Cars, like us, can end up with a bit of a reputation. Sometimes it's well-deserved, but often it's created by circumstances well out of control.
Subaru New Zealand has found itself in this position with the WRX - a decade and a half of cheap imports has sullied the reputation the car forged for itself on the gravel roads of the World Rally Championship.
The likes of Colin McRae, Richard Burns and our own rally legend Possum Bourne helped to cement the four-wheel-drive Subaru's place in history and on wish lists.
But as the import flood continued, the WRXs got cheaper and became the car to have for a part of the market that manufacturers don't focus on until they've got a few more miles under their belts. While it's good to see your cars on the road, when they're being driven by the "yoof" with backwards baseball caps, it doesn't do the brand many favours.
With the latest WRX, launched last week at Rod Millen's Leadfoot Ranch in Hahei, Subaru boss Wallis Dumper believes he has the right car to restore the sullied reputation and present the car to a more refined audience.
After a few hundred kilometres between the beautiful Coromandel and the horrible Auckland Motorway, it'd be fair to say Subaru has lifted its game. While it's still hanging on to its rally heritage, it's wearing nicer clothes and, while still extremely capable of bad behaviour, it's developed better manners.
The big bonnet vent's still there, but the stance has changed, settling down with its newfound maturity. The car comes in two flavours for New Zealand, the standard model - which already has climate air conditioning, cruise control and the obligatory security system with invisible Datadots - and a premium edition, which adds Harman Kardon audio, leather, power driver's seat, rain-sensing wipers and sat-nav, plus a bigger sunroof.
It's sharply priced too - with the standard version starting at $48,990, and the premium at $53,990.
Interior appointments have improved markedly, with higher-quality softer touch materials and a beautifully rendered dash and centre screen - no stone has been left unturned in the quest for improvement, and Subaru's aims for a flasher market won't miss the mark. In fact, the benchmark is the popular seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI, which won almost every major motoring award last year, including Driven Car of the Year.
Perhaps the most important change in the WRX is the availability of an automatic transmission - which is far better suited to the manual-shy New Zealand market than the six-speed. The eight-speed auto, which Subaru calls Sport Lineartronic Transmission, essentially a CVT, can be manually shifted via paddles on the steering wheel. The more purposeful STi performance version of the WRX, which won't go on sale here until mid-year, won't be available in auto form - which will delight Subie purists - but Subaru is offering a range of STi bits for owners of automatics to individualise their cars.
Another huge change is the new two-litre boxer turbo under the bonnet which gives away 500cc displacement but still manages to put out a solid 197kW, a sliver more than the predecessor. It's got more torque too, 350Nm, which is delivered evenly across the rev range from 2400rpm to 5200rpm. The need for environmental improvements was one of the dictating factors in this engine change - with 9.2L/100km delivered in manual form and 8L/100km with CVT, and 213g/km and 199g/km of C02 for each version.
The WRX has always been an able campaigner, as proven by the trophy cabinet, and the new version's raised ambition hasn't softened by any stretch. While the lure of the manual is always strongest for this scribe, using the CVT in manual mode at pace is probably even more effective. Shift times are fast and there's the added bonus of keeping hands on the wheel.
Switchable vehicle dynamics improve its performance, further cutting shift times in the S# (S-Sharp) mode, while remaining seamlessly smooth when just cruising quietly.
Software is king in the automotive world these days, and the addition of torque vectoring - which brakes the inside wheel to improve turn-in - has managed to get rid of almost every trace of the AWD enemy - understeer.
If you're going to push hard it will need a bit of manhandling, but when it's pointing straight and you bury the boot, it goes exactly where you tell it.
Through the winding roads on the way to Hahei, it was screamingly obvious just how far the car has come, especially in tight series of bends with big changes in elevation.
One thing is heartening, though. Subaru hasn't softened the WRX up in the hunt for a better buyer, just improved on what it can already do - and proven that while its rally-bred boy racer looks good in a nicer suit, it can be extremely refined when required.