Over the years, Subaru UK has created some of the most iconic – and desirable – special edition Impreza and WRX models that the world has ever seen. Having worked as both a main dealer and a specialist, I have been fortunate enough to sell most of them, too! Always tuned in to what the enthusiast wants, and cleverly taking its cues from the motorsport successes and driving heroes of the hour, Subaru UK’s family album of notable cars is worthy of closer inspection. With a handy bit of access to Subaru UK’s picture libary, I thought it was about time we had a closer look!
The Impreza wasn’t the first of the affordable 4WD supercars, of course. The Lancia Delta and Audi Quattro can both stake their claim in laying the foundations of this market sector, but what the Impreza brought to the party as it launched itself onto an unsuspecting public in 1992 was a hitherto unseen package of ability, reliability and price. Building on the sales – and rallying success – of its forebear, the Legacy, the Impreza delivered even more, in a neat body design and compact footprint. The proven EJ20 boxer flat four, with its peppy four-cam power delivery was carried over to the new car and proved to not only be a worthy foe on the world’s rally stages, but also a tuner’s delight –as did the later EJ22 and EJ25 variants that would become the mainstay and backbone of the Impreza line-up.
The car’s affordable and tuneable nature also led to a very healthy owners-club and social circle very early on in the UK. The Subaru Imprezas Drivers Club was formed by early tuning pioneer, Pete Croney and quickly amassed fans – and cars – at a rate of knots. The car was a hit from the get-go, and speaking from experience, I can clearly remember the halcyon days in the dealership, with the cars on import restriction, due to trade legislation, and a long waiting list of customers waiting to get into the Impreza’s sculpted buckets. As my Sales Manager at the time sagely noted.. We weren’t really car salesmen.. we were just ‘taking orders.’
So join me as I raid the Subaru UK archives to celebrate some of the finest and most desirable special editions, landmark models and production milestones in a very British chapter of the Impreza’s history. Yes, I know that I haven’t put all the cars in here, but as this is a story about the UK market, I’m going to major solely on the UK cars.
From Stage To Showroom. The ‘Classic Years’
Although considered a real icon now, the GC8’s perfectly proportioned shape didn’t prick the collective car buyer’s consciousness in quite the way you might imagine. Reaching these shores in ’94, the early cars weren’t quite the be-winged rally warriors that you might be used to. On the contrary, in a range propped up with relatively weedy 1.6 and 1.8 NA FWD models, even the mighty 2000 AWD model, with its heady 211PS output, cut a most subtle dash with its tiny 15” wheels, low-line rear spoiler and apparent lack of drama. As the ultimate street sleeper, these early cars upset more than a few sports cars with their subtle blend of typical Japanese saloon looks and giant-killing performance.
McRae had done sterling work establishing the Subaru brand with his prodigious talent and heroic driving in the outgoing Legacy, making his move to the lighter, more nimble Impreza predictably productive. SUK’s marketing department were quick to realise the cachet that the popular Scotsman could bring to the showroom and in June 1995 played a stroke of merchandising genius that would set the blueprint for almost the next two decades; the first ‘UK Special Edition’ was born; The Series McRae.
Built to celebrate, and let’s be honest here, capitalise on Subaru’s winning of both the manufacturers and drivers World Rally Championship titles, SUK created a limited edition run of just two hundred cars. Each one was prepared here in the UK by Prodrive in an especially ordered mica-blue shell and included niceties like 16” Speedline Safari alloys, motifed Recaro seats and numbered plaques. Despite the relatively heady £23k sticker price, they proved to be an instant hit on the showroom floor, allowing lucky owners to live out their stage-winning fantasies on their nearest gravel track.
Clearly happy with the sales formula, and still doing rather well on the Global Rally stage, the 1997 Catalunya tipped its rather smart Mica Black hat to the Rally where Subaru had picked up enough points to secure the FIA Manufacturer’s title. Once again, 200 cars were built by Prodrive and featured exotic luxuries like colour-coded mirrors, air conditioning and even a carbon (effect) dash! The cars were in such high demand, a few switched on dealers specced the cars up with leather seats, bigger wheels and sunroof options to raise the sticker price further still! Discounts were simply unheard of at this time and as with many new exotics now, ‘favoured’ and previous customers often got first dibs on these wonderful specials.
Even before the post-celebratory Champagne had been mopped up from Subaru’s third consecutive WRC title in 1997, dealers – and drivers – were champing at the bit to see SUK’s next creation. Debuted in April of the following year, the ‘Terzo’ (Italian for third) was debuted to an expectant and happy public, with even more whistles and bells than before. Having seen the demand for previous specials, production was upped to 333 cars, numbered as previously from ‘1’, but always missing ‘13’. A lighter Blue Mica finish and gold 16” wheels gave rally fans the closest look yet to the WRC cars, while the non-folding rear seat added rigidity and the Alcantara seats added support. I wanted one. Badly. Another interesting geek fact on this car is that it was the first UK special to come with a Thatcham alarm as standard. As well as becoming the ‘must have’ car for all true petrol heads, SUK were well aware of the car’s similar position in the hearts of more nefarious would-be owners.
Subaru’s next ‘special’ really was just that.. and significantly moved the goal posts for any other machine before or since. Based on the 1997 WRC Championship-winning car, the iconic 22B truly was a distillation of the competition car’s looks, heritage and engineering in a package that could be bought and driven on the road. 399 cars were produced globally, with only 16 making it officially onto UK shores. All 399 had the beautiful Peter Stevens bodywork, 280 bhp 2.2 engine, quick rack and adjustable wing, but the UK cars also benefitted from a taller, more motorway friendly, final drive and UK lights.
I was lucky enough to have a JDM version of this fabulous car and can say, hand on heart, that every bit of hype you read about this car is valid. They really are that good and although it seemed like a lot at the time, each one was well worth the near £40k price tag – especially seeing as minters still fetch nearly £50k now! Although all cars were numbered in the usual way, three unique cars, numbered ‘000’ were sold to McRae, co-driver Grist and Prodrive boss, Dave Richards for an undisclosed figure. Safe to say that any one of these is worth a great deal more than its original sticker price today!
The next UK special was a little more attainable to the average enthusiast, both in terms of the quantity available and the amount charged for the privilege of owning one. With talented young charger Richard Burns now in Subaru’s World Rally Team, and running under the number ‘5’ in the championship, the RB5 was launched in 1999 to a universally positive public and press. 444 models were created this time, using a JDM fixed rear bulkhead shell finished in ‘Blue Steel’, 17” Speedline alloys, a Prodrive quickshift, Air-con and unique Alcantara seats. I can remember selling a few of these at the time.. It wasn’t difficult! Buyers could also opt for the WR Sport package, which added an uprated Prodrive ECU, exhaust and intercooler piping – as well as a higher level rear wing, similar to the JDM STi unit, but without the integral lower plane. The Prodrive Performance Packs (or ‘PPPs’) would become staple fayre for UK buyers as additional options going forward on all specials and standard Imprezas.
To give the less well-heeled enthusiasts something to salivate over, the end of the GC8 run also saw something based on the normally aspirated ‘Sport’ version. The ‘Sport Special’ took the well-trodden path of making a non-turbo car look like a turbo and featured a mid-level rear wing and sports seats in an attractive-looking package. 200 were released in Cashmere Yellow and 200 were sold in Black Pearl, becoming instant collector’s cars in the process – and a rare sight today.
The final ‘classic’ special created by IM would finish the series on a suitable high. Painfully aware of the effect that grey-import vehicles had been having on high-performance sales, – and realising the appetite for JDM type cars – a decision was made to counter this by allowing a limited number of ultra-high spec coupes to be imported. This would also give us sales staff a decent riposte against the mighty Evo 6 at the time! After prototype testing ticked all the appropriate boxes, 1,000 Sonic Blue Coupes were specced with all manner of UK-specific extras. Although the cars lost the STI’s DCCD diff control, they gained all manner of niceties including ABS, Front and Rear Spoilers, unique interior and ‘quick rack’. The immediately identifiable 17” OZ alloys really set the car off, and when revealed to the public, the ‘Prodrive 1’ or ‘P1’ was yet another instant hit – garnering press superlatives and customer orders in rapid succession.
That the Impreza was a sales success was never in doubt. It had done well for Subaru UK – and created a whole new army of enthusiastic supporters. The GC8 was loved by all and envied by many. The car that followed however, would divide opinion from its first day on sale..
Bugs, Blobs and Hawkeyes.. The GD8 Era
When the UK wraps came off the ‘New Generation’ Impreza at the 2000 Birmingham Motorshow, Subaru fans were split by what they saw. The new GD8 car was a well-proportioned car in many ways, with the four door saloon featuring superb ‘blistered’ arches that aped the competition cars, and a much larger cabin area.. but those lights weren’t everybody’s cup of tea.
That said, the new car looked much better on paper than the one it replaced. Stronger, stiffer, safer and teeming with all sorts of new AWD brilliance. But, it was also aimed at a wider market, meaning it had to be slightly softer, less focussed and more user-friendly for a greater range of possible owners. This was the car that Subaru hoped to use to tempt drivers of more mainstream cars into their showrooms.
Early spec choices that SUK had to make for safety reasons, like speccing the new saloons with side airbags, also meant that niceties like bucket seats had temporarily disappeared from the options list. Although the new car was selling well, and dynamically, clearly had the right ingredients to make a great vehicle, the Prodrive team was once again called in to invigorate things and give the car a bit more attitude.
After his sterling work on the 22B, P1 and WRC cars, Peter Stevens was once again drafted in to add the styling tweaks to the next British special – the UK300. The number this time referred to the number produced, rather than the power output, despite what some eBay listings might tell you!
By changing the headlamps to gloss black shells, aping the WRC car and adding front and rear spoilers that genuinely reduced lift, the car looked immediately more aggressive. A testament to Steven’s skill, these were truly functional items, decreasing the lift figure by some 25%! Keen to capitalise once again on WRC success, the colour choice was a no-brainer! WR Blue Mica, allied to a smart set of ubiquitous 18” Gold OZ wheels – garnished with ’de-tangoed’ white front and side lights to complete the picture. As with the RB5 and P1, many owners also opted for the WR Sport performance pack which, in this case, upped power from a respectable 218 to an even more impressive 245.
Although not truly a UK-specific special, the Bug Eye GD8 saw SUK finally deciding to bring in the car that everybody had been badgering them for – the STI. Starting with the JDM car and going through a series of spec changes and European type approvals, the resulting package was a truly sensational saloon, which could be ordered as a ‘cooking’ version – or for those of a more ‘look at me’ persuasion, complete with the ‘Prodrive Style’ package and dynamic upgrades. It has to be said, complete with its WRC-style front bumper and rear wing – this was the one that most drivers aspired to.
The ‘Bug Eye’, as it was more commonly known, wasn’t to last long. Clearly aware that its slightly gawky visage wasn’t to everyone’s taste, a re-style was ordered for the 2003 model, by you’ve guessed it.. Peter Stevens! Reshaping all of the sheet metal from the ‘A’ pillars forward, the new car seemed to be a much more warmly received design. A little tweak around the rear light clusters and bumpers finished the look and the Impreza was a looker once again. Personally, I was a big fan of the Bug-Eye, particularly if fitted with JDM front lights.. but you can’t please everyone…
The WRC programme was in full swing again, Petter Solberg has signed to the fold – and the trophies kept coming. When the dashing Scandinavian clinched the driver’s title in 2003 – There was only one thing for it! Time for another special!
Based around the STI model – and uprated to 320PS, the WR1 was another instant hit. Featuring another JDM paint code ‘Ice Blue’, -25mm Prodrive Springs and 18” Flow-Formed wheels and DCCD system, the WR1 immediately became every Subaru fans instant want.
Gearboxes on all GD8 STIs were much stronger 6-speed units, meaning no work was needed there to cope with the extra power, so the budget was spent instead on aesthetic niceties like driving lamps, a stainless steel grille and even a numbered tax disk holder! At a fiver short of £30k, it really goes to show what good value the current crop of outgoing cars really is.. The Impreza had become an expensive, but effective, method of transport.
Slightly more achievable for most enthusiasts was the WRX 300 of 2005. As with the confusingly named ‘UK300′ that preceded it, this number referred to the total of cars built, rather than the power output, which was a respectable, if not outrageous 265 PS, thanks to Prodrive’s input, once again. Based on the perennial WR Blue WRX, this car also boasted SWRT logos on the seats and front bumper, as well as a smart stainless sports exhaust and gearknob by Banbury’s finest. At £21,495, it was also great value when compared to the WR1!
The car’s next face-lift was to be widely acclaimed as its finest. The ‘Hawkeye’ incarnation of the GD8 silenced every critic with a perfectly proportioned design that managed to look aggressive and timeless at the same time. Introduced for the ’05 model year and priced well in the showrooms, both the WRX and STI models continued to sell strongly. IM still had two special editions up its sleeve though, to play out as the model reached its twilight years.
Possibly the most tasteful and understated of all Hawkeye specials was the STI ‘Spec D’. Although not strictly themed, as every other car had been, it did pick up a stylistic baton of sorts and run with it. Whereas every other limited run car had been fairly overt, the Spec D’s calling card was its subtlety. Yet again, 300 shells were specced, but instead of the STI’s usual ‘tea tray’ rear end, these were all fitted with the tiniest turbo wing to date and a classy set of silver STI rims. Sculptured leather and extra sound proofing made the ownership experience feel positively German – as did the privilege of the salesman relieving you of the thick end of £29,000 before you drove off, too. Still, it was a superb car -and my Dad even bought one!
As Richard Burns had sadly passed away in 2005 from brain cancer, SUK decided to work with the foundation set up in his memory to create a model to honour his brilliance. The resulting special, the RB320, was one of the most homogenous efforts to date and immediately resonated with the buying public. As with the WR1, this car had a 320 PS 2.5 engine and a wondrous array of additional extras. The Obsidian Black Pearl paint was one of the most subtle colours yet, and allied to the dark Prodrive alloys and additional spoilers, the car looked worth every penny of its £29,995 price tag. Fittingly, the first one was raffled off with all proceeds going to the Richard Burns Foundation.
A ‘run-out’ special was also deemed worthy for the WRX model too, with the development team deciding to celebrate Subaru’s copious GB rally successes with the GB270. Unusually, this time, they decided to also take the unsung hero of the range along for the ride, creating 100 wagon versions alongside 300 saloon variants. All had lowered and uprated suspension. Prodrive wheels and engine tweaks and appropriately oversized spoilers. The Wagons in particular are hugely sought after cars now, balancing great looks, rarity and performance with real-world practicality.
After an uncertain start, The GD8 turned out to be a huge sales success in the end, creating some of the most brilliant showroom models and special editions. But, if SUK has courted controversy before with the launch of the Bug Eye, then the next car would be even more interesting!
Hatches, Matches and Dispatches. 3rd Time’s A Charm
“A hatchback?!?!” seemed to be the stock response as Subaru revealed its latest ‘Impreza’ at the Tokyo Motorshow towards the end of 2007. For a company that was known for high-performance saloons – with a smattering of Wagons – the third incarnation of the car was a radical departure for all concerned. The models weren’t even called ‘Impreza’ any more, with the nomenclature now simply reduced to WRX and STI, where appropriate. Only the ‘cooking’ models continued to wear that hallowed badge.
Unveiled alongside the concept for a potential WRC variant, the new car was a nicely proportioned design, particularly in wide-arched STi trim and boasted a geek-friendly array of diff and throttle controls on these higher models to deliver a healthy 300 PS punch in a fairly rapid manner. Sadly, global budgetary restraints would preclude a full rally programme for this version of the car, leaving territories like the US and well-heeled privateers to realise the car’s superb on-stage credentials.
Prodrive were naturally allowed to have a tweak of the latest toy, with the WRX STI 330S being the first offering out of the box. An additional 30PS, with 18” 5-spoke wheels and upgraded Alcantara and leather Recaros made the car a real performer and, even with the new cars extra weight, put performance on par with the outgoing model.
Those looking for a rapid version of the ‘narrow bodied’ WRX shell could also plump for the ‘WRX-S’ in 2008. Based on a WR Blue 5 door body, and equipped with a Prodrive-tweaked 251bhp version of the turbocharged 2.5 lump, STI lip spoiler, Prodrive alloys and exhaust, the car was an enticing way to add a little excitement to the daily commute for the reasonable £22,495 price tag.
Interestingly, SUK also unveiled a concept at the British Motorshow at the same time, which was announced as the ‘WRX STI 380S’. You can guess the proposed output here, I feel. With its lairy blue and grey WRC graphics scheme the car garnered much press attention at the time, but sadly, due to numerous homologation difficulties and specification issues, was never to make it into production. It did set a seed in the minds of the SUK product team that a truly ‘hot’ hatch might be a great halo product at a later date, though…
As headline grabbers go, the decision to partner with Cosworth engineering for the final hatchback special was inspired. As a brand more commonly associated with Ford in the wider press, many press pundits at the time pronounced the resulting ‘CS400’ as the marriage of two great performance companies. They weren’t wrong either, as the car had a hand-finished forged-internal Cosworth lump, with bigger ‘charger, intercooler and intake, along with tubular headers and sports exhaust. Eibach and Bilstein were drafted in to take charge of suspension duties, with AP Racing providing the significant stoppers. The interior featured bespoke leather seats with stunning ‘piano black’ dash detailing, making it a very different environment from the standard STi.
All in all, it was quite a package, but the relatively labour intensive nature of its build demanded a heady £50,000 price tag. Although it would have been impossible to build the car for any less, understandably, this top-tier ticket precluded many enthusiasts, meaning that the 75 examples made will forever remain one of the most exclusive ‘special models’ ever produced. As the one WRX that can genuinely hassle many mid-range supercars, the CS400 is a genuine – and very rare – icon.
As the model progressed and got subtly face-lifted, SUK took the decision to bring in the saloon variant of the STI too, responding to dealer and enthusiast demands for the traditional three-box shape. Option packs were created to augment the powerful 2.5 motor, with first the 320R and then the 340R kits offering notable hikes over the standard output.
2010 saw Subaru UK take a notable step forward in introducing its own ‘in house’ tuning range under the ‘Pro-R’ banner. Offering all manner of go-faster bits and styling niceties for the third generation cars, but also, interestingly, for the previous two generations as well. Working with top dealer, Cross Roads, a race team and well-prepped STI hatch was also assembled to compete in the UK Time Attack Championship, where driver Jon Mathers proved his own skill – and the quality of the new tuning range – by taking the Championship title in class on his very first go.
When you look back at what Subaru UK has added to the scene over the last two decades, since it first brought the Impreza to these shores, it’s an impressive tally. All of the models I’ve covered were UK-specific, and the work that went into each one behind the scenes, fettling specs, hitting type-approvals and developing enhancements takes a great deal more time and effort than you might imagine.
It is notable that this generation of WRX never spawned a ‘Special’ in saloon form – well, unless you can count the ‘340’ spec run-out models that is. A fine car, no doubt about it… but this was a package to be added to any STI, not a special in its own right.
Adding the latest branch to this impressive family tree is the latest WRX STI, which, like all fortunate children, has inherited all of the best traits of its parents. A worthy successor to this impressive lineage of AWD excellence the latest car takes the brand forward with the most powerful UK STi yet. This one is a little too new to have created a special yet, but there’s still plenty of time!
That then rounds up all of the Specials (at least as far as I know!) But let’s examine the brand DNA that lead to their existence in the first place.
Rallying.. The Creation Of A Legend
The Impreza was an honest and capable car that would have probably sold well anyway, but Subaru’s decision to take the car rallying – and build on the success of the previous WRC seasons with the Legacy – was doubtless the reason that it became such a phenomenon. Many manufacturers owe sales and brand cachet from their involvement in motorsport; think Ford, Lancia and Audi as perfect examples, but in the case of Subaru, the sport allowed the brand to create a paradigm shift in the public perception of what they stood for and the technology they had created.
Even as recently as the late ‘80s and very early ‘90s, Subarus were known as reliable farmers hacks that could go anywhere thanks to their innovative symmetrical AWD system. Bought by landed gentry and arable types, they were popular and dependable – but desirable and sexy? Never! With the introduction of the Legacy Turbo, parent company Fuji and Subaru Tecnica International (STI) commissioned Banbury-based Prodrive to build a WRC car, assemble a team and compete in the 1990 season. It was to change Subaru’s brand DNA forever.
With a young –and quick – McRae at the helm, both the ’91 and ’91 British Rally Championships were quickly secured in the Legacy, causing punters to think very differently about the car. At this time many Subaru dealerships were still part of agricultural dealers, selling tractors and combine harvesters, so as you can imagine, there was a bit of a clash of culture to begin with, as performance car types began visiting these out-of-the way premises to check out the car they had ‘seen on the telly’. Subaru had wanted to use rallying to prove the worth of their turbocharging and AWD technology – and they had succeeded. Subarus were now on the same shopping lists as other established sports saloons and were no longer the sole reserve of the farming classes and remote country types. The stage had been well and truly set for the Impreza to make its rallying debut
This was to happen during the 1993 during the Rally Finland with Markku Alén and Aru Vatanen at the helm. Although Alén crashed out early on, Vatanen was clearly at home with his car, leading for much of the rally and managing a second overall on the car’s maiden outing. The Impreza’s suitability for rallying was irrefutable.
’94 saw more wins, with Sainz and McRae now the principle drivers. Superb results all year saw Subaru take second in the manufacturer’s standings, whilst a sterling year in ‘95, including highlights of a ‘1-2-3’ podium lock out at Catalunya, McRae taking the driver’s title and Subaru lifting manufacturer honours. The Impreza was becoming a true rally icon.
’96 and ’97 would see Subaru successfully defend its manufacturer’s titles, with McRae coming tantalisingly close to retaining his each time – narrowly missing out in both years to a hard-charging Tommi Makkinen.
The 1999 season would cement into the collective psyche the car that many regard to be the most desirable Impreza shape ever; the WRC99 – the car that inspired the 22B. With McRae off to Ford to drive the new Focus WRC, a new driver line-up was introduced, including Richard Burns, Juha Kankkunen and Bruno Thiry. A podium-and-win-filled season saw Burns become a true raising star with Subaru finishing second in the manufacturer standings and Burns doing likewise in the driver points.
The team would have to wait until 2001 to take home some really heavy silverware once again, when Burns and co-driver Reid rounded off an exceptional season in the latest GD-chassised car by taking the Driver’s title. Soon after, Burns left for Peugeot, with Makinnen drafted in to replace him, alongside the already established Petter Solberg. Solberg, alongside co-driver Phil Mills would take Subaru’s last driver’s championship in 2003, after an epic points battle with Sebastien Loeb.
The next five years saw many talented drivers come and go, many podiums and several wins, but sadly, Subaru was never quite able to replicate the success of the earlier years. Titles narrowly eluded them, despite some superb results, and finally, the curtain came down on the WRC programme in 2008, with FHI blaming the global economic downturn for its withdrawal from the sport.
It was the end of a genuine epoch for the manufacturer. Rallying had been the very sport that had created the buzz, kudos and desirability around the Impreza and had elevated it from the ranks of its Japanese saloon peers to sit on the top table alongside cars like the Mitsubishi Evo and Nissan Skyline.
Every cloud has a silver lining of course, and despite the lack of manufacturer involvement for the last 4 years, the inherent capabilities of Imprezas of all ages means a that a flick through any decent rally magazine will reveal literally hundreds of privateers and dealer level teams still pedalling Imprezas to the podium in global motorsport. Like the Mk2 Escort before it, I think it’s also a pretty safe bet to say you can bank on seeing GCs, GDs and GGs in all levels of trim and tune on the world’s rally stages for years to come, too. You can take the car out of the rally.. and all that …