As a car-loving kid in the 1990s, I grew up with an abiding love for American performance cars like the Mustang and Corvette, as well as an automotive lust for exotic European cars like Porsches and Lamborghinis. However, thanks in no small part to Gran Turismo, my mom’s red Celica, and the transparently biased automotive journalism of the era, I kind of had a thing for Japanese sports cars, too. When tuner culture took over in the early 2000s and I began to edge ever closer to getting my driver’s license, I began to pine for a late-model performance car that I could spice up with a few choice bolt-ons.
I was never particularly fond of body kits with massive wings, neon underglow, or over-the-top vinyl graphics, but I certainly wasn’t above a nice set of Enkeis, a cold-air intake, lowering springs, and a 3-inch turbo-back exhaust. Living in the snow-covered Rust Belt, Subarus had an understandable appeal as a year-round sports sedan that could handle all of our crazy weather with finesse and still be fun when the sun eventually came out. It wasn’t to be, though—ever responsible, I instead opted for a Jeep XJ Cherokee that was both cheaper to insure and had more space to haul parts for the ’78 Mustang II project car I bought for $200 from my bus driver when I was 14.
As the years wore on, I would own a handful of cool Japanese cars, including a Mazda RX-7, a Datsun 510, and even a right-hand-drive Toyota Celica that was a little older than the one my Mom had owned. However, I was still yet to enjoy the simple pleasures of owning a true bolt-on Japanese performance car, denying myself once again when I ordered a Mazda2 instead of buying the RX-8 that was sitting in the showroom. As before, I took the responsible path, and while the Mazda2 has been an entertaining commuter and a giant-killing weekend autocross machine, it never really was much of a performance car. After 120,000 miles and nearly a decade of routine oil changes (and not much else), I was ready for something new.
After spending some time with a few Subaru-loving friends, I began shopping for my new car. This time, I was going to be responsible, as usual, but this time I was going to make damn sure that I drove away with the bolt-on weapon of my dreams. I’d always liked the Subaru Impreza WRX. As a kid, I still distinctly remember the excitement of the 2.5RS when it debuted, thinking things couldn’t get any better. They did, though, when the adorable-yet-aggressive bugeye WRX showed up a few short years later. Even in the pre-COVID car market, gently used WRXs (is there such a thing?) held their value remarkably well, and given the difference between interest rates on new and used cars, it was entirely possible to end up paying more for a used one than a new one over the life of the loan.
The choice was made to order a brand-new 2019 WRX. I decided on a mid-spec Premium model with no sunroof and few frills, although I did plan on checking the box for the Recaro seats and red-painted brake calipers. Naturally, the plan was a manual-transmission model in World Rally Blue—what kind of monster would order one in any other color? I don’t buy new cars often, so this wasn’t something that I planned on taking lightly. I decided to test-drive one and do as much research as I possibly could before putting down a deposit and finalizing my order. There was a Subaru dealer in town, so, one gloomy Saturday afternoon, after cleaning my chicken coop, I brushed the straw off my flannel and changed into some less-poopy shoes before paying them a visit.
Now, by this point, I knew that the WRX tended to attract a boy-racer clientele that was at odds with the rest of Subaru’s earth-friendly, dog-loving, goody-goody-granola image. I also suspected that this might make the prospect of a test-drive a difficult one, as I was more than certain from my limited time in the car business that these cars were catnip for joyriders and time wasters. I was a qualified buyer, though, and my wife had purchased a car from this dealer group less than two years prior. When the salesman agreed to a test drive, I was relieved. This particular dealership was located near the Cuyahoga Valley National Park which, for my money, contains some of the best driving roads in the country. I was eager to explore the lower limits of the WRX’s driving dynamics to see if it was a car I was willing to spend the next decade driving.
After waiting for about an hour for the salesman to locate the lone manual-transmission WRX on the lot, we set out towards the park. I was warned not to try any funny business, and I assured the salesman that I’d keep it well below 4000 rpm and the speed limit. After a jaunt of just under half a mile down an arrow-straight section of two-lane heading into the park, I was instructed to turn into a parking lot, turn around, and head back towards the dealership. When we returned, the salesman eagerly asked me what I thought of it. I was incredulous, but (mostly) polite. “What I thought of what?” I was informed that test drives were kept short to keep the mileage low and to deter joyriders. I informed him that this policy did a great job of deterring actual customers as well.
After heading home, I decided to do some more research on the car itself. Facebook groups had long supplanted forums as the source for model-specific info, so I opted to join a local Subaru group with the intent of going to a few events, meeting some owners, and discovering what these cars were like to live with. I requested to join said group, and I soon received a message from an administrator who informed me that, while my enthusiasm was appreciated, the group was only intended for current Subaru owners. I was a little surprised – I hadn’t experienced this sort of exclusivity in any of my other marque-specific groups. I was told that, when the time was right, I could submit a photo of my car to him as proof of ownership, and I would be allowed in. I sent him a photo of some rolls of steel sheet sitting outside a factory. The group admin was not as amused by this as I was.
Still undeterred, I posted about the experience on Facebook and a friend set me up with his friend from Subaru of America. He went out of his way to set me up with another dealership that was more than happy to let me test drive a WRX for as long as I wanted, and while I enjoyed the car, I wasn’t exactly in love with it. No big deal, though—some tasteful bolt-ons would take care of that, right? I put in my order and wrote a check for the deposit. I even applied to be a “Subaru Ambassador” and placed on a lengthy waitlist for the exclusive privilege of spreading the boxer gospel with free keychains and other branded trinkets.
At this point, I set about reading up on the direct-injected FA20 engine found in the WRX. As with many DI engines, carbon buildup was an issue. In some cases, owners of stock cars claimed that engines were self-destructing before 30,000 miles. Of course, there was a fix—a tune and a catch can. Unfortunately, this fix would understandably void my warranty in ways a nice set of wheels, a short shifter, and a cat-back wouldn’t. At that point, I had to take a step back and think about what I was about to do. The whole point of buying a new car—especially a new Japanese car—is dependability and reliability. I called the dealership, canceled my order, and got my deposit back. No new Subaru for me.
A couple years later, in the spring of 2021, I’d start shopping for a new car again. In the end, I finally ended up with the high-strung, brightly colored, turbocharged, limited-slip-and-Brembo-equipped tuner car of my dreams: a Grabber Yellow Ford Mustang with the EcoBoost High Performance Package. I’m still friends with that nice guy from Subaru corporate, though—and I ended up talking both my sister-in-law and her husband into buying Subarus. While I may have cooled on the WRX, the rest of the Subaru product lineup is easy to recommend to my less car-obsessed friends and family who value attributes like “practicality,” “value,” and “safety” more than “it’s loud as hell, and it’s bright blue!”
Two weeks ago, after a three-year wait, I was finally welcomed into the Subaru Ambassador program. I received a branded pullover made out of recycled water bottles. I think I’ve earned it.
Cam VanDerHorst is a stand-up comedian and lifelong car enthusiast from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. He has no interest in putting Rally Armor mudflaps or rainbow-colored pointy lugnuts on his Mustang, although he’s definitely considered a Cobb Accessport with the requisite custom-painted faceplate.