Don't miss out! Prices are on the way up for first-generation Impreza Turbos – but for now they're still a true performance bargain
How much to pay
• Project £1300-1800 • Good £3800-5000 • Concours £6500-8000 •
Running costs ★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★
There was a time when you had to make some major sacrifices if you wanted to enjoy a car with serious performance. To drive something searingly quick you generally had to forego practicality and (to a certain extent) reliability too. Then the Subaru Impreza Turbo arrived.
This ludicrously quick saloon and estate featured a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine and permanent four-wheel drive to outpace any number of far more powerful supercars – and that was in standard form. Play with the engine, suspension and brakes and for a relatively small outlay the Impreza could be made even faster point to point.
Seemingly capable of defying the laws of physics, the original Impreza Turbo is now a bona fide classic yet it’s still an eminently affordable machine. The problem is finding a good one, as this was a car that tended to be heavily modified when current, and while some changes are very desirable, there are a lot of badly modified Imprezas out there.
Your AutoClassics Subaru Impreza Turbo inspection checklist
A number of Imprezas have been abused, but as long as the engine is serviced every 7500 miles it will just keep going, as it’s not very stressed in standard form. A new cambelt is needed every five years or 45,000 miles and fresh oil every 3000-5000 miles or annually, with a top-notch lubricant. These cars also prefer high-octane fuel, and 99 RON is essential for the high-power models, such as the RA.
The flat-four engine can be tuned to give a reliable 700bhp, but if neglected even in standard form the big-end bearings will wear out. The rattling noises as the engine is started from cold then allowed to tick over will be obvious, but it’s straightforward enough to rebuild an Impreza powerplant. You’re better off taking this route as most second-hand units are not in good enough condition to consider buying.
Although turbochargers last well, the seals eventually fail. Once worn you can expect blue exhaust smoke at tickover, but the cost of fitting a rebuilt turbo isn’t excessively high.
All UK cars received a five-speed manual gearbox, but an automatic transmission was offered in some markets – including Japan and Australia. Autos are unusual and tend to last well as they’re not normally abused. The manual gearbox is strong, but if a short shift has been fitted this will accelerate the rate at which the gearbox wears. Rebuilds are relatively affordable.
The transmission is also strong and will take a degree of abuse, but eventually the clutch will start to slip (they should last 80,000 miles in an unmodified car) and the gearbox will feel notchy as the synchro cones get tired. The crankshaft oil seal can also wear and weep, leading to clutch slip. All fixes are straightforward but they can be expensive, depending on whether you stick with standard or upgraded parts.
Suspension and brakes
The suspension has to cope with a lot, so it must be kept in tip-top condition. It lasts pretty well, but the anti-roll bar bushes perish, leading to excessive road noise. Swapping them for polyurethane items is a good idea; fitting a 22mm anti-roll bar is also worthwhile (a 20mm bar is standard), to reduce understeer.
Other weak points include the rest of the suspension bushes, drop links and the steering rack mounting bushes. All factory-fit bushes are rubber, but polyurethane will last longer and sharpen things up noticeably.
The brakes are strong and reliable, but hard-driven Imprezas benefit from upgrades. Whatever is fitted the discs may be warped (check for juddering) or it might just be completely worn out. Standard and upgraded parts are readily available.
The early 15in alloy wheels could go porous but these should have been replaced by now. A lot of cars have aftermarket rims anyway; whatever is fitted make sure the tyres have worn evenly. If not, the suspension has probably been knocked out of line. It might be that a new wishbone is needed, or it could be something much more serious – and hence far more costly to fix.
The Impreza’s bodyshell is fairly well protected from the elements but corrosion is more of an issue as these cars age. The subframes and rear wheelarches are the most likely areas to give problems; the latter are sometimes legitimately replaced with glassfibre panels to reduce weight and permanently eradicate rust.
Significant corrosion suggests the car has been crashed; where Imprezas are concerned, impact damage is more likely than rust. The front wings bolt on, so ensure the paint around the retaining bolts is intact and check if the rivets that retain the slam panel to the inner wings have been disturbed. If they have, the car has seen some fresh panelwork since it left the factory.
The Impreza’s cabin isn’t luxurious, but it does wear well. As a result, you shouldn’t need to find replacement parts, but if any are needed you can usually find what you need on a secondhand basis.
The electrics are equally dependable, but a lot of Imprezas have been badly modified with aftermarket stereo and security systems installed, along with upgraded headlights. If the loom has been butchered there could be all sorts of problems, so look under the dash and in the engine bay for signs of bodges.
While Japan, Australia and Europe all got the MkI Impreza Turbo, North America didn’t. The Japanese, Australian and mainland European markets got their own variations, so unless specifically stated, those listed below were specific to the UK.
- 1992: The Impreza debuts in Japan, with 240bhp WRX and WRX RA leading the range.
- 1993: The Impreza is launched in Europe, although there’s no Turbo option. A revised WRX goes on sale in Japan and a new 217bhp five-door auto version is now offered.
- 1994: The STi-tuned WRX debuts in Japan, with 247bhp, a close-ratio gearbox, uprated suspension and bodywork revisions. The first Impreza Turbos, with 208bhp, are exported to the UK and Australia.
- 1995: The Series McRae edition is launched to celebrate victory in the RAC Rally, with 6.5x16 gold alloys, a sunroof and Mica Blue paint; 200 are built.
1996: A facelifted Impreza Turbo gets an upgraded interior, a revised nose and tail, and a torquier engine (now 214lb ft).
- 1997: The Catalunya special has black paint, air-con, gold five-spoke alloys. 200 are produced. Revisions mean a much better interior and 16” wheels.
- 1998: There’s a revised dash and the Terzo special appears with blue paint, gold alloys, air-con, remote central locking. 333 made. The Prodrive-modified 22B Type UK goes on sale, but just 16 cars are brought in. The 2.2-litre powerplant gives 276bhp, there’s beefed-up WRC-style bodywork and a £39,950 price tag; the car quickly sells out.
- 1999: A Phase II engine with revised heads means a power increase to 215bhp and a Thatcham category 1 alarm/immobiliser is now standard. The RB5 limited edition has metallic grey paint, 17in six-spoke alloys, Alcantara trim. 444 built. The P1 two-door saloon is also introduced, with 276bhp and blue paint.
- 2000: A new ‘bug-eye’ Impreza is launched.
Few of these cars have the same specification as when they left the factory. In some cases that’s not a bad thing, as with the right upgrades the Impreza can be even more impressive to drive. However, not all Imprezas are modified to a high standard so you need to pin down the extent of any modifications before buying.
The sort of thing you need to look out for are multiple changes that are incompatible with each other, engines tuned to give ludicrous amounts of power and exhausts that are deafening on a run. Also be wary of aftermarket sunroofs; factory-fit items are rare, so some owners fitted their own. Usually badly.
What you want to do with your Impreza has a big impact on which model you start with. UK cars have better corrosion protection and slightly higher gearing for more relaxed cruising. But they’re heavier, have less power and generally a weaker engine block. The JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) editions have an aluminium bonnet, some a quicker steering rack but all have more power and are better suited to upgrades. So, if you want to go crazy don’t start with a UK car.
Impreza Turbos are cheap to buy but costly to run thanks to hefty fuel, insurance and maintenance bills. If buying an import be wary, partly because establishing the car’s service history can be tricky and also because parts availability might be a nightmare. But buy wisely and anything you’ve ever owned before will pale into insignificance. The Subaru Impreza Turbo really is that good.
Looking to buy a Subaru Impreza Turbo?