How does Subaru\'s famous wild child fare in a new era of refined hot-hatches?
The rallying exploits are now part of WRC history, though the good news is that hair-raising Imprezas live on in the form of the Subaru WRX STI.
Clocking a near five-year vintage, the current model is the latest iteration of a nameplate that swerved (over crests, past pines…) into the mindset of a generation in the 1990s.
The Subaru WRX STI (along with the similarly aged Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X) has long gapped the affordable performance car spectrum, neatly sliding in between hot hatchbacks (VW Golf GTI) and sports coupes (Porsche Cayman). The $50-70K bracket, however, is now populated by the BMW M135i, while the all-new Audi S3 will arrive next year. Stiff competition, and a perfect excuse for a recap of this all-wheel-drive mega-hot hatch (or sedan).
The WRX STI is getting on a bit, and there are old-school aspects to this Subaru – the wicked turbo rush from the 2.5-litre turbocharged flat-four engine, the gritty snick of the long-throw six-speed manual, and the way the centre and limited-slip front and rear differentials lock and unlock to juggle torque between the axles and each wheel.
With 221kW at 6000rpm, and 407Nm at 4000rpm, the Impreza WRX STI engine presents a healthy, boosted set of numbers to shift 1520kg of hatchback.
Performance takes priority over efficiency, so while official fuel consumption is 10.5L/100km combined (and climbed to 15L/100km on test) the STI will rush to 100km/h in under six seconds (think 5.5sec).
The Subaru WRX STI does need to have the revs kept up, as at the lower end of the tacho acceleration is a little underwhelming. This is overcome when the turbo kicks in to deliver a firecracker response.
Keep the 2.5-litre in its mid-range, surfing the boosted torque with a mere right-ankle flex, and the WRX STI will despatch country roads faster than almost anything that doesn’t wear a Porsche badge.
The suspension settings aren’t of the ultra-taut variety like a Lancer Evo’s, and the Impreza has plenty of body roll through corners. Use the centre console switch, though, to segue the centre differential settings from ‘lock’ at 50:50 front/rear to almost-all-drive-behind-you, and the WRX STI will act much like a rear driver, with the added bonus of some front-wheel traction to keep things pointed, planted … and ridiculously fast.
The differentials do their thing masterfully well, with no braking-wheel electronic wizardry (beyond stability control, which can be turned off) needed to help disguise a lack of handling ability.
Unfortunately, however, smooth and sweeping country roads (and dirt and gravel, naturally) are the only areas in which the WRX STI excels. Throw severe bumps and undulations into the mix, and the soft-ish suspension falters. Body control is poor by hot hatch standards.
Mid-corner bumps also shiver through the steering rack, while the hydraulic power steering is relatively slow.
Four-wheel Brembo brakes fail to communicate their worth, thanks to a long travel brake pedal that softened after only moderate road use and begs a question about how they would fare at a track day.
Yet in addition to being not very good on bumpy roads, the WRX STI struggles at urban running, too. Beyond the frustrating turbo lag, the clutch is overly sensitive – more than one tester stalled it in traffic – and the acceptable ride quality over small imperfections turns nasty the larger the cavities grow. Over speed humps, the same rough-road body control issues appear.
Subaru attempted to benchmark the Volkswagen Golf with the interior of the previous-generation Impreza that not so long ago was part of the WRX’s badge name, and at the launch of the all-new base range, the company confessed it had been wide of the mark.
The all-new Impreza has massively improved plastics, and in an ideal world the WRX twins would have already inherited these.
For the price – $63,000 in the Spec R trim we tested that for an extra $3000 adds sat-nav, BBS alloys and a sunroof – we would also have expected better audio quality and power seats.
The Subaru WRX STI still has its place, but it is being squeezed by newer, more refined entrants - such as the more affordable Volkswagen Golf R (from $49,990) or, better still, the BMW M135i (from $68,400) - to the higher-priced section of the hot-hatch category.