Last True Impreza - Scooby RA-R goes for glory With the ultimate first-gen Impreza nudging six figures, the king of the Hawkeyes is massively undervalued – for now. Words Chris Chilton. Photography Rich Pearce.
BUYINGThe ultimate 'classic' Subaru Impreza is the 22B, but they're touching six figures now. The Hawkeye Spec-C Type RA-R is the next in line...
CLEVER MONEY CARS: SUBARU IMPREZA
The WRX STI Spec-C Type RA-R is the next big thing in Impreza circles – get in as quick as it launches Last great Impreza saloon is undervalued for now…
Limited to 400 units, powered by a unique 2.2-litre version of Subaru’s boxer four and painted in iconic 74F-code Sonic Blue, the Impreza 22B is the most famous of the special JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) Imprezas largely denied to us Brits, and the holy grail for most fans. Unfortunately, its rarity and circa-£100k value means you’re as likely to find the actual Holy Grail as find a 22B you can afford. Fortunately for us there’s another Subaru that’s every bit as good to drive, and which costs less than half the price of a 22B, but is rising in value all the time, making it a perfect clever money choice.
'IT’S THE ULTIMATE ROAD CAR PRODUCED BY SUBARU TECHNICA INTERNATIONAL'
Based on the already special lighter, harder, faster JDM Spec C Imprezas Subaru built to homologate its Group N rally efforts, the RA-R is rare, ripped and an absolute riot. Only 300 were built and interest is spooling up faster than its twin-scroll turbo. Here’s why you should buy one now.
'NOT ALL IMPREZAS, LIKE THEIR EXHAUST MANIFOLD LENGTHS, WERE CREATED EQUAL'
To a newcomer, navigating the world of fast Imprezas can sometimes feel like navigating the wine list at the world’s most pretentious restaurant. You might recognise the odd name, but there are so many variants it can all be a bit overwhelming. And even if the sommelier laid out every bottle in front of you, they’d look broadly similar.
But not all Imprezas, like their exhaust manifold lengths, were created equal. As with so many Far Eastern icons from the Modern Classics golden years, Japan often kept the best stuff for itself. While the Impreza Turbo was impressing Brits in the mid-1990s, the Japanese were being knocked sideways by the WRX, and later, knocked out, by the STi.
'THE GEARSHIFT IS SHORTER OF THROW THAN A T-REX IN A LITTLE LEAGUE GAME'
And when Europe finally got its own STi model in the early years of the new millennium, Japan had already taken another step forward with the Spec C. The Spec C that appeared in 2001 was a proper homologation special, a car that existed only to legalise Subaru’s Group N production-based rally cars. The 22B, you might remember, great though it was, wasn’t built to homologate the rally car, only celebrate its success.
The Spec C got lighter glass, a thinner roof and bonnet, structural body reinforcements and an aluminium boot lid. A proper driver’s car then, and arguably the greatest of those Spec C cars is the Type RA-R. Introduced in 2006, limited to just 300 units, and with a longer name than an Eton toff the Subaru Impreza WRX STi Spec C Type RA-R was the last of the hero saloon Imprezas. By 2008 the Impreza had switched to a hatchback body, and in the eyes of some fans, lost some of its cool, if not its pace. The tiny production run means an RA-R is a rare sight, even in Japan. But you’ll know it if you see one. Being a 2006 car it’s based on the ‘Hawk Eye’ nose facelifted Impreza that came out in 2005, Subaru’s second attempt to rectify the mess of the new-gen 2001 Impreza’s Bug Eye face and give the saloon its new corporate conk.
You could get the RA-R in blue, but the two alternatives, a yellowy-orange or this car’s white, have a heap more impact, especially when mated with the 18in Enkei wheels. Many cars didn’t have a rear spoiler, which looks odd when we’re so used to seeing one. This one does, and it doesn’t look out of place even if it’s not period-correct. Climb inside, pull the door shut and you’re met with the hollow clang of a 1970s Datsun 120Y – or, as in this case, one that’s been pared right back in the pursuit of performance. If you’d tried to drop a bag in the boot before climbing behind the wheel you’ll have noticed that the boot carpet isn’t just thin, it’s non-existent. The special, smaller 50-litre (down from 60) fuel tank and spare wheel are laid bare.
The cabin feels narrow and upright, a bit like an old sharknose BMW. Unlike modern cars with their shallow windows, the Impreza’s glasshouse seems unusually tall. Look up to the headlining and there’s what appears to be a bonsai, back-to-front 1980s aftermarket sunroof. It’s actually a flip up vent to allow cooling air into the cabin. The thick-rimmed STi wheel is wrapped in smart perforated leather and the seats in Alcantara. But the overall mood is plastic. It’s not as low-rent or generic-Jap as the original Impreza, but compared to a contemporary BMW3 Series there’s nothing sophisticated about the style or materials. The sophistication is all under the skin. Flick the chunky key up and over and the starter spins the engine in that characteristically plodding Subaru way. But instead of the bass-heavy offbeat burble you’re Expecting when it fires, the engine sounds smooth, its tone, lighter. It’s still loud, but less loutish, the result of equal-length exhaust manifolds that take away some of the trademark Impreza throb, though that’s only incidental: they’re there to make power.
We’ll get to that in a minute, but first we’ve got to extricate ourselves and the RA-R from its temporary home at the workshop of Devon-based Japanese import specialist Torque GT. Even at manoeuvring speeds, some of the car’s character is already evident. The clutch is assertive, the gearshift shorter of throw than a T-Rex in a Little League game, and has that familiar knuckly feel.
At crawling speeds the ride feels go-kart stiff and as I twist the steering wheel left pulling out of a junction there’s a hint of the quicker 13:1 steering ratio and the slight judder of inside wheel signalling a tight limited-slip rear differential.
It’s clear the car means business, but also that I'm going to have to make some compromises in terms of comfort and refinement along the way. But it’s only when the single twin-scroll turbo and those Bridgestone RE070s are really spinning hard that the RA-R really starts to make any sense.
Unlike the 22B, which featured a capacity stretch to 2.2-litres, or the STi sold in the UK at the tail end of the saloon Impreza era, which had a 2.5-litre lump, the RA-R sticks with a 2.0-litre block. But it still massively outpoints both, making 316bhp and a chunky 318lb-ft of torque. Short gearing can’t completely disguise the turbo lag, but the pause is brief. The boost is coming on by 2500rpm, making a fuss by 3500rpm, and by 4500rpmI'mpushing through the air so fast I'm half expecting the windscreen to just fold in on itself under the force.
Even deep into fifth gear the push feels relentless, and the power stays strong almost all the way to the 8kmarker on the central rev counter that signals it’s time for another cog. This car has a Genome STi boost gauge sprouting from the steering column – and three more similar clocks on the dash top – but I’d be lying if I had the faintest idea what the peak boost reading was. I was too busy hanging on for dear life.
The RA-R does a fine job of hanging on, too. It feels impossibly light on its feet, effortlessly shifting its weight from tyre to tyre as you send it through a series of direction changes. That’s because it is light by Impreza standards, coming in almost 100kg under a standard STi, which, together with some choice suspension components, makes for devastating cross-country pace.
You’ve got the longer (by 15mm) wheelbase reserved for the Spec C, but by 2005 was on the Type-UK. But the RA-R is lower and features unique bushings and thicker anti-roll bars, all of which make this the most understeer resistant factory Impreza I’ve ever driven. With heat in the front tyres you can capitalise on that quicker steering ratio, the combo giving this car some of that Mitsubishi Evo pointiness some Imprezas of the period lacked. There’s obviously masses of castor angle built into the suspension setup because while there’s plenty of feel, there’s a pronounced self-centring action, making the RA-R a physical car to drive. Just how we like them.
But its real party piece has nothing to do with making, or conserving speed, but getting rid of it. The brakes are unique six-piston monobloc Brembos and they are parachute-good. And it’s not just the outright stopping power that makes the difference, but the feel underfoot. It’s race-car firm, but allows you to mete out exactly the right amount of pad squeeze on those grooved discs. Even under hard braking you can modulate the effort perfectly without triggering the ABS, then climb right back on the gas and do it all over again, and again. Because it’s hard to drive a car as infectious as the RA-R any other way.
The Modern Classics view
You can have fun in almost any Impreza, even a lowly naturally-aspirated Sport, and a whole lot of fun in a WRX or STi. And you could buy a Spec C Impreza and get access to most of the RA-R experience for less than half what this car costs.
But the RA-R’s appeal goes beyond the way it can devour a stretch of B road or those special Brembo brakes. It is great to drive, but it’s also massively significant in the history of the Impreza. It’s arguably the ultimate factory road car produced by the Subaru Technica International skunkwerks, and the last hurrah for the original three-box shape Imprezas.
Though built in even fewer numbers than a 22B and even more focused to drive, it’s unlikely to pass the value of that car. But it’s on its way to becoming as unaffordable. If you want a slice of turbocharged history, you better activate your anti-lag.
Thanks to: Torque GT (torque-gt.co.uk)
SUBARU IMPREZA WRX STI SPEC C TYPE RA-R
Engine 1994cc, 4-cyl, DOHC
Transmission 4WD, 6-speed manual
Max Power 316bhp @ 6400rpm
Max Torque 318lb-ft @ 4400rpm
Top speed 155mph
300 Cars built
One STI you'll be proud to have. Alcantara seats elevate the cabin. Subtle it isn't. You really won't care, mind. Type RA-R didn't have rear wing as standard. Surprisingly effective air hatch.
Steering is even sharper than usual Spec C cars. Despite turbo, it revs to a mighty 8k.
THE FINER POINTS
1 18in Enkei wheels are gorgeous – and an absolute sod to keep clean.
2 Boost controller keeps the twin-scroll turbo happy.
3 The original instruction manual for the car – a rare item, this.
4 Extreme weight saving means that there's no room for covering up the inner workings of the Type RA-R.
5 Yes, you really can hit 8000rpm. You're not trying hard enough if you don't.
6 There's probably an important health and safety message here but you may need the air after the effort.
7 DCCD stands for Driver's Control Centre Differential, which allows the pilot to adjust the car's handling poise.
8 Rear diffuser isn't just for show.
9 If it wasn't stiff already, here's a strut brace.
10 Given the way the turbo spools up, it's best not to watch this dial too closely.
NEED TO KNOW
We spoke to Tristan Longden of Torque GT about what to look for when buying.
1 The 2.0-litre engine might be highly tuned but it’s infinitely more reliable than the late-00s 2.5-litre STi engine fitted to cars in Europe and the US.
2 Remember to use quality high-octane fuel (BP Ultimate or similar). The car will run on 95, but the ignition will be retarded to suit so you won’t get the full hit of performance.
3 Knocking over bumps can mean the anti-roll bar drop links are shot. White line Performance (whitelineperformance. com) sells heavy-duty adjustable versions in pairs for £120 and they’re not hard to fit yourself.
4 ‘Genuine RA-R discs and pads are hugely expensive from Subaru,’ says Longden. ‘Fortunately there are aftermarket alternatives, including Dixcel, which are just as good, and cost far less.’
5 The cambelt needs changing every 50,000 miles. Budget £350-400.
6 Expect to pay similar money for a clutch change if you use an aftermarket unit from Competition Clutch. Go for an OEM or Exedy alternative and the price will rise.
Dealer view Torque GT
‘Eighteen months ago you could have picked one of these up for late £20ks,’ says Tristan Longden of Torque GT. ‘Now they’re more like £35-40k, and some dealers are aiming for even higher. Maybe it’s the political uncertainty but prices aren’t climbing quite so rapidly at the moment as they were. But the RA-R is definitely one to watch.’
‘They’re not as well known as the 22B, and that car will always have the cache of the late ‘90s WRC success, but most fans consider the Hawkeye model the most desirable second-gen Impreza and this is the pinnacle of the Hawks.’ ‘Yellow is the rarest colour – they only made 50 cars, compared to 125 each of the white and blue ones - but it’s probably an acquired taste. I really like it, but I’m not sure I’d run one!
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Impreza STI was a good sportcar, developing with proportional steps. But in 2006 the evolution stopped. And since then nothing spectacular has come to the market (except the Cosworth-tuned limited model). There is actually no difference to the 2005 model, but that in addition costs less. The 3 generation left nothing progressive, so I don't see the reason of purchasing the current Impreza STI. Subaru needs to present the new Impreza STI already, which would be really an impressive one as it used to be.
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Is it possible that the Bedford West laptime was driven by a more powerfull version? The laptime is pretty close to the 300lbs lighter and more powerfull Evo IX FQ 340 and much faster as the all new Evo X MR. The link only claims Evo magazine.. anyone knows the link to the article reporting the laptime and car specs?
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