“It’s not a real STI!”
I expected that comment to eventually drop once the 2018 Subaru Levorg STI Sport rolled into the CarAdvice Sydney garage, though not in a matter of minutes. That’s how long it took the office’s Japanese turbo car tragics – none of whom are Japanese – to start poring over and under the blue wagon in search of, ahem, pink bits.
Turns out the most conspicuous extras minted in signature Subaru Tecnica International Pink is the Levorg’s badging. Precisely the reason, then, that this flagship variant, resplendent in its exclusive, oh-so-STI ‘WR Blue’ paintwork, is quickly assessed by traditionalist onlookers as “not real” rather than “unreal”.
Historically, with its long association with the WRX, the handsome premium the STI designation commanded, offered brand cache by way of bespoke engines, motorsport-approved differentials, tricky torque controllers, hardcore suspension and braking hardware, and transmission gear sets double the size found in regular ‘Rex’ stock.
The wings, paint and seats were extra garnish atop the hardcore hardware below. It’s a formula largely obeyed in WRX-dom to this day.
The Levorg STI Sport – see what Subaru did there? – tracks a different, more diluted STI course in the wheel tracks of the warmed-over Forester tS and the WRX Tuned by STI, essentially mainline version treated to lighter parts bin enhancement.
But, rather than a case of nothing’s sacred, there's certainly evidence that as performance branding expands, it can also dilute, and Subaru’s famed STI isn’t alone. Take Audi’s approach to RS (with the RS Q3), Mercedes-Benz’s wholesale makeover of AMG (and the ‘43’ gear), BMW’s ‘M’ application as a prefix (M240i, say)… the list goes on.
In the newly revised, four-variant MY18 range, the STI Sport builds upon the GT-S version, which lifts its oily bits from regular 2.0-litre WRX, and introduces an STI specific suspension tune as its lift in sporting credentials, while also adding revised styling to the front fascia, 18-inch wheels, exhaust tips and instrumentation together with maroon leather seating and, as mentioned, the option of that STI homage paintwork.
At $51,990 before on-roads, the STI Sport is $2850 more than the Levorg GT-S. It’s also $1100 pricier than a ‘real deal’ 2.5-litre boxer-powered WRX STI sedan. So, for what is, or was, ostensibly the first WRX-esque wagon of sorts in decade, it does appear the buyer cops a hit in the go-faster, stop-harder, corner-quicker credential when choosing more family friendly packaging.
Perhaps not doing its STI credentials further legitimacy is that the overall package isn’t terribly different to last year’s Levorg GT-S Spec.B ($52,890 list), which was available in bold ‘Pure Red’ paint with black leather trim but could well have had more STI badging (including the wheel caps) than, well, the STI Sport.
As our sixth review of the Levorg in two years, since we first drove it in Japan, not much has changed with its packaging and practicalities. The extra 100mm of length over the WRX affords decent four-adult roominess and accommodation for three small kids in row two, with a 489-litre bootspace (expanding to 1413L) that creams the old fourth-gen Liberty wagons Subaru fans still hold dear, and which the Levorg represents, in modestly-sized wagon terms, as a spiritual successor of sorts.
Execution wise, the cabin space is a bit of a mixed bag. The richly coloured maroon leather perhaps works best twinned with any paintwork other than WR Blue – it’d be a classy match up with silver or grey bodywork – and the front seating’s tight bolstering, while amply supportive, offers better long-haul comfort to slimmer driver’s and front passengers.
It has ergonomic quirks, too: the low dash and instrumentation, combined with a high floor, makes for remarkable forward vision, but the dashboard seems positioned in your lap. The shallow driver’s footwell and (thankfully) generous steer reach adjustment means taller drivers can get comfortable by setting wheel and seat rearward, which can encroach rear-passenger legroom.
It’s a very busy styling, be it in the array of materials used or the sheer number of buttons and the fussiness displayed within the three screens, none of which matches another for design or font and, as a trio, looks a confusing mess of numbers and graphics to those of us who prefer a more minimal interface between user and car.
The steering wheel, an otherwise nicely chunky and tactile device, has a dizzying array of controls, buttons and switches that it’d take more than our week-long loan to commit all of their functions to memory.
That said, there are a great many happy owners warm to the explosion of bells and whistles effect Subaru’s designers have opted for in higher spec models across the brand’s broader range.
The quirks continue. You get a rear-view camera but no parking sensors – surely the former supports the latter, not the other way around – and I’ve yet to find a useful purpose for the extra camera that presents a fisheyed view of some of the left side of the car. Perhaps it’s to avoid kerbing those black 18-inch wheels, but it also demands watching two different screens and different camera views while reverse parking.
The 197kW and 350Nm from two turbocharged litres mightn’t pack the sheer wallop of the WRX STI 2.5-litre engine’s bristling 221kW and 407Nm, but it lunges off the mark with gusto and pulls hard to the dark side of the public speed limit.
There’s a decent sensation of pace, partly thanks the sharp throttle in its most aggressive S# drive mode and partly because, thus set, the CVT does an impressive job faking quite immediate upshifts, offering eight forward ratios in sporting drive modes and six ratios for regular ‘I for Intelligent’ mode. But while a best of 6.6 seconds isn’t tardy, it’s not terribly rapid in real terms.
On paper, the peak torque has a quite useable 2400-5200rpm band, though all-round drivability suffers somewhat from an immediate and peaky throttle calibration that’s bloody tricky to modulate with your right foot. Even in laziest ‘I’ drive mode, a touch of the loud pedal sends the Levorg leaping forward and the real-time litre-per-hundred consumption read-out well into double figures. Moving through into Sport and S# modes just heightens the needlepoint throttle take-up.
Having said that, it's quite good left to its own devices as the adaptive cruise control is really well calibrated, especially contending with the peak-hour crawl.
Combined consumption is claimed to be 8.7L/100kms, with a best of 6.9 for highway and a sobering 11.9L for urban, and our test car spent much of the week hovering around the latter figure.
The STI tuned suspension seems a touch firmer in the compression stroke than I recall from other Levorgs I’ve driven, though the ride quality is nicer and noticeably more compliant than the kidney-bashing WRX STI Spec R we had through the CarAdvice garage at the same time. In this sense alone, the wagon’s tempered nature certainly makes for a more liveable and friendlier urban runabout than the more heroic sedan. One gripe, though, is that the front suspension can get quite noisy over speed bumps.
Dive onto the brakes and stick it into a corner, and there’s more pitch and roll than you expect from a full-monty STI experience. But, it grips up quite well at less-than-white-hot public road pace and it can be quite enjoyable to hustle along. There’s certainly a more keenly struck luxo-sport balance at play than wearers of that badge are renowned for and, for the duality of servicing the school run as confidently as Sunday morning punt, it’s well sorted and generally compromise free.
That said, the quite narrow 225mm Dunlop Sport Maxx rubber does get a little noise on coarse chip surfaces. And push on through a succession of twisties and it doesn’t take antisocial corner speeds for its 1.6 tonnes of inertia to overcome roadholding grip.
If there’s a neat and pleasant trait to the Levorg, it’s that the extra 50-odd kilos of weight it lugs around over the WRX sedan is mostly metal, glass and rubber set behind the rear axle line, and with deft throttle lift-off you can use that added mass to help point the wagon through the corners. Steering, too, is quite faithful, offering decent weight and convincing feedback, though it is a little inert about the straight-ahead position.
Essentially, the level of heroic sportiness the STI Sport musters up is pleasant but quite shy of properly heart racing. It can be decent fun, but is that enough?
The crux of critical analysis is that the transition point between where the STI Sport shines, and where it starts to run dry on talent, is no higher and no different to that of the more affordable and less illustrious GT-S version its so closely twinned with.
Finding rationale to opt for the STI Sport over the GT-S becomes trickier when weighing value into the equation. Sure, the flagship wants for little, but neither does its more affordable sibling and, testament to Subaru Oz, the bang for buck seems rosier the lower you dip into the Levorg range.
The excellent EyeSight suite of active safety features? That comes on the base 1.6 version that’s $16k more affordable. Meanwhile, leather trim, Vision Assist trickery, the excellent Steering Responsive Headlights (high and low beams tract the car’s trajectory), the camera-based Smart Rearview Mirror display, the Front-View Monitor display system and essentially every bell and whistle featured in the flagship is also fitted standard to the $42,890 1.6 GT Premium. In other words, the top three out of four Levorg variants all the get the good stuff.
It’s perhaps all too easy to suggest the Subaru should drop the Sport suffix and just load WRX STI running gear into a Levorg bodyshell, all while dropping the luxury pretensions and aligning equipment levels, down to cloth trim, with the heroic sedan with which it’d be twinned. A couple of grand more than the four-door, or $52,890, feels about right for a proper yet practical STI alternative… or $900 bucks more than the car before you.
The reality, though, is there’s no self-shifting transmission available in the industrial-strength, proper STI parts bin. And a go-fast wagon, let alone a go-properly-fast wagon, without an auto option, in Australia, is something of commercial suicide isn’t it?
Click on the Gallery tab for more photos by Sam Venn.