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Click for pictures“Take one already
  seriously fast Impreza
  WRX STi, add a
  Prodrive Performance
  Pack, light the blue
  touch-paper and
  stand well back...”

You could be forgiven for thinking that there's been more Impreza models than most people have New Year resolutions. Could be, but the upside is that they just keep on getting better and the 'giant-slaying' turbocharged Impreza continues to attract as much interest and admiration as it did when it first appeared in the mid-90's — perhaps more, because now we all know what it can do.

To prove the 'better and better' point, just look at the Impreza III WRX STi PPP Type-UK tested here. This version comes with the ultra-desirable dealer-fitted Prodrive-developed performance pack (PPP) that lifts top speed to 155+mph and is accompanied by a rip-roaring zero-to-60mph time of just 4.6 seconds — quicker than most Aston Martins — and a 0-100mph time of 12.2 seconds. The PPP-generated power hike takes the standard STi's 261bhp to 300bhp and torque to a whopping 299lb ft at 4,000rpm. From a tractability point of view, the 1,995 PPP 'add-on' endows the Type-UK with more pulling power between 3,000 and 5,800rpm than the standard STi has at its peak, while at 2,500rpm the PPP-boosted car has almost 30 per cent extra torque. Out on the road we're talking 'swifter at any speed, in any gear'.

Key hardware features of the Type-UK are a heavily revised chassis and suspension geometry for even more involving handling, a longer wheelbase with a wider rear track, inverted suspension struts (just like on the rally cars and this sharpens handling feel, enhancing road-holding by reducing wheel movement during hard cornering or when covering bumpy surfaces), Brembo brakes, a new 6-speed close-ratio gearbox, front and rear 'Suretrak' limited slip differentials, a faster, sharper-feeling steering rack, wider 17-inch wheels with 225/45 tyres and a standard satellite anti-theft tracking system. Also fitted as standard are a driver's control centre differential (DCCD) and a yaw-rate sensor.

Externally, the only real giveaway to all these improvements are the larger gold alloy wheels in a new 10-spoke design with matching gold callipers, subtle extensions to the rear wheelarches to accommodate the extended rear track and neat colour-keyed sills. More blatant visual WRX STi trademarks include the unmissable but functional intercooler air scoop set high up on the bonnet, muscular flared front arches and a boot-mounted wing large enough to do your ironing on — not that anyone drooling over this car will care about a rumpled shirt or two! At the front there's a red 'STi' badge in the nearside mesh grille and deep air-intakes above and below the number plate, book-ended by distinctive triple-lens 3-dimensional headlamp units.

Keen drivers will get hours of pleasure playing with the new driver's control centre differential. Operated via a small switch (it reverts to automatic mode every time the engine is switched off) next to the handbrake, it allows the driver to manually select the full-time all-wheel drive system's front-to-rear torque distribution. This permits the driver to choose, for example, between sharper cornering turn-in and more stable straight-line running. A yaw-rate sensor is also fitted to enhance the balance between straight-line stability and turn-in.

You only have to glimpse one of these range-topping Imprezas to know that it lives and breathes performance and driver indulgence. Talk to an owner or wannabe and the conversation will be about driving enjoyment. Even we fell into the trap of starting our review off with a wad of performance and technical stuff. But then it's that kind of car.

So maybe now would be as good a time as any to mention the interior. Or, as any aficionado would call it, the workplace. Jump in and you'll find a sporty blue and black cabin radiating an unexpectedly comfortable ambience. High-backed blue-and-black rally-type front seats upholstered in a comfortable blue suede-effect covering look enticing.

Sit behind the wheel and you'll find that the seats are as comfortable and superbly supportive as they are good to look at. The perforated suede-effect centre sections feature red STi logos and the grippy black cloth covering the firm side bolsters adds extra grip. The functional driving position is brilliant and you can accurately judge each corner. The all-round visibility is very good and amazingly, the large bonnet scoop is not a problem.

A neat deeply-recessed instrument cluster contains three smart dials with thick silver bezels. Pride of place goes to the central position rev-counter red-lined at 7,200rpm. To its left is a combined fuel/ temperature gauge with a progressive diff lock display and to the right is a 160mph speedometer. Graphics are crisp and clear white on very dark blue, with red needles. At night, illuminated in a pale green light, they look even better.

A small three-spoke perforated leather-rimmed steering wheel is easy both on the eye and your hands. The column only adjusts for height but it doesn't matter as there's a good two inches of seat adjustment to compensate. Continuing the blue colour scheme of the seats and door trims are blue STi monogrammed carpets. And echoing the red STi seat logos is some red stitching — on the steering wheel, gear knob and leather handbrake gaiter.

The neat, silvered centre stack, housing a radio/cassette/CD player with large easy to reach buttons and the A/C's three rotary controls, adds a classy touch as it swoops down to the gearlever. It also harmonises well with the black plastic used for the fascia. There are a number of useful cubbies, slim rigid door pockets, a good-size glovebox and a lidded storage bin between the front seats.

Apart from the efficient set 'n' forget air conditioning — which also has brilliant 360-degree swivelling eyeball air vents — and a digital clock, most of what you see has a performance rather than luxury function, such as the warning buzzer/light that the driver pre-sets to guard against over-revving the engine, the DCCD already mentioned and a switch to spray the intercooler with water (to retain power during high-temperature/altitude driving). What's particularly nice is that you don't need to read a manual before you get in and drive off because everything is so obvious.

Standard equipment also includes power steering, four electric windows, electric door mirrors with one-shot up/down for the driver, an outside temperature gauge and aluminium accelerator, brake and clutch pedals as well as the left-foot rest. There is also a satellite tracking system and a generous dose of safety kit.

The compact and very wieldy Impreza comes with four doors and five seats. The split/folding rear seat is useful and extends the load options beyond the massive boot. It's actually all very family-friendly as you'll find anytime you need to fill all the seats. Frameless doors are a nice feature and make entry and exit even easier when the windows are lowered. There's ample foot, leg and shoulder room and a wide, padded central rear armrest is provided in the rear, along with a large ski-hatch.

At day-to-day speeds, and as an everyday car, it's unexpectedly satisfyingly and tactile. The ride quality is far better than you might have thought and noticeably uncompromised by the firm, roll-resistant suspension set-up. And while it does let you know what's underfoot, your fillings are in absolutely no danger of shaking loose. Another urban legend bites the dust! Around town it rides and feels both composed and assured. You really do get your money's worth because, however slow you're forced to drive, it still serves up driving enjoyment. If nothing else, slow-moving city traffic gives you the chance to open the window and listen to the oddly melodic beat of the 'boxer' engine.

There's something of a gentle giant about the Impreza's character, despite its in-your-face look. It seems to almost coddle and indulge you, it's full-time four-wheel drive system making sure you never come to any harm. The burble of its flat-four 'boxer' engine could be said to be reminiscent of a chuckling giant. Firmly established as one of the greatest performance cars it might well be. But for a fire-breathing, point-to-point, all-weather machine the Impreza is also reassuringly domesticated.

Getting back to the DCCD — enthusiastic driver's will have a field day experimenting with different settings, winding the rotary switch next to the handbrake to adjust between an even 50:50 torque spread up to a rear axle biased 65:35. Load the power to the tail with a twist of the rotary switch and you can play rally drivers for real. You'll feel like a kid again on that magical first drive out of the summer holidays. Except that this is most definitely a big boy's toy.

While it has the looks to goad all manner of fast cars, it also has the ability to reduce almost all of them to specks in the rear-view mirror. It doesn't always feel as fast as it actually is. Well, not until the rev-counter needle flicks past the 3,900rpm mark and you encounter peak torque. Then it begins to feel very fast indeed. Bat out of hell fast. And when you hear a hard-edged roar creeping progressively into the exhaust note you know you're really flying. At which point the Impreza's abilities harmonise beautifully. Steering, accelerator, rifle-bolt action gearchange and brakes all work in harmony to deliver a totally interactive drive that flatters your ability. Then you remember the price and grin even wider.

Every time you turn the key in the ignition you know that you're only seconds away from a rally-style driving experience. So it's interesting to note that despite the undeniable 'boy's toys' image, there are a lot of ladies driving these cars — and driving them well. Which also goes to show that in spite of the Impreza's hardcore high-performance credentials, it really can handle mundane everyday driving chores. Commuting, shopping and the school run — sorry, better make that the school sprint — and even a family outing or holiday.

Get one alone on an empty, challenging road and boy, are you in for a treat. Subaru's full-time all-wheel drive maximises grip whatever the weather conditions. The 225/45 section Bridgestone Potenza RE070 tyres produce less sidewall flex and do their bit for traction. They also ride comfortably without any roar. The steering is clean and light-ish but turn-in is eager which, thanks to good feedback through the wheel, makes for an involving experience.

Fast bends let the STi show off its 'running on rails' precision. Getting power down for a clean line when exiting a corner is easy, courtesy of the taut body control that ensures the nose remains true to your chosen path with no sign of any of the 300 horses running wide. This is a very easy car to drive quickly, and lets you exploit its chassis' huge potential more or less whenever and wherever you want. Just a word of warning — there are speed limits in this country so watch yourself!

Like accelerating, braking is never a problem. When it comes to reining in the Impreza, the Brembo brakes — with ABS and electronic brake-force distribution — leave nothing to chance. Ventilated discs are fitted front and rear and operated by four-pot callipers at the front and two-pot at the rear. Retardation is very good; pedal feel progressive.

The tubocharged 2.0-litre, four-cam, variable valve timed horizontally-opposed engine — now with a manual intercooler spray — pours out its power accompanied by a beguiling asymmetric beat. As the revs build you can feel it straining at the leash, urging you to let it run free. Give in to the temptation, plant your foot hard on the accelerator and the show begins. A short throw, fast action foolproof gearchange ensures rapid — almost mesmerising — progress through the six, closely spaced ratios. It also means there's no excuse for not keeping the engine on the boil. With the power on the cam, third gear is super-flexible and puts you totally in touch with the STi. Combine this with engineered-in handling and roadholding abilities and anybody with a scrap of driving ability will be able to safely exploit its terrific performance.

Finding yourself on a motorway is no hardship, either. A tall, overdrive sixth gear means that 70mph only needs a comfortable 2,800rpm. Not only is this good news as far as cabin refinement goes, but it also benefits fuel consumption — the extra urban figure is a welcome 33.2 mpg, with a still acceptable 25.4mpg for the combined figure. Overall we averaged 23mpg but then we did give it something of a caning. A 13.2 gallon tank stretches out the time between touring fill-ups to a reasonable interval. At constant motorway speeds the STi is reassuringly stable, tracking straight and true. And the tuneful note from the 4-inch diameter tailpipe never strays from the entertaining.

Safety is well considered with dual-stage front passenger airbag, driver's airbag, energy-absorbing brake pedal (it's designed to snap away in severe impacts to protect the driver's lower limbs), side airbags, two ISOFIX-compatible child seat mountings in the rear seat, ABS with EBD, five 3-point seat belts with the front two being height-adjustable. Deep sun visors and a darkly-tinted section above the rear-view mirror do a sterling job of minimising dazzle — the low winter sun we get here in the UK can be a real problem.

Whatever their price, few cars deliver such an entertaining combination of safe handling, storming performance and a rewarding driving experience as the Impreza WRX STi PPP. It's agile, exploitable and most of all it's fun. I'm usually dead set against lists of the "100 top chase scenes" and "50 things to do when you're dead" variety, but in this case I'll make an exception — add this Impreza to your "10 cars to drive before you die" list.

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Subaru Impreza WRX STi PPP Type-UK | 25,995 + £1,995 (PPP)
Maximum speed: 155+mph | 0-62mph: 4.6 seconds
Overall test MPG: 23mpg | Power: 300bhp | Torque: 299lb ft

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