Your favorite World Rally Car #2: Subaru Impreza S5-S6 WRC

It was the first in a line of winning Subaru World Rally Cars, but second in our popularity poll of the era

980519RA_McRaeC_RA_mkl_cm101 (1)

The Subaru Impreza S5-S6 WRC, the original Subaru World Rally Car, was known for performing handsomely on the World Rally Championship’s stages and has done so too in our poll to find your favorite World Rally Car – taking second spot.

It couldn’t live with the astronomically popular winner, but the S5-S6 scored more than double the votes of the third placed Volkswagen Polo R WRC, and was even more impressive in a Subaru context, with more than double the votes of the rest of the Imprezas combined.

After winning both 1995 titles and the manufacturers’ crown in 1996, Subaru was a favorite for success when the WRC rules were reset in 1997. That proved a wothwhile tip, as the Impreza S5 WRC has the accolade of being the first World Rally Car to ever win a round of the WRC and it duly won the next two as well.

Subaru Impreza S5-S6 WRC key stats

Rally wins 19
Drivers’ titles 0
Manufacturers’ titles 1 (1997)

Lead driver Colin McRae was, surprisingly, the last Subaru driver to reach the top step in 1997 as Piero Liatti won the Monte Carlo Rally and Kenneth Eriksson was victorious in Sweden. But McRae’s Safari Rally win was testament to Subaru’s build, as it meant the car had already won on all three surfaces in the WRC.

Distinctive with its sumptuous exhaust bark and wastegate chatter, iconic two-door body style, and famous blue-and-gold livery, the original Impreza WRC was an instant hit with the fans too – continuing the legacy first set by the Legacy and then Impreza 555.

Subaru won the 1997 manufacturers’ title but McRae missed out on repeating his 1995 title by a single point to Tommi Mäkinen, who was still running a Group A Mitsubishi.


For 1998 the Impreza evolved with computer-controlled active differentials and an electric throttle, but mechanical problems were common and dogged McRae’s assault.

Subaru’s star driver was then poached by Ford, prompting an all new line-up for the final two seasons of the Mk1 Impreza’s competition life: Richard Burns and four-time champion Juha Kankkunen.

The car was modified again too – Subaru becoming the first team in WRC history to ever fit a hydraulically actuated semi-automatic transmission with a drive-by-wire throttle that allowed the gears to be shifted with steering wheel-mounted paddles.

There were again some technical difficulties, but Kankkunen took a controversial victory in Argentina as he ignored team orders to beat his team-mate. Burns naturally wasn’t happy and channeled that energy into a dominant performance on the Acropolis for his first Subaru victory.

Kankkunen then won in Finland and Burns the year’s final two rounds in Australia and GB to come second in the drivers’ standings; Subaru finishing in the same position in the makes’ race too, just four points shy of Toyota.

990820SF Kankkunen 04

The 1999 version of the Impreza would reappear at the beginning of 2000 because the all-new car, designed by Christian Loriaux, wasn’t quite ready for competition. Burns won the Safari on its final appearance before the successor was ready for Portugal.

Although it looked similar to its predecessor, the 2000 version was 80% new underneath – with a particular focus on optimizing weight distribution – and it immediately proved devastatingly quick.

Burns’ co-driver Robert Reid can remember the initial test of the car before Rally Portugal.

“Richard didn’t want to go back,” Reid told DirtFish last year.

“He wanted to take a moment to digest what we’d just done. We’d finished that first run and immediately he’d asked for the time. Now, purposefully, I’d been slightly conservative with the timing. I could hardly believe the time.

Subaru Impreza WRC2000

How a new Subaru burned the Portugal opposition

Burns' win on the new car's debut was a world-class effort

“When I told him, he looked at me and smiled: ‘It’s not often you’re wrong,’ he said, ‘but you are this time’. I wasn’t. We were a second per kilometer faster than the 1999 car.”

Naturally, once it was in competition Subaru had a real weapon on its hands. It won on debut, but not without “a few issues early on”.

“The car was really quick straight away, but we lost the power-steering in one stage,” Reid said.

We got the car back to service and the team changed the pump. Just as Richard was reversing out of service, he said: ‘I don’t believe it…’ The pump had failed again and we had to do a loop of three stages with no assistance.

“Then the engine was cutting out in Arganil and there were some more problems, but despite all of that we went into the final day 14 seconds behind Marcus [Grönholm]. We took 12 of those back on the first of the Ponte de Lima stages, then we were back into the lead on the next one and we stayed there until the finish.

001124GB Burns 1 cm

“I remember going through the final stage, DR [David Richards, Subaru team principal] was standing on top of an old wrecked van in the middle of the stage, giving us split times.

“We’d won. The emotion was huge. The team had developed this amazing car, but then we’d had a tough rally and still won. There were lots of tears – especially from Christian.”

Burns won Argentina and GB later in the year, but mechanical troubles were a touch too frequent to allow him to truly challenge for the title – although he did start the season finale with a slim mathematical shot at it.

The Impreza S6 WRC was replaced by the S7 in 2001 which, despite not being quite as complete a package in some fundamental areas, propelled Burns and Reid to the world title.

But there’s a reason it’s the original Impreza WRC that’s the most popular Subaru. It looks fast just standing still, and sounds absolutely gorgeous when it actually is travelling fast.

A more than worthy winner for this poll, but has to settle for runner-up on this occasion.

Pos Car No. of votes % of votes
2 Subaru Impreza S5-S6 WRC 791 13.6
3 Volkswagen Polo R WRC 344 5.9
4 Ford Fiesta WRC 293 5.0
5 Toyota Yaris WRC 251 4.3
6 Subaru Impreza S12 WRC 250 4.3
7 Toyota Corolla WRC 227 3.9
8 Peugeot 206 WRC 209 3.6
9 Ford Escort WRC 199 3.4
10 Ford Focus RS WRC ’99-‘02 182 3.1
11 Ford Focus RS WRC ’03-‘05 174 3.0
12 Peugeot 307 WRC 172 3.0
13 Subaru Impreza S7-S8 WRC 159 2.7
14 Subaru Impreza S9-S11 WRC 148 2.5
15 Citroën Xsara WRC 135 2.3
16 Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC 118 2.0
17 Seat Córdoba WRC 108 1.9
18 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution WRC 98 1.7
19 Ford Focus WRC ’06-‘09 92 1.6
20 Škoda Fabia WRC 75 1.3
21 Citroën C4 WRC 60 1.0
22 Citroën DS3 WRC 52 0.9
23 Mitsubishi Lancer WRC 44 0.8
24 Mini John Cooper Works WRC 39 0.7
25 Ford Fiesta RS WRC 33 0.6
26= Hyundai Accent WRC 29 0.5
26= Suzuki SX4 WRC 29 0.5
28 Citroën C3 WRC 25 0.4
29 Subaru Impreza S14 WRC 21 0.4
30 Hyundai NG i20 WRC 7 0.1
31 Hyundai i20 WRC 5 0.1