Join Date: Nov 2004
Used car review: Subaru WRX 2009-2013
With a new WRX around the corner, there's likely to be a flood of current-gen cult cars on the market soon - but buyers beware.
The WRX version of Subaru's Impreza small car must surely rate as a modern phenomenon.
Right from the launch of the original version back in the 1990s, the WRX has been a rally winner, giant killer and object of desire for Gen-Yers.
It hasn't been all smooth sailing, of course, and the first new model back in 2000 was seen as having lost the sparkle that had made the original so brilliant.
There was flesh on the bones of that argument, too, and while the new model was bigger inside, the car was heavier and performance was dulled.
But the WRX legend was so strong that the model hung on and, for the 2009 model-year, we were granted the current-shape car that is itself about to be replaced sometime next year.
And, WRX buyers being the early adopters they are, you can bet that the current-shape car will start hitting used-car yards like winter raindrops as owners trade-in on the must-have new car.
To be honest, the current WRX has not lit the fire of desire for would-be owners as quickly as previous models, nor has it fanned the flames to the same extent.
And part of that must be down to the car's rather dumpy looks on its launch in (base-model) WRX form.
Frankly, it looked a bit flabby and lacked any real aggressive touches to its appearance.
Better was to come with the STi version with its bigger wheels and tyres, but even that car was seen as being a bit too soft for the WRX faithful.
That it was also a more grown-up car to drive and definitely more comfortable was absolutely beside the point in this segment of the car market.
By the 2009 model-year (the end of 2008) Subaru knew it needed to do something to make the WRX's bite match its bark.
The sedan – that had been the mainstay of previous WRX models – returned to showrooms and power for the base-model WRX had grown to 195kW with 343Nm of torque, substantially up on the previous version.
The STi, meanwhile, now pumped out 221kW and more than 400Nm from its 2.5-litre flat-four engine.
The other big advantage of the STi was that it was fitted with a six-speed transmission while the WRX had just a five-speed manual.
Curiously, the STi could also be had with a five-speed automatic although this completely missed the point of a car like this and is vastly less sought after now.
But a manual-gearbox STi is actively sought in the marketplace and, thanks to its much higher purchase price when new, it's still a lot more expensive than the standard WRX.
Shopping for a second-hand WRX requires a keen eye and a nose for a hard-driven vehicle.
Since nobody really ever bought a WRX for taking books back to the library, most of them out there have been used and – sometimes – abused.
This is one of those cars where you'd really like to sit down with the previous owner over coffee and get inside their head to see what sort of maniac they really were.
Despite being horrendously expensive to insure and not P-plater friendly in some states, the WRX still managed to fall into the hands of some determined nutters who will have given the car a very hard time indeed.
Finding the example that hasn't had so much of this treatment is the key.
So look for a service record and be prepared to walk away if the seller can't provide one.
Subaru engines have never liked poor maintenance and the engines will soon develop deadly sludge if oil changes have been skipped.
Engines with the timing belt need to have this component changed every 125,000 kilometres but the good news is that specialist repairers reckon that's all there is to it and, unlike most other cars, there's no need to change the water-pump and idler pulleys at the same time. Generally, these components are good until 200,000 kilometres or so, which most WRXs of this age will not have reached yet.
The head-gasket woes that afflicted some Subarus should have been a matter of history by the time these cars were built and any example with a problem should have showed up by now and been fixed.
If you're in any doubt, a compression and leak-down test by a mechanic should tell all.
The really big thing to watch out for is a WRX that has been modified.
There is possibly no car more likely to be fiddled with than a WRX and some owners have wrung huge performance and horsepower from this little engine.
In just about every case, however, the engine's lifespan will have been reduced and there are also the legal and insurance ramifications involved in changing things like exhausts and engine management.
And, frankly, while any WRX has probably been driven hard at various times, a modified one will absolutely have been caned mercilessly, because that's the point of modifying something like this.
Aside from accelerated engine wear, modifications to boost performance can have a seriously detrimental effect on the driveline, too.
Make sure the clutch isn't slipping and that the gearbox shifts easily and without crunching. Both the clutch and gearbox on a WRX are known to be fuses.
But you also need to look closely at the car itself in terms of its tyres, brake pads and whether things like the wheel rims are scratched and chipped (the result of a thousand tyre changes for track days).
Also, make sure you know what you're looking at when you're out shopping. Subaru threw all sorts of limited editions on to the market and while some of them command a premium price, others don't.
Nuts and bolts
Engine/s: 2.5 4-cyl, turbocharged
Fuel economy (combined): 10.4 litres per 100km (WRX)/10.5 litres (STi)
Safety rating (courtesy of www.howsafeisyourcar.com.au): 5 stars
Our rating: 3.5 stars
• Performance of the STi version was breathtaking.
• All-wheel-drive grip is great for handling and for safety.
• Cult following means good back-up and servicing possibilities.
• Still a hatchback underneath, so actually quite practical in five-door form.
• Sedan was pretty homely from some angles.
• More weight meant less nimble feel.
• Many have led hard lives.
• An automatic WRX? Please …
• Mitsubishi Evo X – The WRX's natural enemy and another turbocharged, all-wheel-drive hot-shot. Brilliant performance although the six-speed clutchless gearbox strangely unfulfilling. 4 stars
• VW Golf R32 – All-wheel-drive also but rather than a turbocharged four-cylinder, the R32 got a big V6 for meaty performance. Heavier than it should be and can be thirsty, too. Not as cultish. 3.5 stars
• Ford Focus RS – Front-drive, but with a clever differential and suspension layout, handled well. Very focused (no pun intended) but also very fast. Limited supply. No cruise control hurts it. 4.5 stars
What to pay (courtesy of Glass's Guide):
Model Year New Now
WRX 2009 $39990 $22700
WRX 2010 $39990 $25300
WRX 2011 $39990 $27400
WRX 2012 $39990 $28500
WRX 2013 $39990 $30700
STi 2009 $61990 $35300
STi 2010 $61990 $38200
STi 2011 $59990 $42600
STi 2012 $59990 $44800
STi 2013 $59990 $47800