What I Learned After a Week of Daily Driving a Subaru Rally Car in NYC
I even took my Subaru RX race car on a road trip.
About three weeks ago, I decided to finally fulfill one of my automotive dreams and buy a rally car. Was it a good idea? Probably not. Last week, that car—a logbooked 1987 Subaru RX—showed up in fully-working condition, so I decided I would daily drive it. Here's what I learned.
People have no idea what it is.
The Subaru RX is based on the third-generation Subaru Leone. According to ProductionCars.com, just over 5,000 examples were built, each of them coming with a turbocharged, 1.8-liter boxer four-cylinder engine that pushed out 115-horsepower and a dual-range, five-speed transmission and a four-wheel-drive system with a locking center differential. As Autoweek said back in 2014, it was basically the original WRX.
Now, if you know me, you know I love a good WRX—my current daily driver is a 2016, and I previously owned a 2002 as well as a 2000 2.5RS—so it's only right that I get to see where it all started.
My car has about 157,000 miles clocked in and is a full rally car, complete with all safety equipment and a grandfathered SCCA rally logbook. It has some scratches and dents, but so what? It's a damn rally car.
The current exhaust setup broadcasts a relatively quiet Subaru burble—or Suburble—but the exterior styling cues give off the vibe of some sort of boxy late '80s Toyota Camry coupe or similar Japanese car.
Several times, people stopped me and asked what I was driving—once by a driver of a modified Scion FR-S. Also, speaking of WRXs, I've been getting absolutely no Subie wave love from drivers of the newer all-wheel-drive sports cars. Even most Subaru enthusiasts don't know a classic Subaru when it's right in front of their eyes.
While parked in Brooklyn, one delivery man hauling loads out of his truck informed me that back in his home country of Honduras, they used RXs as taxi cabs. But it's possible the rally competition numbers on the side of the car threw him off. Apparently, taxis in Honduras have race-looking yellow and black numbers on the side, similar to my rally car's numbers from its last event.
Another person passing the car said he had an RX as his first car back home in Israel. He was so excited to see the car that he basically stopped traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge to let me know.
Whether they know what it is or not, people's faces when a fully-prepped rally car drives by on a New York City street are pretty amazing.
It gets trash fuel economy... for a street car.
From what I can tell, the RX has a fuel tank capacity of about 13 gallons. Since the car lacks a solid highway gear, at about 75 miles per hour, the engine runs at 4000 RPMS. So on a longer highway trip, this thing basically slurps gas.
If my math is correct, I was seeing about 15 miles per gallon. For a rally car, that's not awful. For a four-cylinder street car with 115 horsepower, it's pretty despicable.
It's actually relatively comfortable and practical.
Last week, I chose to drive myself and my mother on a two and a half hour drive each way in the RX. My mother isn't a car person, in fact, she has a fear of driving, and in the past, she's given me hell for my project car antics. But after five hours or so in the RX, she told me she actually thought the car was comfortable.
Let me remind you, this is a fully-caged rally car with race seats and a custom rally suspension setup.
It's not the car for an NYC summer.
My RX has no air conditioning. That means that when it's 90-degrees outside and the air gets all thick, sitting in traffic is basically the worst.
Things aren't so bad once the car actually gets up to speed. The previous owner added a rally scoop to the roof, which provides solid air intake for the cabin. With the windows open—and a little imagination—it's almost like there's full-blown A/C.
Only in traffic in hot weather does it get to points where the race seat begins to get soaked in my sweat.
It's nerve-racking to street park.
The doors lock and all, but I'm super paranoid that someone is going to come along one of these days, pop my hood pins open, and somehow start my car from under the hood.
Every time I return to where I street-parked the car and find that it's actually still there, I'm slightly relieved. Though last week, when I was showing the car off to Road & Track's Chris Perkins, he did put me at ease when he said, "Relax, you're probably the only person in this city who would actually want to steal something like that anyways."
Shipping a car is expensive.
It took me at least a week to decide whether I was going to fly out to Boise, Idaho to pick up the car from its seller or trust an open car carrier with it. Trust me, I love a good road trip, but I wasn't really feeling the whole idea of driving a race car that could potentially break down 2,500 miles from Idaho to New York City. In fact, the only reason I was seriously considering it was because at first, the quotes I was getting for shipping were between $1,200 and $1,500—about a fourth of what I paid for the whole car.
After a bunch of digging and much careful back and forth with the car's very helpful previous owner, Eric, I found a carrier who would take the car for just short of $1,000. A lot of money, yes, but probably better than breaking down in Nebraska or some central US state.
It reminds me a lot of my Porsche 944s.
I've owned two Porsche 944s. One of the best things about the 944 is that it's a hatchback with a decent amount of storage room in the back. One of the worst things is that it's slow as hell. Fortunately and unfortunately, the RX falls directly in the 944's footsteps. It has a more-than-reasonable amount of room in the back to haul whatever goodies necessary, but it's also cringingly slow.
Even with the turbo squishing out 8 psi, according to the car's aftermarket boost gauge, it barely moves.
Fun, but slow.
It has a lot of grip. Maybe too much.
After that two and a half hour road trip with my mother, before heading back, I got the opportunity to take the RX on some dirt and gravel roads in the Catskill region of New York. While attempting to keep things safe and prevent trouble for others, I attempted to feel out the grip levels with the car's relatively fresh Michelin rally tires. Somewhat surprisingly, the car kept together very well.
In fact, I'm slightly worried, because it didn't even feel like the car had enough torque to break traction on the loose surfaces.
But maybe in some ways, that's for the better.
Contact the author, Aaron Brown, at email@example.com.