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Subaru dodges trees and spits gravel

THE quiet little town of Squamish has many attractions: rock climbing, kite surfing and parasailing, hiking, sailing, fishing - pretty much any of the outdoor activities featured in the MEC catalogue. It's a little slice of Beautiful B.C.

THE quiet little town of Squamish has many attractions: rock climbing, kite surfing and parasailing, hiking, sailing, fishing - pretty much any of the outdoor activities featured in the MEC catalogue.

It's a little slice of Beautiful B.C., just a short drive from the city.

It's also the provincial capital for hilariously overpowered Subarus.

This is mostly due to the efforts of the mad-scientists over at Rocket Rally, a tuning outfit that doesn't really do the whole neon underbody lighting and big stereo thing, but will armour-plate your family car with aluminum sheeting and fit it with a turbocharger the size of a labradoodle. They build and operate Subaru Canada's rally cars as well.

Rally racing and Subarus are as closely woven together as the Gortex fibres that make up the clothes of the people who drive them. If you're not aware, rally racing is to normal road racing what downhill mountain biking is to the GranFondo: big knobbly tires, lots of mud, plenty of spectacular crashing.

In fact, the very name of the high performance version of the Subaru Impreza is taken from the World Rally Championship: WRC becomes WRX. These road-going rally cars have been Canadian favourites for more than a decade, but they've actually been around for even longer than that.

Subaru was already rallying their Legacy mid-sized car in the early 1990s, and having some success in doing so. However, when the new Impreza came out in the early '90s, the smaller car was a better fit for the tight, winding rally stages.

We got the Impreza as a four-door sedan, two-door coupe or hatchbacky "sport wagon." Japanese buyers got the option of a turbo-charged four door rocket with 237 horsepower and all-wheel drive. Released in 1992, it was a smash hit.

Speaking of smash hits, the international appeal of the WRX in the 1990s was very different, country to country. In the U.K., younger buyers went nuts for the accessible performance and tuning potential of the car: it was a real B-road terror.

In Australia, also well suited to all-wheel-drive cars, the "smash hit" thing got taken quite literally. As WRXs were always available in wagon form (some early models were officially dubbed the wonderful "Subaru Gravel Express"), they made great getaway cars.

Easy to steal, without passive immobilizers, a WRX wagon was tough enough to smash through a storefront and spacious enough to fill it full of ill-gotten Australian goods, like boomerangs and jumbucks and those little hats with corks on them, or what-have-you. Then it was off to play "Waltzing Matilda" with the coppers, who simply couldn't keep up.

Meantime, something called the STi was built. These were special versions of the standard WRX even more like the rally racing cars that were stacking up victories with drivers like Colin McRae at the wheel. Subaru Technica International (STI) has an official colour that's a bit odd for such a barrel-chested racer: cherry-blossom pink. Still, with power now in the 250 horsepower and up range, the STi versions were nothing to be laughed at.

In the latter half of the '90s, special edition cars became all the rage, and here's a rule-of-thumb if you happen to be looking at one of these right-hand-drive JDM imports on our streets today: the more letters after the name, the better. Therefore, a WRX is good, a WRX STI is better, and a WRX STI Spec-C RA-R is just about the best thing in the universe.

With three rally titles under their belts, Subaru built probably the best WRX of them all: the 22B. You might never see one of these in person as it's so rare, but it's as close to the rally cars as Subaru ever made anything, with huge fender flares and enormous foglight housings. It's also a very pretty car, in a muscular way, and we all know how rare it is for Subaru to actually make a good-looking car.

Then, in 2002, Subaru finally brought the WRX to America, and by extension, Canada. The cars were based on the new Impreza with its odd round-headlight front-end (enthusiasts like me refer to them as "Bugeyes"), but it sold very strongly, with high dealer demand. Moreover, and unlike some of its more expensive German competition, the WRXs continue to hold their value very strongly today as they're mechanically quite tough.

Of course, there are some issues, as with any car. With a Subaru, you're spending your money on the powertrain, so the interior tends to be a bit plasticky, and they get very rattly with age. My personal vehicle is a 2002 WRX wagon and it's a bit like driving around inside an all-wheel-drive maraca.

Later WRXs (2006+) got a 2.5-litre engine as compared to the 2.0-litre in the early cars. Neither option is really what you'd call fuel efficient, but the 2.5-litre has considerably better low-end response. After the body-style change in 2008, 2009 models got a 265 h.p. engine upgrade that's even quicker than it feels.

While the STi remains the king of the hill with 300 h.p., a six-speed transmission and all sorts of clever differentials, the WRX is the better high-performance bargain, and nips at the more powerful car's heels all the way down the dragstrip. Not that the dragstrip is really where these machines do their best work - unless there's been a gravel spill.

Going forward, Subaru has just launched a concept WRX at the New York International Auto Show, and it's very good looking. Better yet, it's still a four-door, making it a practical family choice for the driver who still wants a quick car from time-to-time. Sure, your commute might not be a winding dirt road through a Scandinavian forest, but Subaru will certainly sell you a car that'll make it feel like one.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. Contact him at mcaleeronwheels@gmail.com.

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