The P1 was created with a singular goal - to be the best Impreza road car ever. In order to succeed, Subaru UK called in the team behind its WRC success - Prodrive, and let them loose on a JDM WRX STI. Chris Tsoi gets to grips with a legend.
Photography by ANDREW AMBROSE of @justy_media
Remember the days when the colour of a car used to grab your attention? You’d only need a fleeting glimpse but it would be enough for the inner database to run a quick search, immediately downloading the answer. A Scarlet Rossa Corsa Ferrari. A British Racing Green Jaguar. A championship White Honda Type-R, a Guards Red 911, a Purple TVR or Papaya Orange McLaren. Each shade has meaning, stirring a range of emotions, pulling at the heartstrings of anyone with octane in their veins.
Now the motoring landscape is a sea of silver and greys, or silver-grey. Even a modern Ferrari looks best in dark Tour de France Blue. Where has the imagination gone? Lost in a tidal wave of PCP resale fear? It’s a sad time indeed when the torchbearer for a creative palette is the Fiat 500 city car slash motoring handbag. Sure, the odd Lamborghini slips through the net, but little else.
Making my way across the West Pennine Moors towards today's photoshoot location, it only takes a split second flash of Sonic Blue before the database nearly crashes with the weight of expectation. It's a famous Subaru metallic so charged with energy it positively leaps out against the backdrop of dark green and browns, like I’ve just donned some 3-D glasses in an IMAX cinema. Hairs stand up on my arms and I can feel myself getting giddy.
Suddenly I’m transported to a time when ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ still had credence. One of Colin McRae, Richard Burns and Tommy Makkinen that led to a perfect storm of four wheel drifts and grey imports. One of street fights with Mitsubishi Evo’s and savaging anything this side of a 911 Turbo from point A to point B. It was a no holds barred, bare knuckle dust up with no quarter given or asked for. Mitsubishi spat out another Evolution, Subaru responded with a new wing and some intercooler spray. The fact that both were limited by the gentleman's agreement between Japanese manufacturers restricting maximum power to 276bhp meant all the effort went into the chassis, and how we reaped the rewards.
The standard 214bhp Impreza Turbo had already established itself as a legend in its own lifetime in the UK, and special editions like the Terzo, Catalunya and later RB5 added 237bhp stardust with the performance pack. But over in the land of the rising sun was a treasure chest of high boost, big wing specials with tightened gears ratios and strengthened, two door bodyshells. People always want what they can’t have, and the specialist importers were only too happy to oblige. Subaru UK dangled a carrot in the form of the 22B, but only brought a meagre 16 to blighty, and the consensus suggested it was too stiff for our roads anyway. Eyeing up a bigger slice of the pie, Subaru drafted in Prodrive, the Banbury based concern behind Subaru’s multiple WRC championships and the RB5, and tasked them with producing the ultimate homegrown Impreza with a JDM matching output.
The resulting P1 might lack the finishing iconic touch of gold alloy wheels, but it still rocks every square inch of its WRC pedigree. Pulling into the designated car park meeting spot pleasantries are in order but my mind is distracted, absorbing the endless motorsport details. There’s a brutalist appeal to the P1 - bollocks to the form, all praise the function. Peter Stevens of McLaren F1 fame may have been drafted in to style the P1, but ultimately he spent his time minutely refining the aerodynamics - the P1 requires three horsepower less to hit 100mph.
You wonder how he did it with such a comical rear wing, jutting out from the boot lid like the Blackpool tower against the distant Lancashire skyline. It doesn’t even look like it should belong on a car of this size, yet somehow the deeper chin spoiler and fat arches manage to balance it out, visually lowering the car, despite the rally car ride height. Up front the eyes are drawn to the giant signature air scoop, whose sole purpose is to feed the top mount intercooler with refreshing air. Either side sit a pair of bonnet louvres, which allow the 2.0 turbocharged engine to dissipate its vast heat. The highlights keep coming, from the branded mud flaps to the obligatory aftermarket drainpipe exhaust.
The mind fog is interrupted by owner Paul passing me his keys. I swing open the tinn-y door and dive straight into the Recaro, which feels modelled for the typical 68kg Japanese driver usually quoted as a ballast in the official kerb weight. I get the nod to start it up. Damn I’m excited. No sign of a stop start button, instead we have an old school immobiliser fob and the most basic of keys which could have easily been used in the 70’s. No need to depress the clutch, no silly driving modes to activate, no driver aids to deactivate. Twist the key and the boxer four springs to life with a cough and a splutter, finally settling into that famous laconic burble as it warms. You’d swear you can almost hear each individual cylinder labour to rotate, compress and fire, but the reality is of course the result of an unequal length exhaust manifold.
Being kind, the interior is a time capsule of late ‘90’s Japanese functionality. It has aged with all the subtlety of Mickey Rourke and has just as much plastic in its fascia. There’s a sheen to every surface that would cause an Audi engineer sleepless nights. To many that’s all part of the charm, but when ambitious speculators are pushing prices for a respectable P1 to the expensive side of £50,000 it becomes a harder pill to swallow. You also sit closer to the windscreen than expected, with a steering wheel lacking rake and carrying a fraction too much diameter.
Easing my way out of the car park, I’m fighting the urge of the clutch to bunny hop us down the road. There’s patches of standing water loitering and even some mist descending to give me the Full Network Q fantasy. I’m feeling my way in, but it's still a shock to the system how nothing happens until I hit 3.5k rpms and the turbo springs to life, launching us down the road with real punch. It’s strong all the way to the 8,000rpm red line and the exhaust takes on a deeper and smoother tone as the revs rise. In my younger years I’d have probably been frustrated with those levels of turbo lag, but now it’s an enjoyable counter to instant gratification turbochargers, challenging you to keep it spooled up and in the sweet spot.
The gearbox has a good weight to it - it's a little mechanical and notchy in feel but the shifts are short and it slots into each gear with precision allowing you to make quick changes and keep the revs up. The pedals are nicely spaced for those that like to heel-and-toe as you’d expect, but the brakes feel pretty wooden. In fairness, this is likely down to the fact the cars’ not seen many miles this past year having only been to the MOT station and body shop for a paint touch up. Even so, the one aspect of performance cars that cannot escape father time is braking ability, and the Scooby is no different. The Impreza doesn’t do too bad of a job shedding speed even if this ones wearing the standard stoppers - you can still modulate the brakes but you're reacting to it, rather than feeling it through the pedal.
Prodrive also chose to ditch the DCCD centre differential controller of the JDM cars as it came at the cost of ABS brakes - a must in any British winter. Subaru did offer an optional Alcon brake upgrade, alongside 18” alloys of the same OZ Racing design. They even - shock, horror - offered to trim the Recaro in leather and fit electric adjustment in exchange for money. Even the boot was re-trimmed in a thicker carpet in a futile attempt to increase sophistication. It was minor details like this that resulted in a 30kg weight penalty over the STI, with the P1 clocking 1,295kg.
Time to step it up a notch, the car feeling so alive and ultra-planted. That natural confidence and encouragement that flows from any classic Impreza to its driver is still very much alive and kicking. The conditions are improving too so I have no concerns finding its limits. I change up from second to third with a thud and I let the turbo do its work, exploiting the longer gearing fitted to the P1 courtesy of a revised 4.444 final drive. The steering has excellent natural weight to it and you can really feel what the front end is doing with every input. Controversially, Prodrive chose to stick with the slower steering rack from the regular Impreza Turbo, but with hindsight it’s proven to be a wise decision.
Doubling back towards a particular uphill hairpin that’s proving to be a favourite of mine and the P1’s, braking with the aid of gravity means it’s easier to modulate my entry speed and I tip it in, the nose pointy and faithful to my inputs. The rear just seems to follow wherever the front wants to go, it feels lively yet planted and gives no signs it’s going to let go. Mid corner you can really feel the car pivoting; it's an act only the best of cars can match. The way it rotates around the driver's seat with the front and rear in harmony is something to behold. There’s no hint of under or oversteer and as soon as the nose is in you can start applying the throttle allowing the diffs to do their work and sling shot you out of the bend.
The 205 section tyres are barely warmed over supermini spec these days but the level of adhesion generated is still bang up to date. It’s a recurring theme with the P1 - it just maximises every single component at its disposal. The dampers and springs feel perfectly matched, with any dip or camber dusted off as if it’s nothing. This is where the experts at Prodrive really earned their money. Believing the front suspension of the STI was set up too firm, whilst the rear was too soft for European roads the P1 received a custom set up. The result is the P1 performs witchcraft by filtering out all the harshness you don’t need, yet still possesses a magical ability to deliver all the essential feedback you require to push on. For example - you’ll have no doubt gathered by the pictures that the car likes to get its knee down during hard cornering, but from behind the wheel this doesn't translate into sloppy body control. Everything happens with a wonderful progression, signalling the outer limits of the P1’s ability, encouraging you to nibble up to it - or back off when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. The high degree of roll is intentional - Prodrive found the STI spec roll bars too aggressive for UK tarmac and thus decided once again to stick with the standard UK Turbo items.
"Mid corner you can really feel the car pivoting; it's an act only the best of cars can match. The way it rotates around the driver's seat with the front and rear in harmony is something to behold"
Then there is the view out. The car feels narrow but the vista is in glorious widescreen thanks to the slim A pillars. The aforementioned position of the steering wheel means you sit slightly over it than conventional cars and your hands are quite wide at a 3 and 9 position where your palms rest. It means your weight is over the wheel and your face is closer to the windscreen than you’re used to. Yet it works - placing the P1 becomes a doddle and suddenly you’re exploiting roads that have you thinking twice in bloated, modern metal. No wonder McRae and co were so fast down those narrow rally stages. Even the grey cloth of the roof lining that contrasts so sharply with the blue accented seats serves to add to the airy aura. It’s also mildly perplexing that the mighty rear wing doesn’t even obstruct the two fingered salute of the person you’ve just overtaken.
In period, the P1 cleaned up - EVO magazine welcomed it with a mega test against everything and everything available second-hand for it’s £31,500 list price in a fifteen car mega test, before crowning it the champion and pitting it against a far more expensive Ferrari 550 in a David v Goliath clash. Today, viewed as a pure weekend toy, the reception towards the P1 can vary depending upon who you ask. Hardcore devotee’s of the Subaru Technica International will soap box about the rawer nature of a JDM spec car and the premium attached to the P1, whilst supporters of the homegrown model prefer it’s more polished nature. It’s a battle within the wider war.
Ultimately, that gentleman's agreement that resulted in such chassis magic also proved to be the Impreza’s downfall. The European power wars, advancements in tyre technology and slick dual clutch gearboxes saw hot hatchbacks supersede the Subaru as the fastest four wheeler down a backroad. Throw in badges that got the Jones’ curtains twitching and soft touch plastics with 20,000 mile service intervals and it was checkmate against the Impreza. Add a change of WRC regulations that favoured Citroen shopping trolleys, and even Prodrive couldn’t keep the party alive. But what counts is the P1 still offers one of the richest, most colourful driving experiences ever manufactured, and we applaud Subaru and Prodrive for giving us this machine to cherish.