Subaru's bad boy all grown up

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A speed sign at the base of Rod Millen's driveway at his Leadfoot Ranch in the Coromandel. Photo: Catherine Pattison

Bogans, backwards baseball caps and booming stereos may well have been associated with the WRX brand in the past. Catherine Pattison forgot all these stereotypes when she was introduced to the new, grown­-up Subaru on the ultimate big kid's driveway.

Motorsport driver Rod Millen's private grounds at Leadfoot Ranch on the Coromandel Peninsula are home to a purpose­-built road, winding through the property and designed to be the perfect hill climb.

Normally, hand­picked racers converge here for the Leadfoot Festival, but through happy circumstances, Subaru secured Millen's permission for the WRX to be the first car launched on this special piece of tarmac.

Stationed at the bottom of the driveway awaiting my run, I would have been perfectly content to be seated in a model with the lineartronic gearbox rather than the six­-speed manual. My sole focus then could have been on not stacking Subaru's shiny WRX into Millen's trees or rocks, which are dotted alongside the 1.6km dash. However, having drawn the shifter, it was a relief to find that second and third were the only options required on the deceptively steep, tricky sprint uphill.

Helmet on ­- to comply with safety regulations -­ specialist driver training company Downforce instructor seated alongside, calling braking points plus the (one) gear change necessary, and it was an over-­too-­quick blast.

What it did confirm ­- along with the return drive to Auckland -­ was that Subaru has succeeded in distancing itself from the WRX's boy­racer past.

The fourth-­generation WRX is available in two sedan models, both featuring the new direct injection turbocharged 2.0­-litre boxer engine. Don't worry, the WRX hasn't gone all middle-­aged and boring, as the 197kW of power at 5600rpm and 350Nm of toque from 2400rpm attest. It is marginally more grunty than the old 2.5­-litre engine but more importantly, it is 11.5% more economical at 9.2 litres per 100km on combined cycle for the manual and 8 litres per 100km for the auto.

This is the first time there has been an automatic WRX, which also offers an eight­-speed manual paddle­shift.

Now to price. For $48,990 you get the standard specification manual model. The auto is an extra $1000. The more comprehensively equipped premium models are $53,990 for manual, and $54,990 for auto. For your money you get extras such as leather trim, sunroof, sat nav, rain­-sensing wipers, dusk­sensing LED headlights and a power driver's seat.

Entertainment specs in premium variants include a Harman Kardone sound system and Fujitsu Ten head unit. Both models have Bluetooth capability with auxiliary and USB ports, climate control air conditioning, remote central locking with an immobiliser and alarm security system with Datadots, cruise control, a trip computer, electric windows and mirrors. The STi version is due to be launched in June but no price was given at the launch.

Safety gets the big tick as the WRX has a five-­star rating from the Australasian New Car Assessment Programme (ANCAP).

Subaru New Zealand managing director Wallis Dumper said the new WRX has been developed ''to handle exceptionally well''.

This was put to the test by my motoring colleague and driving partner for the day, who threw the car particularly hard into a tight left-­hand bend. As my eyebrows raised, the WRX's active torque­vectoring system immediately responded by applying the brake to the inner front wheel and distributing torque to the outer front wheel. Understeer exam passed with flying colours.

Built on a new platform, the WRX has an increased wheelbase, retuned suspension, stiffened structure, upgraded brakes and a quicker steering ratio.

Mr Dumper believes its chassis is comparable to that of a European performance car.

''We knew right from the start we had something special being engineered, as the test track comparison car was a Porsche Carrera S,'' he said.

Roomier inside, the WRX has introduced good quality soft-­touch interior surfaces, giving it a sophisticated yet still slightly racy cabin. The exterior is more cultivated nowadays with a sporty nose, LED headlights with halogen high beam, and LED rear lights. Gone is the trademark super spoiler, instead a subtle lip pouts from the boot.

Congratulations WRX, you have grown out of your unruly youthful years and graduated with first­-class fun.

Subaru's bad boy all grown up
At a Glance

SUBARU WRX

Prices: $48,990 to 54,990

Engine: 1998cc four-­cylinder, DOHC, direct injection, maximum power 197kW@5600rpm, maximum torque 350Nm@2400­5200rpm

Transmissions: Six­-speed manual and CVT

Brakes and stability systems: Discs, VDC, brake assist, active torque-­vectoring system

Wheels, tyres: Alloy, 235/45 R17

Fuel and economy: 9.2l/100 (manual), 8.0l/100km (auto), capacity 60 litres

Dimensions: Length 4595mm, width 1795mm, height 1475mm