Subaru Impreza 555 - the first chapter of a legendary story
If you ask motorsports fans around the world about the one car which would be a synonym for rally racing, Subaru Impreza would surely be among the top 5 answers, if not the number 1 in most cases. There were many legendary cars during the history of rallying, but only a few of them have a link so strong with rallying as the Impreza. While Lancia Delta, Audi Quattro or Toyota Celica belong to the museum, Impreza’s name is still present in the international rally competitions.
Impreza’s story began in 1992, and during the 24 seasons of competitive action, we saw various versions and modifications of the car with numerous national, continental, and world titles. Our interest is in the first generation of the legendary Japanese automobile which, in the World Rally Championship, is known as Impreza 555.
Impreza was a replacement for Leone
Before Impreza, Subaru had two cars in the WRC – Leone (1980-1989) and Legacy (1989-1993). The Impreza, which was presented in the autumn of 1992, was essentially an indirect replacement for the Leone, as the two models had similar overall dimensions and both were smaller than Legacy. Impreza was 160mm shorter than Legacy, with a 60mm shorter wheelbase. Impreza was also lighter and had a more neutral front/rear weight ratio.
The basic road car for the racing version was the Impreza WRX 4WD saloon with 2-liter turbocharged twin-cam boxer engine. Subaru’s longstanding partner Prodrive developed a racing car according to Group A regulations, and it was the first rally car with active differentials.
Subaru Impreza 555 was born in 1993
For the 1993 WRC season, the Subaru team debuted with a blue and yellow color scheme, along with a new title sponsor cigarette manufacturer State Express 555. Blue and yellow are still the colours which are the most common with racing Imprezas, while the 555 moniker became one of the synonyms for the first generation of the racing model.
Carlos Sainz scored the first victory with Impreza
Ari Vatanen and Colin McRae remained the primary drivers of the Subaru World Rally Team in the 1993 season. They finished third in manufacturer’s classification, with McRae fifth in drivers’ standings. Champions were Toyota and Juha Kankkunen. Impreza debuted at 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland, which was the 9th (of 13) round of the championship. Ari Vatanen immediately scored the podium finish, placing second behind Kankkunen.
In 1994, the former champion Carlos Sainz joined the team with co-driver Luis Moya, and took the Impreza 555 to its first win at the Acropolis Rally in Greece. It later took wins in New Zealand and Great Britain with McRae behind the wheel. In the manufacturers’ championship, they achieved a second-place finish behind Toyota, with Sainz placing second in the drivers’ championship and McRae placing fourth.
Road version of Impreza was extremely popular
At that time,the top version of the Impreza road car was WRX STI, which had lots of modifications compared to the WRX model. One of the upgrades was a highly-tuned turbocharged engine which provided 250 bhp. Under the skin, an aluminium front strut tower bar stiffened the suspension and the upgraded front brake pads enhanced the stopping performance. Internal ratios of the gearbox were the same as for the WRX and the independent test gave an acceleration result of 6.1 seconds for the 0-60 mph portion.
After its debut at the 1994 Geneva Motor Show, the turbocharged Imprezas found their way to Europe, but with significantly less power than their Japanese counterparts, developing only 208 bhp. Impreza immediately became popular, especially in England, because the car offered exceptional value for money. Prodrive quickly put their hands on the imported cars. The first limited edition of 25 cars had the engines untouched, but suspension modifications and cosmetic design changes made Impreza more desirable.
The upgraded WRX model in 1994
At the end of the year, at the 1994 Tokyo Motor Show, Subaru introduced the upgraded Impreza, with most attention focused on the WRX model. Power was enhanced from 240 to 260 bhp and the weight was increased by 30 kg. The WRX STI model was even stronger, with 375 bhp. Power is one thing, but unless it can be effectively transmitted onto the road, it means very little. For this reason, the driver was given more control over the 4WD system, as STI developed a switch mounted by the handbrake with a five-mode adjustment of the power distribution, from a rearward bias of 35:65 to 50:50.
1995 world titles for McRae and Impreza 555
The racing version of Impreza was faced with new FIA regulations for the 1995 season, with more restricted air intakes in an effort to slow the cars down. The answer was the introduction of a new boxer engine with revised camshafts and a different compression ratio. All the major teams were getting around 300 bhp from their 2-liter engines. The cars featured an active four-wheel drive system, incorporating an electronically-controlled front differential.
The season of 1995 was the most successful for Impreza 555, with the manufacturers’ title for Subaru World Rally Team and drivers’ title for Colin McRae. The season was marked by exclusion of Toyota’s team after they were caught using illegal turbo restrictors at Rally Catalunya, but the title fight was still unresolved until the last event. It was all brought down to the British round in which Colin McRae defeated Carlos Sainz and took his only world title.
High demand increased the production
During 1995, the demand for homologations specials (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo and Subaru Impreza WRX STI) was so high that the manufacturers had problems to meet them. The STI plant in Mitaka wasn’t geared for big volume production so it was decided to introduce the STI Version II range, which was built on the Subaru production line at the Yajima plant. The Version II had an official debut in August 1995. Subaru also introduced the 555 limited edition, with 500 saloons and 100 estates.
The limited 555 edition cars were actually the same as the STI Version II, with the exception of paint colours and a number of minor details. The 555 edition road cars looked like racing Imprezas and after Subaru World Rally Team and Colin McRae clinched the world titles, that car became one of the most popular road-legal sports cars in the world and it was sold out quickly.
Subaru WRT defended the manufacturers’ title
In the UK, there was a special Prodrive tuned Impreza called ‘Series McRae’. The car was introduced in mid-1995, to commemorate Colin’s victory in the 1994 RAC Rally. A few months later, Colin became the world champion and the deep-blue coloured car with gold alloy wheels, monogrammed seat and numbered plaque became even more special.
For the 1996 World Rally Championship season, Colin McRae was again the lead driver for Subaru, in Impreza 555 with the #1 plate. He was joined by Kenneth Eriksson and Piero Liatti. Thanks to consistent podium finishes, the Subaru World Rally Team successfully defended its manufacturers’ championship title, but McRae lost the drivers’ championship to Tommi Makinen.
In 1997, Impreza WRC was born
At the beginning of 1996, the special edition WRX V-Limited was introduced to commemorate the double world title from the previous year. There were two versions of the V-Limited model – the first one was the 260 bhp WRX car and the other was the STI Version II. The WRX V-Limited was restricted to 1000 units, with a serial number allocated to each car, printed on the aluminium plaque. WRX STI Ver II V-Limited was restricted to 555 units, and all finished in the same blue colour.
In 1997, the FIA replaced Group A cars with the newly introduced formula World Rally Cars. After four successful seasons, the old Impreza 555 was retired and replaced with a totally redesigned car, simply named Impreza WRC 97. Subaru competed in WRC with various evolutions of Impreza WRC until 2008. After the retirement of the factory team from competition, new generations of Impreza were used, and still are, by numerous privateers all over the world in production classes.
Video : The world-famous rally driver Colin McRae testing the 1995 Impreza