This is a 2003 Subaru Impreza 1.5 I’s Sport. The 1.5 means it had the 1.5 liter boxer four underhood, but I have no idea who “I” is or why it was called his or her “Sport” wagon; but whatever that meant, it felt like I was driving a luxury rocket ship powered by a turbine. The key here is context; after five nightmarish months wrangling the awful Mitsubishi Minica around Ito, this was the greatest car in the world.
In Japan, the school year starts in April and ends in March of the following year. Summer vacation sits across the closing days of July and occupies pretty much all of August. This was the time that we got more serious about staying in Ito and decided that we were to have our second child there. A second baby seat being a looming necessity, that putrid little Mitsubishi had yet one more inadequacy piled onto it. It had to go, and I had to get a bigger car, and thus began the great car shopping in Japan epic.
First, let us compare buying a used – ahem, I mean pre-owned car in America versus buying a car in Japan. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll just assume you’re paying cash and buying the vehicle outright (which is what we’ve done). In America, you choose the car, drive it, negotiate the price, sign some paperwork, wait an hour, give them money, and drive home in your new vehicle. Titling and plating it can be done within 30 days, although state laws may vary.
In Japan, you choose your vehicle and go look at it. You generally cannot drive it, because its sha-ken (a comprehensive and expensive bumper-to-bumper inspection done every two years) is most likely expired. If you decide to buy it, you have to prove that you have a parking space for it. We’ve had our dealers visit us to take care of this, but the way it works is that you get your landlord to stamp a paper saying you have one, then in the box on the paper you draw a map of the parking area, indicating where you are going to park your car.
This paper is given to the police for them to authorize and then you wait for two weeks for the car to be prepped and for other paperwork to be filed. There’s a recycling fee to pay, the sha-ken (which includes a very basic insurance fee), and dealer fees. Usually this will add an extra ￥150,000-300,000 onto the price of the car, although it can be less. When you go to finally pick up your car, you give them money, sign some more paperwork, and then you’re on your way, a visit that takes upwards of an hour or three, but at last you finally got your car. Just to hammer it home, this takes two weeks. Two weeks.
So, after the headache of paperwork and waiting, I was greeted with the greatest car of my entire life. It felt powerful, like a tidal wave of torque was propelling us forward. It was comfortable and sharp-handling, the seats were real-sized and properly supportive, and all the power features (your basic door locks/windows/mirrors) made it feel so much more upscale than it really was. There was also a button that made the mirrors fold flat against the side of the car, convenient in the narrow parking spaces or on-street parking. The nav unit was a nice addition, too. Most real cars (and many kei cars) are fitted with nav units because the curvy, occasionally nonsensical roads make it very easy to lose your way.
So, some nine months after we purchased the car, our family grew, adding a new baby girl to the mix. The car was sufficiently large enough to carry a stroller, a bag or two, and the extra crap babies need: diapers, wipes, bottles, formula mix, and hot water. We are all very close to each other, and this car made that true in a very literal sense when we were driving anywhere, and drove it we did. It went up to the in-laws in Gunma on the other side of Tokyo from us. It went to Costco, once in Yokohama and then in Sagamihara after that one opened up. We were always able to fit all our stuff in there: bulk sizes of toilet paper, baby wipes and diapers, a gigantic pizza that would need cutting to be fit into our tiny refrigerator, cookies, etc.
The Impreza was smooth on the highway. The EJ15 engine produced only about 100 horsepower and 100 pound/feet of torque, but in Japan this was no big deal. It felt fast enough in traffic. Main, four-lane roads there have speed limits of only 50 km/h, and highways are 60-100 km/h depending on where you’re driving. With a four speed automatic it was pleasant enough when following traffic laws, but on the Tohoku Expressway leaving Tokyo to the north, most traffic flows at 110+ km/h. The 1.5L boxer burbled along at about 3100 revs at 120 km/h, but it was distressing anywhere above that. It would not be nearly as good a car on American roads as it was on Japanese ones.
Driving the Impreza 1.5 I’s Sport after the Minica was everything I could have ever dreamed of wanting in a car and more. It was with us for nearly two years and never gave us any problems, needing no servicing beyond regular oil changes and a new set of wiper blades. It moved us from our tiny, three-room apartment to our more spacious, four-room apartment on the other side of town, although it took several trips, and it still shines bright even when compared to the truly great car that followed it.
NOTE: All pictures mine, except for the teeny, tiny engine picture, taken from somewhere on the internet.