Welcome to the first instalment of our new ‘Forgotten Heroes’ series.
With Forgotten Heroes, we will be featuring interesting cars (mostly modern JDM classics, as that is our focus) that many have forgotten ever existed, or may not have been aware of in the first place.
Everybody remembers the “big names”, such as the Toyota Supra MK4 and the Nissan Skyline GT-R.
However, there are so many deserving classics (and potential classics) out there that are worthy of your attention – Forgotten Heroes aims to shine a torch on some of the greatest automotive creations that fly beneath the radar, and bring them back into the limelight.
Compared to our detailed buyer guides and model histories, Forgotten Heroes entries will be a bit different – there is more of a focus on the general ‘story’ of the car in question and less about specific buying advice.
We will also share pros and cons of each car, if you are looking to purchase one.
Table of Contents
Introducing The Subaru Impreza WRX Gravel Express
Subaru has built a loyal following over the years by building sensible, no-nonsense cars that can go just about anywhere you might reasonably want to.
Here in New Zealand, where the Garage Dreams editorial team is based, every second car on the road is seemingly a Subaru of some description – and for good reason. No other brand offers such a compelling package when it comes to making practical, comfortable, reliable cars that can effortlessly go from driving urban roads to taking you off the beaten track. In fact, my “family wagon” is a fifth generation Subaru Legacy, which has been all over the country, on and off the tarmac, never skipping a beat.
Of all of Subaru’s creations, perhaps none is as legendary as the Impreza WRX.
Short for ‘World Rally Cross’ (X as in Cross – or “World Rally eXperimental” depending on who you ask) the Impreza WRX – and particularly the even more bonkers STI versions – is firmly cemented in the automotive sphere as one of the best “real world” performance cars ever.
High-end supercars might win in a track battle, but in the real world – where road conditions are not perfect, and there are loose surfaces, potholes and inclement weather to deal with – the WRX has everything you’ll ever need (and then some).
Richard Hammond of Top Gear fame proved this, with his WRX that managed to make it through some of the toughest conditions Africa has on offer in his cheap WRX.
But what if you wanted a WRX that was even better suited to going off road than the normal car?
If you’re the kind of person that likes to head up a gravel ski field road, or out into the back country for adventures – and you want to get there with a solid turn of pace – then Subaru’s engineers in the mid 1990s came up with the perfect solution, the Subaru Impreza WRX Gravel Express.
In this edition of Forgotten Heroes, we go into detail about this little-known legend.
What Is It?
Basically, the Subaru Impreza WRX Gravel Express was a first-generation WRX hatchback that was factory-modified to be a better “off road” vehicle.
Key differences compared to the “regular” GC8/first generation WRX include:
- A full-size, rear-mounted spare wheel
- Robust bull bars on the front of the car, including headlight guards
- A suspension lift to provide more ground clearance
- Roof rails to allow for fitting of roof racks and similar accessories
- Two-tone paint job
Apart from the suspension lift (and the obvious aesthetic tweaks) the car is mechanically the same as the regular WRX from the era. You get the same engine, the same legendary Subaru AWD system, and the choice of either a five speed manual or four speed automatic gearbox.
However, the overall package combines to make a vehicle that is just that little bit better for taking you where you need to go when the tarmac runs out.
While it isn’t exactly a Nissan Safari or Toyota Land Cruiser, the point of the Gravel Express was to allow the owner more confidence and capability when navigating gravel roads, the likes of which you might find going up to ski fields or on back country roads.
The suspension lift makes a big difference, giving you more confidence to traverse road ruts, potholes and gravel surfaces where the occasional bigger rock can lurk.
Long story short, the WRX Gravel Express was meant to be the WRX of choice for those who wanted to use their car for its original purpose – tearing up gravel roads at speed. An old friend of mine had one of these back in our university days, and it was a weapon for skiing, and not to mention a great deal of fun.
Another way to think of the Gravel Express is as being to the Subaru Impreza WRX what the Outback was to the Legacy.
When Was It Made?
The production run for the WRX Gravel Express was very limited.
Subaru made this car for two manufacturing years, 1995 and 1996, before slow sales put an end to production.
What’s interesting about Subaru’s decision-making here is that the Gravel Express was a Japanese Domestic Market-only car. You’ve got to wonder if Subaru had made the call to sell the Gravel Express in markets like New Zealand and Australia (where – especially in the 1990s – low quality, loose-surface roads were common in country areas, and people would use them for accessing recreational activities like skiing, biking and fishing) whether or not the car would have been more successful sales-wise.
The Gravel Expresses that made their way to the NZ used car market, for example, were snapped up quickly by those wanting a fun, fast and practical car for taming ski field access roads and the like.
Maybe it was an oversight on Subaru’s part to reserve this car solely for the Japanese market, and it could have been a sales success if sold in markets where there would have been higher demand for this type of car.
Why You Should Consider One
- Real world practicality – The GC8/1st gen WRX hatch is a practical proposition. There’s enough room for four adults (although rear legroom isn’t amazing) and the hatch boot is a decent size. Combine the added ground clearance, along with Subarus’ ubiquitous AWD system, and you’ve got a winning recipe on your hands.
- Rugged, purposeful looks – Although it’s a bit dated by modern standards, this is still a good looking car. The combo of two-tone paint finish plus the aesthetic extras like the front bars still look fantastic almost 30 years later. This is a ruggedly handsome car for sure.
- Strong performance – You already know that the WRX is a truly potent car. While the STI variants are the real performance weapons, the regular WRX (upon which the Gravel Express is based) is more than sufficient for normal driving conditions. Do you really need the extra power? ~220hp is more than enough in a small, relatively lightweight package.
- One of the coolest names ever for a car – Some car names are terrible. Some are just boring (e.g. any manufacturer that uses a combination of letters and/or numbers to denote models). But ‘Gravel Express’ has to be one of the coolest badges ever affixed to a car. It’s also a perfect description for what this car does. As with some of the more interesting Japanese cars of the time, it also has its name – along with some other wording – on the side sills of the car. This type of proud proclamation of exactly what the car is, added to various body panels, is something sorely missing from cars these days.
Basically, if you want the performance of a first generation WRX but need a bit of extra ground clearance (plus tough-looking aesthetic modifications to back it up) so you can blast up the ski field access road, or throw your bike on a roof rack and hit the trails, then the WRX Gravel Express is the perfect modern classic car for you.
If you love the great outdoors and want to get there faster, then keep an eye out for one of these.
What’s Not To Love?
- Hard to find – Perhaps the biggest issue with the WRX Gravel Express is trying to find one. As it was only produced for two years, and in limited numbers, and only for the Japanese market, finding one of these is like finding a needle in a haystack – especially as age and mileage have taken their toll on the fleet (not to mention the fact that these were intended to live a hard life doing off-road work). This is the sort of quirky classic that you just need to buy if you see a decent one come up for sale, because you may never get the opportunity again. You probably can’t afford to be too fussy in terms of waiting for the perfect example. One option to find a better example might be to approach a JDM buyer agent, like J Cars here in New Zealand or J Spec Auto in Australia and see if they can find one for you and bring it in. American buyers won’t have much luck finding one of these, unless you import and comply it, although in that case the steering wheel will be on the wrong side of the car.
- Likely to have been thrashed or lived a hard life – Most WRXs have been worked harder than a farm dog, and not necessarily maintained to the right standard. Throw in the fact that by nature, the Gravel Express will have been used on more challenging surfaces, and you’ll find that these cars often have a lot of wear and tear. Many have been poorly modified as well, in order to bump up the power output. Some have also had standard WRX suspension or other lowered suspension fitted, which completely defeats the purpose of the car. Make sure you consult our GC8 WRX buyer’s guide for more information on what to look out for (remembering that these cars are mechanically the same bar the suspension lift)
- Not as good on the road as the regular WRX – If you buy the Gravel Express for its intended purpose (going on gravel/loose surface roads where the extra ground clearance is helpful) then it is a better choice than the regular WRX. However, if you want a better driving experience on tarmac, then the regular WRX is the superior choice as you sacrifice some of the handling capability with the suspension lift and softer suspension. It’s a bit like picking between the Subaru Legacy or Outback. If you need the ground clearance, the Outback is the better car – but if you just drive on normal surfaces then the Legacy is a superior vehicle in terms of driving pleasure and prowess.
- Poor safety features and mod cons – 1990s Japanese cars didn’t tend to have much in terms of luxury features, creature comforts or safety equipment. By modern standards, this is not a safe car. You probably wouldn’t want one for everyday use, hauling the family and dog around. It also isn’t particularly comfortable, and the interior on these cars is spartan, to say the least. Most Gravel Expresses came with a more standard seat, as opposed to the body-hugging bucket seats you find on most WRXs, but some may have been specced with bucket seats (it’s hard to find exact information about this). Many have been modified to take regular WRX/STI seats from the era. Fuel economy is unsurprisingly poor as well, particularly if you drive your Gravel Express as the manufacturer intended. Long story short, this isn’t a fantastic daily driver – and is more suited to being either an interesting classic that you are trying to preserve, or as a weekend warrior for taking up the ski field or out on back country roads.
Remembering The Subaru Impreza WRX Gravel Express
The inaugural entry to our Forgotten Heroes series is a well-deserving one.
The WRX Gravel Express was a short-lived experiment in making an already excellent “go (almost) anywhere” performance car even more suited to tough, demanding conditions.
The whole package came together rather nicely, and it’s a real shame that sales performance wasn’t sufficient to warrant continued production. As mentioned above, maybe this car would have been more of a sales success if it had been offered as an option in markets where a jacked-up gravel warrior would have been a more useful proposition. In some respects, it was a spiritual predecessor to the popular Subaru Forester, which was a much more successful product and remains a popular vehicle to this day.
Maybe part of the problem with this car is that those who wanted the extra ground clearance and off-road capability didn’t typically care for the added performance (and instead opted for something like the first generation Legacy Outback) while those who wanted WRX performance were content to buy the regular car, which was a better proposition for spirited driving.
Nonetheless, when viewed with a nostalgic lens, the Subaru Impreza WRX Gravel Express was an interesting piece of automotive engineering. In fact, we even featured it in our article on the 12 best JDM wagons.
The concept lived on somewhat in the form of the Subaru Outback Sport, which was an American market car that lasted for the first three generations of the WRX’s existence. However, the Outback Sport (which is really an Impreza hatch with a bodykit) was never in the same league as the Gravel Express as it never came with the same powerful engine … it was all show and no go, with the trademark Subaru bonnet scoop merely being a visual accessory.
If you’re in to modifying cars, then one option would be to take an Outback Sport and plonk in the engine and gearbox from a WRX STI; then you’d have a pieced-together, more modern Gravel Express.
Hopefully you found this article interesting. If you’ve got any questions, corrections or concerns, then feel free to leave a comment below or email email@example.com. If you have any suggestions for the next instalment of the Forgotten Heroes series, then please speak up as well.