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Subaru Impreza P1 – a very British coup

Words: Matthew Hayward | Photography: Aston Parrott

Subaru won multiple rally titles with the Impreza, but the P1 was developed purely for British roads by Prodrive. We find out what makes it so special

Nothing makes you feel like a rally driver quite like an Impreza. Whether it’s the scoop poking from the top of the bonnet, the sight of that massive wing in the rear-view mirror, or the off-beat flat-four throb, it’s invigorating before you even turn a wheel. And when you do, the otherworldly way it will get you from point to point cross-country is like nothing else. Sitting here in the driver’s seat of this Sonic Blue P1 – arguably the ultimate UK-spec Impreza – transports you back to a bygone era of performance cars.

The Impreza was a real working-class hero, too, being relatively attainable for enthusiasts who had seen McRae ‘win on Sunday’ and were ready to ‘buy on Monday’. During the height of the WRC era of the mid-to-late-1990s, Subaru UK officially offered only the basic Turbo 2000, with a few spin-off special editions. This meant that UK buyers looking for some of the more hardcore, high-performance versions from STI (Subaru Tecnica International) were forced to turn to unofficial grey-market imports.

To combat this missed sales opportunity, a new UK-specific top-of-the-range version was conceived. The wild homologation cars available elsewhere wouldn’t easily be understood by UK buyers walking into the local dealership, and might have proved difficult to live with, so this car was developed specifically for British drivers in partnership with Prodrive. The legendary motorsport and engineering company had been behind Subaru’s rally-winning cars since 1990, and by 2000 had three manufacturers’ and one drivers’ championship under its belt. Indeed, Prodrive was almost as much a household name as Impreza and McRae.

Although Prodrive had offered a few road car upgrades, and had collaborated on the McRae special edition and RB5, this was something entirely more holistic. For the new P1 road car, Prodrive had the pick of all the parts available from Japan.  e Banbury-based team started with the two-door WRX STI as the foundation, as this version had the stiffest bodyshell of the range, but it also helped to make the car stand out from the standard cars offered in the UK at the time. Choosing this ’shell meant that the company had to go through an entire European type approval process, and making it compliant required further stiffening with a solid rear bulkhead.

The higher-powered 276bhp engine fitted to the JDM version was also not compliant with EU emissions and noise regulations. In order to get around this, Prodrive developed a new exhaust system and larger catalyst, so it’s cleaner and quieter, but thanks to a remapped custom ECU (also accounting for lower-octane UK fuel) it pumps out just as much power and torque.

But Prodrive didn’t want to call it a day there. The STI versions had always been considerably firmer in suspension than those sold in the UK, and Prodrive wanted to make this a car that worked well on British roads. More than 22 combinations of springs and dampers were trialled during development, the final result being much softer front springs, and uprated dampers all-round. Perhaps more importantly, the P1 got an all-new geometry set-up, as well as larger, 17-inch wheels with 205/45-profile Pirelli P-Zero tyres developed specifically for it. Prodrive opted to ditch the DCCD (‘driver-controlled centre differential’) that was found on the Japanese cars.

In order to give the P1 its own identity, and really set it aside from the rest, designer Peter Stevens was brought in to style a unique bodykit. A front bumper lip, side skirts, rear spats and a carbonfibre-tipped rear wing all look fairly low-key, but are said to offer genuine aerodynamic advantages at high speed. Finishing off the exterior transformation are those 17-inch OZ Racing wheels – perhaps controversially not painted in gold, but a dark anthracite colour. All fairly subtle tweaks, but they add up to give the P1 its own character.

We’re at auction house Brightwells’ HQ in Leominster today, and the P1 in question is a very special example. It might sound like a bit of a cliché but this is a genuine ‘one lady owner’ car, which is being offered at its May sale with a shade under 15,000 miles on the clock. Pleasingly, this wasn’t a car bought and tucked away as an investment, but one that’s been enjoyed regularly, if somewhat sparingly.

There’s a small scuff on the front lip spoiler, but otherwise it looks beautifully preserved and completely original. It even has the original radio tucked safely in a box, as well as both sets of foglight covers. It’s fair to say that this car has been regularly maintained since it was supplied new by Keith Price Garages Ltd of Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, in March 2001. Although there is plenty of documentation to verify the mileage, it’s perfectly clear from the condition of the fabrics and even the smell of the interior that this P1 is almost as fresh as the day it left the factory.

Which gives me a rare opportunity to understand just how Subaru’s special UK car would have felt in 2000. Unlike the standard Imprezas, the P1 features a superbly supportive pair of Alcantara-trimmed Prodrive seats, complete with blue trim. When it was new, the rather lacklustre interior was seen as one of the Impreza’s major shortcomings, but it’s neat and functional and somehow it doesn’t seem so important today. Instead it’s all about what this car does on the road.

Heading out into the twisty Herefordshire lanes feels like quite a privilege, even if we’re not quite in the P1’s spiritual home of the Welsh mountains. What becomes immediately apparent, however, is just how comfortable it is on this terrain. The P1 has a rare ability to shrug off lumps and bumps without a second thought, while retaining a seriously impressive level of body control, though one minor let-down is the slightly dull-feeling steering.

With this great flow it always feels poised for the next corner, although, as you start to push it a little harder, the P1’s neutral attitude shifts to very mild understeer. It’s clear that Prodrive set this car up to be dependable and confidence-inspiring, rather than aggressive or nervous, and while it might not offer the ultimate degree of involvement, it does put you at ease very quickly.

Combined with such refinement, this user-friendliness would have made the P1 a brilliant everyday car – not something that could be said about the more raucous rival Mitsubishi Evos of the time. Having said that, the permanent all-wheel-drive system provides an unmistakable immediacy of power transmission to all four wheels, something even the most sophisticated Haldex-style modern systems simply cannot match.

The 2.0-litre EJ20 engine is quite something, too. Boost from the single turbocharger is quite subdued below 3000rpm, so if you’re in the wrong gear it can feel slightly lethargic, but as soon as you pass this threshold it pulls strongly through 5000, 6000 and towards the 7000rpm redline. Peak power comes in at 6500rpm, and there’s a balance and free-flowing nature to the off-beat engine that comes as a genuine surprise. While we’re all used to hearing the throb of an unsilenced modified Impreza down the local high street, this P1 remains muted. It makes a great noise,and sometimes you wish you could hear more of it.

The Impreza’s GC8 platform dates back to 1992, which means it is usefully compact. Weighing in at 1283kg, it’s also incredibly light for a four-wheel-drive turbocharged car, which goes some way to explaining why 276bhp feels like a hell of a lot more. When Autocar performance-tested a P1 in 2000, it recorded the 0-60mph dash in 4.7sec and a top speed of 155mph. These 4×4 ‘rally reps’ were deemed genuine supercar-killers, and it’s easy to understand why.

Perhaps the best thing about being out in the P1 is seeing reaction to it on the road. From kids to those who might have had one when new, I’ve rarely seen a car attract so much positive attention from passers-by. It’s actually one of the reasons why the current owner has decided to part with it, as it had become slightly too valuable and conspicuous.

With 1000 P1s built, there was a time when you would have seen them regularly, but it feels like a real event today. Many were modified, crashed or simply rotted away, and to find one in this shape is incredibly rare. We’ve been asked politely to keep the mileage below 15,000 miles, which is easier said than done, given the fun we’re having out here.

It’s a car that really gets under your skin and, with the addictive combination of that chassis, engine and the iconic view out through the windows, it’s hard to stop driving it. We return to base having increased the P1’s odometer reading to 14,975 miles. It’s estimated to sell for £65,000-75,000, which is a bit of an eye-opener, but then again, find another one like this…

So is this really the ultimate Impreza? As a driver’s car, there are of course many interesting variations that were built for the Japanese market and they offer more performance and aggression. The ultra-limited-edition 22B was a very different beast, and is the real collectors’ piece today. The P1, however, represents the only road-biased Impreza fully developed by Prodrive – which is probably enough of a reason alone to want one. And driving the P1 reveals a rare combination of talents on this twisting tarmac that could only be achieved with a car developed here. It’s a Japanese rally car with a British-road soul, and that makes it a very special thing indeed.

2001 Subaru Impreza P1 specifications

Engine 1994cc flat-four, DOHC per bank, 16 valves, single Hitachi turbocharger with intercooler, fuel injection
Power 277bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque 253lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, four-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion, hydraulically assisted
Suspension Front: MacPherson struts, lower wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes Discs Weight 1283kg Top speed 155mph 0-60mph 4.7sec

This article was originally published in Octane 240, June 2023

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