup has a different face. Subaru is the Dr. Lao of car companies.

I could go on, so I will. Three years ago, Subaru wanted to fish in premium import waters and maintained a 5%-10% price premium over its Japanese competitors, with a goal of 250,000 annual U.S. sales. Today, after a change of leadership, the goals are much more modest -- 236,000 units by 2010 -- and Subaru wants to roll back its price premium strategy. Subaru sold about 200,000 cars stateside last year.

This is corporate strategy by Magic 8 Ball. New grille? Definitely. Raise prices? Ask again. . . .

All along, Subaru's salvation has been Impreza, the all-wheel-drive compact car platform that in its many shapes (coupe, sedan, wagon) and degrees of oomph has fostered a large and loyal following. In 2002, Subie introduced the U.S. to the WRX, the tamed version of the company's world-beating rally car. In 2004, the company finally let Yanks have a go at the WRX STi sedan, an unholy, snot-flinging monster rabbit of a car with 293 turbocharged horses, massive brakes, race-fettled suspension and driver-adjustable all-wheel drive. The WRX STI is to sport-compact tuners and Gran Turismo fans what Lourdes is to lepers.

Plainly put, the Impreza is the franchise. Subaru couldn't, they wouldn't mess with the franchise, would they?

They have. The 2008 Impreza (base model) and Impreza WRX -- available in four- and five-door models -- are stylistic chloroform, boring and generic Asian shapes draped over a longer (up 4.5 inches) and taller (1.5 inches) frame. Wheelbase is up 4.5 inches to 103.1 inches. The object here is to enlarge the cabin to make the Impreza more of a mainline choice, to rival competitors like the Honda Civic and Mazda3. But no one ever winched themselves into the high-bolster seats of a WRX and wished for more rear seat room.

For every upside you can count -- the doors now have full-frame windows that dramatically improve noise levels -- there's a tawdry downside. The cheesy, straight-outta-Pep Boys mirror chrome taillights, for example. Meanwhile, the front-end follies continue with the Impreza, which now does a passable impression of Mazda.

And by the way, the WRX's hood scoop looks like a bizarre experiment in trepanation.

I spent a week in an up-spec Impreza WRX five-door ($29,833) and came away wondering why Subaru would dilute one of its core products in hopes of attracting a mainstream audience that will never, ever materialize. Come on, Subaru, follow the GOP model: Pander to your base.

To be sure, there are good things here. The interior is vastly improved, with the organic twin-scallop dash design reminiscent of the Tribeca. The materials -- the soft-paint metallics of the steering wheel-mounted switches -- rank well, as do the bright orange instruments and dense vinyl dash coverings. The touch-screen navigation/satellite radio system works like a champ. Overall interior refinement compares favorably with Mazda, if not Honda.

Although many of the mechanical systems are carry-overs from the previous edition, Subaru changed the multi-link rear suspension to a more compact unequal-length control arm suspension, thus freeing up room for a bigger cargo hold. Behind the hatch is a worthy 11.3 cubic feet.

Under the hood scoop is the 2.5-liter, 224-hp horizontally opposed four-cylinder, with revised intercooler/turbocharger that fattens up low-rev torque, now peaking at 2,800 rpm. Make no mistake: This thing has got an engine in it. From the line, the car is a little slow to stir, as is typical with AWD cars, but then surges with big yanking doses of turbocharged acceleration and a soundtrack like a den of meth-crazed, yellow-bellied marmots. Punchy, willing and free-revving, the engine is absolutely the best thing about the WRX.

The flat-four is buttoned to a five-speed manual transmission, which seems one gear short by modern standards. The lack of a double overdrive gear affects mileage, which is a pretty miserable 19 city/24 highway. On the other hand, the wider gear spacings mean fewer shifts between corners and quicker 0-to-60 mph times. The WRX gets to the mark in under 6 seconds.

Oh, but then there are the corners. In the interests of making the WRX more civilized and more ride-compliant -- which it absolutely is -- the engineers have put the car on the springs from ballpoint pens. Take a corner at high speed in the WRX and the body rolls in big, underdamped moments. From corner to corner the springs collect and release kinetic energy in a way that makes it kind of sloppy and unmanageable. Drive it really hard and the car -- previously a model of tucked-in balance -- feels positively deranged. Perversely, all of this seems more acute because of the WRX's tight and accurate steering.

I suspect the engineers dialed back the WRX knowing that the next generation STI -- due in the States in March 2008 -- would be along to satisfy the flat-cornering blood lust of enthusiasts. But I don't see how enfeebling the WRX helps matters.

As for me, I'll wait for the swollen-fendered, mega-wheeled STI and try to forget the WRX.

dan.neil@latimes.com

2008 Subaru Impreza WRX

Base price: $24,850

Price, as tested: $29,833

Powertrain: Intercooled and turbocharged 2.5-liter DOHC 16-valve flat four engine; five-speed manual transmission; full-time all-wheel drive

Horsepower: 224 at 5,200 rpm

Torque: 226 pound-feet at 2,800 rpm

Curb weight: 3,142 pounds (manual transmission)

Wheelbase: 103.1 inches

Overall length: 173.8 inches

EPA fuel economy: 19 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Detuned and off-key

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