When Subaru decided to change the Impreza from a shouty saloon into a practical hatchback, it seemed like they’d gone all sensible. Austin Barnett certainly thought so. But as you can see, Austin is not really a sensible guy…
The third-generation Subaru Impreza was a car that really annoyed a lot of people. The cult of the Impreza had reached a full-on, frothy fever pitch in the late 1990s and through into the new millennium, the Subaru vs. Mitsubishi gravel wars raging with ever-increasing ferocity. Every fresh variant of the Impreza seemed to ramp the insanity up a level – cleverer tech, more versatile and adjustable chassis, spiraling power levels, seemingly unfathomable specific-output figures, it was nuts.
Basically, if it was painted World Rally Blue and had gold Speedlines, you knew it was a thing you shouldn’t mess with at the traffic lights or, more to the point, down a twisty B-road. The ballistic three-box saloon reinforced the everyman aspiration of having a sensible family car that was actually a rally car underneath, and the buying public couldn’t get enough.
And then one day, without any particular warning, Subaru decided to yoink the rug sharply out from beneath everybody’s feet by announcing that the new-for-2007 Impreza would be a hatchback. And everyone said ‘Oh. What, really…?’ while pulling a face like a baby who’s just accidentally licked some vinegar. The Impreza hatch was, in short, not totally what the public wanted.
But we shouldn’t fear change. The new model bundled everything that was great about the old one into a mould-breaking package and, for some enthusiasts, this was a breath of fresh air. All of that rally-honed awesomeness, with the added practicality of a sensible hatchback? What’s not to like there?
It certainly worked for Austin Barnett, back in his college days when he was looking for a straight-laced daily driver with a bit of grunt under the hood. “I bought the car brand new from the local Subaru dealer back in 2012, while I was a junior in college studying Mechanical Engineering,” he says. “I grew up around classic and modern muscle cars; my father owns two 1970 Mustangs – a Boss 302 and a Mach 1 – and a 2000 Cobra R. My mother has a 1963 Corvette Sting Ray and a 1999 Corvette.”
A strong basis of American muscle, then – the Subaru is an unusual deviation, no? “Well, the WRX was actually my second car,” he explains. “My first was a 1994 Mustang Cobra, which I still have, although it hasn’t been touched in a few years. The Mustang started with basic bolts-ons, then heads, cams and intake, then I added nitrous, and a 76mm turbo. At that point, the integrity of the block was at risk and it started having issues. But all this was around the same time as I bought my WRX – I wanted a daily driver that performed well, had AWD, and was a hatchback.”
When you draw up a shopping list like that, the choices become rather thin, and it’s certainly not going to have a Pony badge on it. But the Impreza was a solid base and, inevitably, the thing didn’t stay stock for long. With this sort of high-octane mischief in Austin’s genes, the progression into a big-power build was always a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.
The plan from day one was simply to have a sensible daily that could provide a bit of fun when required. But with the Mustang laid up and Austin getting itchy feet, the odd bolt-on started to find its way in… and before he knew it, the whole project had snowballed into, well, a project. That wasn’t what it was meant to be. But that’s just what happened.
“Until 2015, I didn’t do any modifications that wouldn’t allow it to be returned to stock!” he assures us. “I basically wanted to keep the option of using the factory warranty in case any of the notorious Subaru issues arose. But in 2015, the company that manufactured the widebody kit released it for WRXs and STIs; I’ve always been a huge fan of fat tyres, so I decided just to go for it! At this point, I realised there was no turning back. I figured I needed more power to put the wider footprint to proper use – at the time I was only around 350whp – and my choices were to build the stock Subaru motor and do a big rotated turbo kit, or do something different and carry out a motor/drivetrain swap. Also in 2015, I started my company, Billetworkz. Since the company was still very new, I decided to do a swap to bring some real attention; I wanted to keep the car AWD, and what better and more legendary AWD swap than the RB26?”
That’s just the sort of wacky logic we love, fusing a legendary engine from an entirely different genre, let alone marque, with enough shock factor to really irritate the purists, creating a neck-snapper to well and truly break the internet.
“As Billetworkz, I designed a fair amount of the custom parts on the car which made the swap a little easier and cleaner,” says Austin. “Before the swap I performed all of the work on the car, minus the paint and bodywork. With the RB26 transplant being very intensive, I decided to link up with Dave Brown at FAST of West Chester. He’s known in my area for top quality and unique work, and he and his shop performed the majority of the conversion, including custom subframes, shaved bay, paint/body, electrical, and so on. I also linked up with a great friend of mine, Jason Schmuck of Schmuck Built, for the custom fabrication of the exhaust manifold, V-mount intercooler/radiator, and catch can setup. Tony Spitaleri from Carbon Fiber Element performed all of the carbon work for the car, including the front fenders and flares, dash trim, steering wheel, and centre console. And Ryan Nettleton from Exact Art did a lot of custom interior work, including the reupholstered back seats, leather trim, laser-engraved Alcantara pillars and headlining.”
Naturally there are always going to be complexities with squeezing a non-native engine into any car, and the troubles are amplified on the Nissan-Subaru axis by the fact that the RB26 wants to work with a front differential, which the stock Subaru setup lacks. The motor had to be butted right up into the firewall to make everything fit, which then necessitated moving the steering column back.
And if you’ve moved the column, you also need to move the seats back, and the pedals too, and extend the centre console… one thing leads to another, with the car fighting back at every turn. The guys had to install a dry sump setup too, as the RB26 oil pan needed butchering to clear the crossmember. This kind of swap ain’t easy, you can’t just knock it all out over the course of an afternoon. It takes time, ingenuity, and a whole lot of headscratching.
All worth it in the end though, huh? Just look at the thing, it’s insane. And with the engine’s standalone management, shiny new twin-scroll turbo and a whole host of other tweaks and tricks, the car’s putting out a riotous 713hp at the wheels, which is several levels beyond bonkers. Rolling on Air Lift suspension and Nessen Forged rims, this widebody bruiser is a multiple threat. When Austin set out to build a socially shareable company demonstrator, he fully smashed it out of the park.
It hasn’t actually annoyed people in the way you might expect either. Enthusiasts seem to be cool with the mish-mash of ideas at play; “I often get told it’s the best of both worlds,” Austin beams, “with people’s favourite chassis mated to their favourite engine. The motor gets a lot of double-takes too!”
We bet it does. And the sheer, bare-faced mischief of it all has been giving the man ideas. Seven-hundred-odd ponies may be a staggering figure, but it’s not enough to keep Austin satisfied – not with his muscle car background. He needs the ground to really shake. “I’m currently building another RB26, which will be stroked to 2.8-litres,” he grins, devilishly. “Once that’s finished, I will be shooting for more power. I’m also debating installing a sequential trans for the extra fun and performance! And of course, the car already has the option of being full RWD on demand…”
So it’s a car not just for shows, but also the strip, the track, and even the drift scene. It may not be bouncing through forests like its three-box forebears, but this practical hatchback’s definitely not that sensible any more.
TECH SPEC SUBARU IMPREZA WRX
Custom white paint with gold pearl (by FAST of West Chester), MntRider Designs widebody kit, Carbon Fiber Element wings and flares, Varis front bumper, Blacktop Aero rear spoiler, APR Dodge Viper rear diffuser, custom headlight retrofit, IPF JDM foglights, titanium dress-up bolts, custom firewall and trans tunnel, custom engine bay shave and wire tuck, custom front and rear tubular subframes
RB26DETT 2.6-litre straight-six (from 1999 Nissan Skyline GT-R), Schmuck Built exhaust manifold, intake piping, V-mount intercooler and radiator, Borg Warner EFR 9174 twin-scroll turbo, Plazmaman intake manifold and 90mm throttle body, Ross Tuffbond stage 4 dry sump, Radium Engineering dual AEM 320 E85 fuel pumps, ID2000 injectors, custom electric power steering, Haltech Platinum Pro standalone ECU, Wiring Specialties engine harness, Zeitronix flex-fuel setup, 6-speed Getrag AWD trans, Driveshaft Shop stage 4 axles and propshaft, ATS triple carbon clutch, full race ETS-Pro centre diff controller (with full RWD capability)
12×18” Nessen Forged S|7.0 3-piece wheels, 315/30 Toyo Proxes R888 tyres, Air Lift Performance suspension with 3P management, Runduce BBK (8-pot front, 6-pot rear)
Takata Drift Pro LE seats with harnesses, rear seats trimmed to match by Exact Art, AIM MXG digital dash, Alcantara pillars and headlining with custom laser-etched accents, custom Agency Power 6-point rollcage, Ti cage hardware and Billetworkz curved washers, custom carbon fibre steering wheel and panels by Carbon Fiber Element, OBP Racing pedal box, relocated steering column, centre console and front seats, iPad dash mount, Tanabe gauges, Billetworkz gearknob and handbrake
“FAST of West Chester (Dave Brown), Schmuck Built (Jason Schmuck), Carbon Fiber Element (Tony Spitaleri), Exact Art (Ryan Nettleton). I also want to give thanks to a good friend of mine, Willy Izaguirre. He has inspired me to build different and unique, while always staying humble. Being a car enthusiast is about enjoying your own car while creating the best of friends along the way. Also a special thanks to the guys at eJudged, who gave me the opportunity to display my car at their booth at SEMA 2017.”
Words Dan Bevis Photos Mike Kuhn