While the latest STI sedan with six-speed manual box will probably go down in history as one of the best high performance cars of the year for under 70 grand, it’s the stock standard WRX, which gets my vote as the performance bang for buck king. This thing is a seriously good drive.
The Managing Director of Subaru Australia, Nick Senior, said, “The launch of the 2011 model Subaru Impreza WRX and WRX STI, was the company’s most exciting car launches”.
He’s absolutely right, and what better way to introduce such an icon, than a video of a Japanese domestic STI lapping the Nurburgring in just 7:55 seconds with Tommi Makinen at the wheel.
Subaru’s outgoing WRX copped a bucket load of criticism from fans and media alike, for appearing to go soft on the trademark ‘tough’ stance that had been part of the model’s DNA, in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience beyond that of the reverse cap wearing doof-doof club.
You can’t really blame the Subaru bosses for the change in direction, as the high performance WRX had also built a fearsome reputation as the ‘ultimate getaway car’ for those daring ‘Ram Raiders’ in the 1990’s, which had by default, tainted the model’s image, through association.
That’s all changed. After two days behind the wheel of every new WRX/WRX STI sedan variant, I am seriously considering one of these cars for my daily drive, but it won’t be the STI with five-speed auto box, whose straight-line performance I found lackluster, at least on the track.
That said it’s the first time that Subaru buyers will have had the option of an automatic transmission in the Halo STI version, so expect this variant to sell well to those corporate suits, who have battle peak hour, five days a week.
It’s not that it doesn’t go, because it surely does, but just not as hard as you would expect from a Subaru WRX wearing the famed STI insignia.
Mind you, the WRX STI auto was the first of the new WRX sedans that I got to drive albeit during a leisurely transit journey from Melbourne Airport down to Phillip Island, and there was no cause for complaint on my part.
On the contrary, this is a truly comfortable high performance ride with supportive seats, smooth gearbox, despite the omission of a sixth gear ratio, and superior NVH (Noise, Vibration, and Harshness) levels to any previous WRX model.
In fact, it’s better than that. With windows up and the AC on a low fan speed, you can barely hear the boxer engine ticking over such is the refinement of this smooth spinning power train. You’ll find yourself dropping a window or two, just to remind yourself that there’s an STI tuned boxer engine under the bonnet because that’s the only way you’ll ever hear that reassuringly familiar engine note.
The sports style STI pews, which remind me of those in the 911 Porsche Carrera are some of the most comfortable in the business and remain chiropractic friendly, even after several hours behind the wheel.
The new STI feels more planted than any previous generation car and the steering is near perfectly weighted, right from dead centre. It would also be remiss of me not to mention the number of times I mentioned to my driving partner, how tactile the leather stitched tiller felt in my hands. More than a few manufacturers of performance machinery tend use all too smooth and slippery leather to cover the wheel, but this one is a dead-set treat to steer with.
On the freeway, you’re best off selecting the ‘Intelligent’ mode on the SI-Drive selector, as the power output is effortlessly gentle, even when dropping the right pedal during overtaking maneuvers. It also triggers the ‘eco’ light, which of course means less fuel consumption and more for when you finally get onto some perfectly windy roads and fuel conservation is the last thing on your mind.
The obvious questions though are why not a six-speed auto, and where on earth is the twin-clutch transmission?
Mr Mori, who is the Product General Manager of WRX STI, was tight lipped when I posed these questions to him at the launch, but he did say that “Subaru is looking at other options” for a fast shifting transmission system.
Let’s just hope Fuji Heavy Industries is well and truly into the development of such a box, as I found the automatic unit in the STI to be slow shifting and cumbersome albeit smooth.
Ride quality and comfort on the freeway is very good, despite the ride height being lowered by 5 mm. Subaru have completely re-engineered the STI’s suspension, so that there is no harshness whatsoever, transferred through to the cabin, even when rolling over poorly maintained road surfaces.
It’s a different story with the interior. While it works from a stylistic point of view with the darker trim and smoked metal highlights, there isn’t a soft piece of plastic to be found anywhere inside the car. That said the materials used do have a quality look and feel about them.
Both brake and throttle pedals provide good feel and are nicely progressive, which obviously assists in the smooth ride this car offers.
Phillip Island is not only fast, but it’s a demanding circuit, requiring multiple talents from a car in order to put together some quick laps.
Again, I ended up with an STI with the auto tranny for the opening track session, which meant switching the SI-Drive dial around to the right to the ‘Sport #’ mode for maximum rpm in each ratio, and a quicker shift map.
I hammered the car out of pit lane and flat-footed it into the super fast turn one, and the STI was sitting flat and felt beautifully balanced. I'd also switched over to the paddle shifters, thinking that would give me faster downshifting, but it’s only marginally quicker than the full auto mode.
Hoping into the STI with the six-speed manual only serves to highlight the straight-line performance advantage it has over the Automatic variant. The difference is dramatic, to say the least. While the 221 kW power output is the same for both STI variants, it’s the 57 Nm shortfall in torque that dulls overall driving experience of the automatic.
But that lack of torque doesn’t affect the brilliant handling ability of the new STI. Even when hard on the brakes into the hairpin, the STI turns in sharp and feels utterly composed. This is a car that inspires a huge amount of confidence when laying down the power, in and out of corners.
If you are going to club race or attend the odd track day in your STI, then you’ll be a lot happier sitting in the super bolstered Recaros and all they'll cost you, is an extra grand.
If you don’t have to sit in the peak hour crawl each day, then you’ll be wanting the six-speed manual STI, as this is a seriously fast car and a veritable bargain at $59,990 for either the sedan or hatch, and in auto or manual. That’s a reduction of $2000 on the previous model car.
At 170km/h down the main straight at Phillip Island, I can only assume the return of the massive rear wing on the STI sedan is providing welcomed down force before turning in to corner one. It certainly feels that way from the driver’s seat, at least.
Stopping power on board the STI is prodigious, and courtesy of the Brembo 4-pot calipers up front and 2-pots down back. Mind you, you need apply a fair amount of boot to the brakes, but pedal pressure feels natural and almost race car like.
You won’t have any issues fast shifting with the six-speed manual either, as it’s a close ratio box and each gear change can be made with minimal effort and perfect for those club days.
You can also play around with the ‘Driver’s controlled centre diff system’ in the manual STI, which can split engine torque although, it’s probably best left in the auto position regardless of whether you're on or off the track.
As all bona fide enthusiasts would agree, track time at a world-class circuit like Phillip Island is a hard act to top, even for a motoring journalist. However, the surprise package at this launch was the ninety-minute road drive in the stock standard WRX.
The 2011 'REX' will set you back exactly the same money, as you would have paid when Subaru launched the first generation of the model back in 1994.
The new price is $39,990, which means it hasn’t moved a cent in 16 years, only now; you have the choice of either sedan or hatch and with a lot more bang for your buck.
Right from the moment you take in the STI body panels and the quad exhaust pipes, you’re going to be thinking about what colour to choose, and that’s before you strap yourself into the driver’s seat for one of the best performance drives of the year.
It matters not, that there’s only 195 kW and 343 Nm on tap. That’s because the WRX, with its 5-speed manual box weighs considerably less than the any of the STI variants. That’s 1455 kilograms against the lightest STI hatch at 1510 kilos and you can feel it from the moment you first turn in.
Depress the perfectly weighted clutch, and move the perfectly positioned shifter into first gear, and then punch it. It’s not just quick, but the speed the WRX is able to carry through some particularly twisty stretches of tarmac, is surprising.
And while some cars are a handful at this kind of pace, through this kind of terrain, the Subaru handles the conditions with consummate ease. This is a wonderfully balanced car with superb brakes, although they’re more sensitive and not as progressive as the Brembos fitted to the STI.
Ride quality has been sorted too with suspension compliance close to that of the current Volkswagen Golf GTI.
With four-doors, room for four adults, and a decent size boot, the 2011 WRX is one performance car that is not only practical, but represents one of the best buys of the year.
Expect a complete review of all new WRX variants over the next few weeks on CarAdvice.