I’m near flat in second, feathering the throttle to keep the engine spinning above 5000rpm. The 130-degree left-hander that seemed to wind like an infinite corkscrew now opens into a string of neatly cambered right-left esses.
Into third, the pace builds and I make the most of the dashed lane markings and clear sightline. I’m having a blast, reliving cheeky hill runs from my less-responsibility-filled years, and for its part, the 2020 Subaru WRX STI spec.R is a time machine.
I’m taken back over a decade in this car. The sensory experience is the same I recall from WRX adventures of old. The sound of the boxer, the smell of rising water temperatures, the sight of the high wing in my peripheral, the touch of the leather shift knob… I’ve refrained from licking anything, but I’m going to assume the taste would be the same, too.
I reach for fourth and note my companion, photographer Mitchell, is looking pale and holding on tight. We are moving quickly, the car dancing about with balanced hints of pushing under brakes and slipping under load. I back off and shake my head to clear my mind of memories past, but the environment doesn’t change.
You see, this may be a brand-new, range-topping, current model, $58,940 (before options and on-roads) WRX STI spec.R, but so much of it hasn’t changed from the cars I remember years before. Quite simply, I’m not being reminded of the early 2000s, I’m living it.
Offered exclusively in a four-door sedan body style for the first time, it heralded a sharper steering rack and an updated interior among the highlight features. Power, response, braking and the clever Driver Control Center Differential (DCCD) software were all finessed, too.
Notable, sure. Impressive, definitely. Revolutionary, not quite.
Even when new, the VA STI was still running the venerable EJ25.7 2.5-litre motor that debuted back in 2005. The boxer-four now offers 221kW at 6000rpm and 407Nm at 4000rpm – the same as the VA at launch, but up from its first outing (206kW/392Nm) in the GD 'Hawkeye' STI. At least this six-speed manual transmission was newer, it landed in 2008. The styling, while updated, didn’t break any rules either. Hell, it was still blue and still had that massive rear wing that first shot the WRX to cult-hero status a quarter of a century ago.
The core mechanical nature of the WRX hasn’t been altered much at all either. The steering may be faster and now even electrically assisted to support the driver aids, but it still communicates every patch of the road to your hands. The turbo, plumbing and overall performance of the EJ25 have been tuned and tweaked, but there’s still a giant response hole and the subsequent rush as the turbo comes on boost.
It is an outcome of a prolonged strategy of enhancement and refinement, which has made the STI better without making it different.
But it hasn’t been ignored, so what has changed?
It still looks the part. The WR Blue pearl paint (one of seven choices), fluoro-yellow callipers, 19-inch wheels and, of course, the giant rear wing still give the STI a ton of road presence.
The front bar and grille were updated in 2018, as were wheel designs and the suspension set-up. The screen at the top of the centre stack is now a single unit, showing a variety of technical information as well as a rear- and side-view camera image. The primary 7.0-inch touchscreen now supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and has integrated navigation and a DAB digital tuner.
Driver-assistance tech comes by way of a litany of acronyms: BSM (blind-spot monitor), FVM (front-view monitor), HBA (high-beam assist), LCA (lane-change assist), SVM (side-view monitor) and RCTA (rear cross-traffic alert) fill the spec sheet and beep and flash as required. Note that there is no full-house EyeSight system on the STI due to the manual transmission.
There’s a decent amount of room inside, too, the leather-accented Recaros in the spec.R offering great support without the ‘you’ve had too many pies’ judgement of some other heavily bolstered seats. Even the rear bench and passenger space are comfortable, but the WRX has never not been practical.
Sidelining the fan-favourite Sportwagon for a moment, the four-door, four-seat layout has and still works to the Subaru’s play. The boot offers 460L, the seats fold 60:40, and there are even two ISOFIX mounting points.
You get dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and plenty of storage around the cabin, which are all good features, but in terms of modern implementation, it all falls short of the current market expectation. A small, grainy camera image, light plastic switchgear and lacklustre Bluetooth audio quality aren’t where you need to be in a $60K sports sedan in 2020.
Hold on, though. I can feel your keyboards warming up already. The WRX isn’t about cameras and touchpoints, you’ll cry, this is a driver’s car for driving on roads that never end. And while I agree and understand, even when considered in the context of being an analogue racer among digital sportsters, it still doesn’t quite keep up.
The EJ's output of 221kW has been dulled by the addition of equipment and creature comforts, and for a 'you have one job' car, the STI's power-to-weight ratio (144.3kW/t) falls way below that of a $51,990 Honda Civic Type R (167kW/t), and under the end-of-line Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X Final Edition (147.1kW/t).
To be considered a pure road-going rally weapon, the STI needs more oomph and less kit. Think harnesses, half-cage and removal of sound deadening – a WRX GT3 if you will. But that's not what it is, and so the VA STI needs to hold its own in the 'go' and 'slow' stakes, just like all the others.
Open the vented bonnet, and there is a top-mount intercooler and red crackle-painted manifold. No big plastic covers or fake adornments here, it looks just like it did in the pages of Hot4s back in 2002. Not a bad thing, but it doesn't help the 'dated' feel.
The LED running lamps and main beam units have been updated, but aren’t on the same page as the adaptive system in the $69,300 Mercedes-AMG A35. The configurable drive settings from the Sports Intelligent (SI) Drive function allow you to set the car in a Normal, Sport or Sport-Sharp mode, but it does nothing in comparison to drive-mode selection in the $57,990 Volkswagen Golf R.
There’s no damping adjustment, no soundtrack modification. To be honest, the SI-Drive system does little to change the way the car feels on the open road and just makes the throttle too twitchy to use around town. The car is firm everywhere. The clutch is heavy all the time. The manual shift is nice and engaging, but in traffic the take-up point and the amount of revs needed for smooth changes seem to be different every single light change.
It’s hard to say this, but driving this every day is a bit of a chore. Compare it to something like a $68,990 BMW M135i, which even with its front-drive bias could keep up and likely outrun the STI, then settle to manage a commute or shop without dropping a beat.
Don’t get me wrong, the WRX was always clever when let off the leash, and still gobbles up any surface with youthful vigour. Change the DCCD setting to offer a little more rear bias, and the car will try to help you nail that perfect skando on a loose gravel surface. To attempt the same on tarmac, though, requires heroic levels of corner entry speed, as regardless of differential setting, the STI has grip for days.
Which reminds me, I’m still pushing hard along the C151 in the Otway Ranges, and the core strengths of the WRX still transcend all tactile components of modernisation. Shake it any way you like, the STI is still a wickedly fast car.
Sure, the suspension thumps, the steering rack forcibly bashes at the wheel in your hands, and things rattle around the cabin, but there’s an element of communication from the road through the tyres and into the wheel that is all but lost on more modern cars.
Modulate throttle and steering through a corner and punch through the apex, where all 407Nm of the EJ25 are yours from 4000rpm. Peak power of 221kW is higher, at 6000rpm, and on winding roads like this, swapping regularly from second to third and back again, you’ll see all of those thousands, all of the time. The boxer’s exhaust buzzing between thump and gargle as you push ever harder.
As this is an old-school turbocharged machine, slip below 4000rpm and you need to work to get things moving again. The laggy response hole is there, almost goading you into keeping the EJ buzzing. Lots, nothing, loootts, nothing, looooottts – no 48-volt electric boost-builders here, just an old, successful and hugely enjoyable formula.
Fuel consumption is simply an output of how much fun you're having, but it's only a 2.5-litre engine, so even after three days of blasting about, I was averaging around 11L/100km – a match for the factory 11.2L/100km claim.
In the Subaru, you are driving every inch of the road. The car moves and slides to tell you how much grip there is, the ultra-short gear ratios keep you informed of your potential speed envelope, and even under heavy braking, the WRX adjusts position in a way that clearly lets you know what’s going on underneath.
A tremendous linear experience, unless you are my passenger (sorry Mitchell) and a technical marvel for its time, but in the company of infinitely configurable hot hatches and hyper-sport sedans that do much more, more easily, the WRX’s time has come.
The EJ25 will go, as will the 6MT gearbox. What will come in the form of the next WRX STI is still unknown, but it will be a modern incarnation, and a step-change forward for the iconic rally superstar. But regardless of how good the new car is, the VA WRX STI can straighten a winding road with the best of them. Just like the GR, GD and GC did before.
What was it that Arnold taught us? Old. Not obsolete.
When we said goodbye to the Mitsubishi Evo back in 2016, the WRX had surpassed its arch rival in terms of technology and longevity. But now, despite the constant improvements, the gap the Subaru held over the market has closed, and those hot hatches I mentioned earlier can all Jekyll as well as they Hyde better than the STI for similar money.
If I could, I would just have one of these to keep and enjoy. It’s a reminder of peak analogue driving; the ultimate hero of the PlayStation generation. Not the neatest, fastest or most refined, just a corner-carving rally car with a giant spoiler and a single purpose – fun.
This will be the last time we drive the last old-guard Subaru WRX STI, and on behalf of the CA team past and present, we say thanks for the memories. If you can, snap one up as they won't make a car like this again. And like all good heroes, the WRX leaves us still fit and capable, a legend without compromise. A true modern classic.