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Subaru HQ Tuner: Project Wagon Resurrection
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Jesse Bunting's 2003 WRX Wagon Restoration

I knew this time around I wanted to do things a little differently.


I wanted to buy a car that was near death, in a sense – for cheap – then build it from the ground up. Having a cheaper starting point would allow more financial room for the project.


I’ve been modifying Subaru vehicles for the better part of a decade. I had spent a small fortune building four WRX sedans (2002, 2005, 2009, and 2011). I bought them at full retail cost and modified them. These cars often had mods already, and I was never really sure of their histories.


I wanted a WRX wagon instead of a sedan, this time. Also, I wanted to complete the entire build without breaking the bank.


So the search began.




The Perfect Find


After combing the Web for months and making multiple trips to look at potential candidates, I found exactly what I was looking for within 30 minutes of home – a 2003 WRX Wagon with an empty engine bay, some cosmetic damage, and a suspension in need of some TLC.


Although not abandoned, the owner had just moved on to other projects and let this one sit. He had blown the original engine a few years before and pulled it out to be rebuilt. He sent it off for machine work and never followed through with it.




Motivating Force


The same day I found the car, I also found a low-mileage donor engine that was in need of a home. My engine came from a totaled 2005 WRX – a factory 2.0-liter that had no modifications. It had 88,000 miles on it.


I found the motor for sale on eBay®. It was close, so I picked up both the car and engine on the same day and trailered them to my dad’s garage in Lewes, Delaware. I did all of the mechanical work there.


I had worked for several manufacturers as a technician before joining Subaru of America. So I have a big toolbox full of tools accumulated over time.


My dad and I have built muscle cars over the years, so we have a few engine stands and a cherry picker at his shop.




Work in Process


The first things to go were the front fenders and bumper. The previous owner had installed sedan fenders for a more aggressive look, but since both fenders were damaged, I decided to go back to the less-aggressive wagon front end. Also quick to go were the front-mount intercooler and mismatched headlights.


Engine From there, I began stripping down the donor engine and rebuilding it using a stockpile of used parts I had amassed from the Subaru forums. I had managed to find deals on everything – a larger turbo, bigger intercooler, freer-flowing intake manifold, better-flowing exhaust, and so on. They all allow for creating more power.


Jesse Bunting's 2003 WRX Wagon Restoration


Jesse Bunting's 2003 WRX Wagon Restoration
Photos: Jesse Bunting
Jesse Bunting's 2003 WRX Wagon Restoration


Jesse Bunting's 2003 WRX Wagon Restoration


The turbo and intake manifold in the car are actually original-equipment manufacturer (OEM) Subaru parts, but they didn’t come on U.S.-spec vehicles. Instead, they were sourced from limited-edition, high-performance Japanese WRX STI models that had been imported here.


I purchased the remaining clutch parts, gaskets, assorted bolts, and everything else directly from Subaru. These were all factory equipment that would have come on the car when it was new.


Subaru engines are easy to work on: You can bolt any Subaru motor into any other Subaru. The only differences are exhaust routing, wiring, etc. Since the donor engine was basically the same as the original, there was little drama installing it. There were a few changes in the emissions system between 2003 and 2005, so I had to swap out the engine harnesses, but that was simple. The fuel lines were different as well, but since I went with aftermarket fuel rails and lines, it didn’t matter.


I soon had a tastefully modified engine. I hooked up all the hoses, plugged in the connectors, filled the fluids, and it fired up on the first crank.


Jesse Bunting's 2003 WRX Wagon Restoration
Photo: Jesse Bunting 

Body and Chassis I addressed the naked front end by installing new OEM front fenders and front bumper. I also installed a new set of headlights and marker lights to make it inspection-ready.


The car had come with upgraded front and rear brakes – 4-piston fronts and 2-piston rears. They are actually original equipment on the 2006-2007 WRX, so it’s a common upgrade for the older models. You can buy them at any Subaru retailer. The fronts are a direct bolt-on, but the rears require a custom bracket. The car also had slotted rotors. Everything else is still original.


Jesse Bunting's 2003 WRX Wagon Restoration
Photo: Jesse Bunting 

Suspension The car had a set of cheap coilovers installed. Since the car had sat for years, the coilovers had rusted. You can normally adjust ride height with coilovers, but these had seized and wouldn’t adjust. Plus, all four were leaking fluid.


I installed a new set of coilovers at first, but later replaced them with a strut/spring combination.


I also replaced or upgraded almost every other part of the suspension along the way.


Jesse Bunting's 2003 WRX Wagon Restoration
Photo: Jesse Bunting

Wheels For rolling stock, I found a set of 2004 STI BBS wheels on I had to buy 2004 WRX STI wheels because that was the only year the bolt patterns were the same as the WRX. In 2005 Subaru changed the bolt pattern on the WRX STI, so anything from 2005 on wouldn’t work. Because of this, the 2004 wheels are hard to come by and really desirable to WRX owners. When I found these, I snatched them up.


I painted the wheels with Duplicolor Gunmetal Wheel Paint and bolted them on.




Eliminating Gremlins


I drove the car like this for more than a year as I eliminated the remaining gremlins and occasionally replaced parts I wasn’t happy with. These included various vacuum and boost leaks, a sticking hood latch, a passenger window switch that stopped working, and tweaking the tuning.


Final Touches ... Once convinced the car was mechanically solid, I finished the exterior by addressing the minor dings and applying a fresh coat of paint. Ron and his crew at Integrity Custom Collision in Pennsauken, New Jersey, did all of the body work and paint.


... Are Never Final Any automotive project takes a great deal of time and is never truly finished.


To date, I have logged almost two years into this build and plan to keep making changes along the way. I feel like I’m off to a good start.


Jesse Bunting's 2003 WRX Wagon Restoration





About the author: Jesse R. Bunting is a field auditor for Subaru of America, Inc., stationed at headquarters in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.





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