'98 Subaru Impreza Wagon SYMS JTCC: The Defiant Boxer
When discussing Japanese motorsport, the JGTC is often brought up due to its history of unique and interesting vehicle entries. Less known however, are some of the cars of the Japanese Touring Car Championship. Switching from Group A regulations to Super Touring for 1994, there was one particular entry that gathered a fair amount of attention: a Subaru Impreza Wagon.
As the championship entered what would be its final year in 1998, things did not look promising. Nissan had left the series due to ongoing financial issues, while Honda had also pulled out to focus on F1 and their NSX JGTC program (which, amazingly, was cheaper to run than a JTCC effort). This meant the series was set to have a single manufacturer grid of Toyotas, until SYMS Racing entered their Impreza.
Surrounded by a wall of Chasers and Coronas, the bright yellow estate stood out a fair bit. SYMS, a Subaru aftermarket parts manufacturer, intended to use their entry as a testbed for new products, while also gaining some additional publicity on the side. The choice of body-style was again likely to aid the team’s exposure, while also providing improved visibility and potential aerodynamic benefits. The design of the Impreza Wagon also allowed the team to install a proper rear wing, unlike Volvo’s 850 Estate BTCC entry.
On paper, the Impreza seemed to have a real chance against the established Toyotas. Equipped with a 2.0, naturally aspirated flat 4 (EJ20) with around 300HP and 230LB-FT of torque, the Impreza was only about 10HP away from the output of the front-running Chasers. This power was sent through a 6-speed sequential gearbox to the rear wheels, due to all-wheel drive unsurprisingly not being permitted. To a large degree, the SYMS Impreza could be seen as an early attempt at the modern day Subaru Levorg BTCC formula; that is, utilising the lower centre of gravity provided by a boxer engine to gain an advantage over the competition, while also utilising an estate body-style.
As the first round of the championship approached, there were real hopes the Subaru could compete at the sharp end of the (admittedly small) grid. However, these hopes would soon be dashed. Hideshi Matsuda was the man behind the wheel for Round 1 at Fuji Speedway, and as early as qualifying it was clear all was not well with the car. Despite being a fairly experienced driver (having competed in the Indy 500 several times already by this point, among other events), Matsuda qualified 10th, and dead last. His lap was nearly 8 seconds down on the pole time, and was far from a promising start. In the first race Matsuda would finish 9th out of 9 finishers, and end the race 2 laps behind the race winner. Race 2 was a similar story: another 9th out of 9 finishers, but at least only 1 lap down this time.
For Round 2 there was a change of personnel, with Argentinian Sebastian Martino taking over the driving duties. This weekend at Twin Ring Motegi didn’t see any particular changes in fortune, as Martino achieved another 9th place from a grid of 9 cars in the single race of the weekend, with the team once again finishing 2 laps down. Round 3, at Sportsland SUGO, would prove to be the final straw for the team. Martino again couldn’t get better than last out of the car in qualifying, with the team lining up 10th; this time around 6.5 seconds behind pole. This weekend would go from bad to worse however, as the car didn’t even start either race. Following this disaster, SYMS pulled the plug on the project, and the Impreza’s career was done.
After its retirement from racing, the car would be used as a display in the SYMS showroom in Japan for a while, but as of now is believed to be in storage. The creativity of the team has to be admired, but their lack of experience compared to the Toyota teams was a serious hindrance. While it failed to make much of an impact in terms of results, the SYMS Impreza did fulfil its main purpose: to help develop new products for road cars, while generating publicity for the company.