PALM SPRINGS, CA – When photos surfaced in advance of the official debut of the ’08 Subaru WRX Impreza at the recent New York auto show, fans of the rally-inspired sports car bombarded Internet blogs and fired off angry letters and e-mails to the auto maker to express their dismay over the car’s design change.

With the auto show now over, the fervor has died down, and the majority of WRX loyalists have accepted the new car, a Subaru of America Inc. executive tells Ward’s.

“(The WRX is) a really emotional product and it has a very loyal following,” Timothy Mahoney, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, says of the consumer backlash.

Tempers were soothed after the WRX was unveiled at the show and the public was able to see the finished product up close, he says.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but actually seeing a car is probably worth 10,000 words,” Mahoney says, adding the auto maker hosted a post-show event for some 100 WRX enthusiasts.

Since its launch in 2001 as a ’01 model, the turbocharged WRX has developed a small but loyal fan base, with just fewer than 90,000 units sold since its debut, Subaru says.

The advanced photos of the WRX, released by Motor Trend magazine, were not flattering, Mahoney admits, which he attributes to the lighting and location.

“The folks at Motor Trend wanted to produce a dramatic headline and a dramatic image of the car, and we allowed them to stage it however they wanted,” he says.

Mahoney likens the WRX controversy to a situation he faced while serving as general manager of marketing for Porsche Cars North America Inc.

“When we launched the Cayenne (cross/utility vehicle), people were just absolutely critical of the product,” he says. “Change is hard.”

Ultimately, the ruckus may have worked in Subaru’s favor, as the WRX’s New York unveiling proved to be a “white-hot” event, Mahoney says.

In addition to the dramatic styling overhaul, the ’08 WRX comes in two different body styles, a 4-door sedan and 5-door hatchback. It also is 50 lbs. (23 kg) lighter than its predecessor and rides on a 3.7-in. (9.4 cm) longer wheelbase, which Subaru says improves ride, interior space and handling.

Both versions of the ’08 WRX are powered by a 2.5L 4-cyl. boxer engine, producing 224 hp and 226 lb.-ft. (306 Nm) of torque.

The new WRX goes on sale in the U.S. in late summer and will be priced in the mid-$20,000 range, Subaru says.

bpope@wardsauto.com