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Rumble Seat 

Among the things Americans are just not interested in, rally racing ranks right up there with soccer and sub-Saharan politics. And yet the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) World Rally Championship is the second most popular form of racing on the globe, after Formula 1--another obscure, Eurocentric pursuit with about one billion fans.

To imagine rally racing, picture slewing down a dirt road in a driving rain, sideways, at triple-digit speeds, with large and stubbornly immovable trees lining the course. Now imagine banging fenders with your fellow competitors like it's the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Rally racing is cool.

Subaru is a perennial contender in the WRC, fielding monstrously powerful, turbocharged all-wheel-drive vehicles that routinely pound through the Ardennes at 100 mph. Alas, the company's many WRC wins do not carry much weight here in the United States.

But you certainly can't accuse Subaru of underplaying the motorsports connection. The Impreza 2.5 RS sedan we drove recently fairly screams rally racing, with a wing on the back like the blade of a windmill, discus-sized fog lights and a huge single-intake nostril on the hood--as if the gaping bumper intake wasn't enough. Inside, checkered-flag upholstery and white-faced dials round out the rally-sport effect.

You need not back away in fear and trembling. Beneath all the gaudy, go-fast visual chicanery lies a rather tame Japanese sedan with a modest and eminently manageable four-cylinder, 165-hp engine. This sheep in wolf's clothing heaves itself to 60 mph in a tick over eight seconds with the same sort of bust-a-gut commotion of a late Elvis climbing out of bed.

So high performance is not the Impreza RS's métier. However, when it comes to foul-weather capability, the Subaru Impreza pretty well beats every compact sports sedan on the market.

With the lingering effects of post-traumatic snow disorder still clouding their thinking, readers have peppered me with questions about small utes and all-wheel-drive vehicles, particuarly Subarus, all of which are AWD. Subarus seem to be a good fit for many Independent readers because of their (the cars' and the readers') committed political correctness. Subarus are small cars (the Impreza 2.5 RS sedan is 172 inches long) powered by fuel-efficient engines (2.5-liter, all-aluminum four-cylinder, 21/28 mpg, city/highway) that offer lots of off-road mobility. You would have no trouble traversing some of the lousier roads in Linville Gorge with the Impreza.

Subaru takes a unique approach to all-wheel-drive. For starters, Subaru's AWD systems drive all four wheels all the time. Most AWD systems, such as Audi's, are essentially front-drive until traction is lost at the front wheels; then the system transfers power to the back wheels. The disadvantage is that the vehicle must first lose traction to gain traction.

Subaru's AWD uses a center viscous differential that splits engine power 50/50 between front and back wheels. The system is "on" all the time, so there is no need for the driver to move a lever or push a button to have all-wheel-drive.

In addition, the Impreza 2.5 RS has new, viscous differentials between the front and rear sets of wheels, so that if one rear wheel is slipping, power is transferred to the rear wheel that has grip. The same power transfer occurs between the front wheels.

On pavement, you really have to hustle the car through sharp corners to experience any performance benefit, but it is there (the most ferociously cornering street car I've ever driven was a Porsche Turbo Carrera 4, an AWD vehicle).

But in slippery conditions, the Subaru system really pays for itself. Meanwhile, cars like the Impreza RS don't pay the penalties in weight and high centers of gravity common in ute-type vehicles. All Subarus are powered by boxer engines, in which the four cylinders are opposed horizontally--a flat-four, it's called. This configuration lowers the weight center of the car for higher stability. For all these reasons, Subarus are hugely popular in New England and the Pacific Northwest.

However, with all the good things that can be said of Subaru's approach to traction, it should be noted that in snow like we recently experienced, Subarus would have struggled to get out of the driveway. Ground clearance is an issue. The Impreza 2.5 RS rides only 5.7 inches high. You simply can't push through a snowbank with a car that low. In fact, as many big ute owners discovered, even tall SUVs can't guarantee deep-snow mobility. (For reference, Subaru's Outback vehicles have a 7.3-inch ground clearance; the hybrid-ute Forester rides even higher, at a generous 7.5 inches.)

Another factor is tires. Our Impreza 2.5 RS sedan test car wore 16-inch low-profile performance tires--no help in the snow. Rubber is the crucial component in traction, regardless of the AWD system involved. Remember, remember.

Well, a decidedly mixed endorsement of Subaru, no? Overall, I applaud Subaru's approach to traction and stability and their commitment to motorsports as a means of defining and refining the product. I am not happy with the vehicles' fit and finish. The interiors peg the "plastics" meter, and the styling is overwrought. And, of course, I could always use more power.

But if I had to brave the icy climes of North Raleigh with my choice of small cars, no question--it would be a Subaru.

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