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Subaru Impreza RB5 (1999): review, history and specs of an icon

The Richard Burns 5 marked the moment the ubiquitous hero car of early-era evo found its sweet spot. We dive into the history of the Subaru Impreza RB5 and why it's one of the top 25 cars of the last 25 years

You really had to be there, as they say. For A while the Impreza was a cult; then it became almost a cultural phenomenon. It was the car to have, right up until the point where someone without a valid claim to the keys snatched it, whereupon you stood a small chance of getting it back thanks to the efforts of the local traffic squad… in an Impreza. Then there was the rallying, with our two much-missed stars, first Colin McRae and then Richard Burns: both world champions at the wheel of an Impreza, and a whole story in itself. Subaru’s unlikely anti-hero was everywhere, including in the pages of this magazine, where more letters than before or since were written about the merits or otherwise of its continual inclusion in some form or other. 

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Sadly, I’m old enough to remember when the Impreza Turbo 2000 first appeared in the early ’90s and didn’t win every group test it was entered into. Sensationally fast, and a genre-busting bargain, it wasn’t quite the polished article. It took time – subtle revisions through the middle of the decade and a sprinkling of magic marketing dust from Prodrive’s increasingly successful WRC campaign – to really propel the Impreza onto that wave of near hysteria a few years later. And as that happened, so here in the UK we became increasingly aware of the forbidden fruits available in the car’s home market – the specials, the lightweight ones, the faster ones. Except, as exciting as a short-geared, 8000rpm-red-lined, hardcore Impreza could be, they were never officially developed for the UK market in the era of the original ‘GC8-series’ Impreza, save arguably for a few small tweaks to the 22B and, of course, eventually Prodrive’s P1

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> Prodrive P25 review – this £552,000 Subaru Impreza is worth every penny

That means a later UK-spec car, with its less frenetic power delivery, more supple suspension and outstanding traction, has all the key attributes to master our peculiarly ruinous roads, and of those, the ultimate is surely the RB5. At launch the latest in a growing lineage of special editions, the ‘Richard Burns 5’ – named after the emergent English star who’d taken the place of Colin McRae in the Prodrive Subaru team for 1999 – added ‘Blue Steel’ metallic paint, Alcantara trim, PIAA spotlamps and 17-inch Speedline alloys to the revised-for-’99 Turbo 2000 recipe, which offered 218bhp and 214lb ft of torque. Moreover, an optional WR Sport upgrade from Prodrive boosted power to 237bhp, but crucially swelled torque to 258lb ft, while also adding a high-level STI rear wing, a quick-shift gear linkage and air conditioning. Total cost? A keen £27,545. 

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Time has in no way dulled the impact of the Impreza. It ‘only’ has 205/45 ZR17 rubber, but it doesn’t need anything more – it has so much poise, so much traction, that so little of the fabulous, turbocharged mojo from that boxer engine is wasted. It’s still heroically fast yet so involving with it, so thoroughly loveable with that thudding, thumping soundtrack. Everybody should have an Impreza in their lives at some point, it remains an essential ‘evo’ car. 

What we said

'...Uncatchable and mind-blowing fun. The engine pulls hard from 3000rpm and never seems to die off, the chassis feels poised and ready to react to any input, and the ride is so supple that the RB5 seems to glide from corner to corner. It’s big steering wheel is never truly alive with feedback, but you still feel in touch with the road surface and it’s not long before you nudge up to its limits.

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When you do, it’s the front tyres that lose grip first, then as the engine continues to scale its torque curve you can feel drive being shuffled to the rear, neutralising the balance and firing you on to the next straight without a wasted joule of energy. Understeer can be avoided, though. Keep the engine right in the powerband (this is no trouble as it’s so elastic), brake hard and deep into the corner and feel the rear step out. Now you’ve got no lock on, all four tyres drifting in unison towards the apex. Feed in some power and lateral motion is controlled by forward drive, slingshotting you through the corner and making you hungry for the next.

The RB5 is truly outstanding, each ingredient perfectly in balance with the next – power to grip, weight to damping force. You can get the 276bhp P1 for around £10,000 too, but I reckon this blend of pace and adjustability is about as good as it gets in the Impreza dynasty. If you find an honest, unmodified RB5 then don’t let the opportunity slip; it’s one of the great four-wheeled experiences.'

Subaru Impreza RB5 specs

EngineFlat-4, 1994cc, turbo
Max power237bhp @ 6000rpm
Max torque258lb ft @ 3500rpm
Weight1235kg
Power/weight195bhp/ton
0-60mph5sec
Max speed143mph (claimed)
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