All-paw turbo four remains Subaru’s best
If you had even a mild interest in performance cars and grew up in the 1990s, odds are that you have a motoring memory dedicated to Subaru’s WRX STi.
That memory may involve a dirt-strewn, blue-with-gold-wheels two-door flinging between forests with ‘McRae’ plastered on its side, or taking care not to drool over the flared arches of a 22B. One thing’s for sure: the Subaru Impreza WRX STi defined a new generation of accessible, all-paw performance cars.
Fast-forward to 2015 and a deserted stretch of mid-week Mount Baw Baw Tourist Road in Victoria. The characteristic flat-four warble is distant, but present, and at 2.5 litres and with 221kW at 6000rpm and 407Nm at 4000rpm, it punches as hard as ever when peaking – according to the new centre-mounted multi-functional digital gauge – at 1.24 (x100) kpa; around 18psi.
Drop from third gear to second for a tightening left-hand hairpin (bumps on entry), note the traditionally tight, knuckly shifter engagement and lack of engine rev response to your throttle blip, and turn-in. The WRX STi squirms slightly over the rippled tarmac before biting, the combination of active torque vectoring and mechanical differentials (with electronic control on the centre) shuffling drive, maximising grip for a full-throttle exit on unfurling bitumen.
When that power is applied, traction is impregnable… but where has the shove gone? Even if Subaru’s engineers have worked on filling that fillet of torque beneath 4000rpm, out here between the ferns there’s a momentum pause until that barrier is breached and the STi comes alive again.
The following second-gear right has a downhill approach that is steeper than it looks, the tarmac flattening to compress the suspension under braking. The Brembo-made four-piston calipers clamp hard – progressive pedal, solid bite that fades slightly as things heat up – and the stiffer suspension takes the compression while retaining road contact. Crank the head into the corner and the apex is easier to find, thanks to a-pillars that have been moved 200mm forward to aid visibility and a bonnet scoop that sits both lower and wider.
The D-shaped steering wheel is hooked up to a 13:1 ratio hydraulic steering rack. Should we rejoice at the lack of electronic engagement? In this case, the answer’s no, especially when the electrically-assisted system in the Subaru BRZ is so good. Responsive to initial steering input, the WRX STi’s rack then falls into an uninspired zone that masks engagement between driver and 245/40/R18 Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres. Just at the point where feedback is key to nailing the left-hander’s apex, the steering kicks back over a minor bump, disrupting the fluency of the cornering process, the nose keen to tramline straight. There’s nothing to do but fight for lock control before the nose settles, an apex missed.
Historically, mucking up a bumpy corner entry in an STi was no issue; you simply jumped on the power and let the diffs sort out a still-reasonable corner exit. Transfer that back catalogue to the current WRX STi experience, however, and the result is disappointing. Again, it starts with the steering. Under power, there’s a sense of torque steer accompanied by intrusive rack rattle that makes you question if you’ve overstressed the car somewhat, though a chat among journalistic colleagues suggests it’s a common 2015 WRX STi affliction, at any speed.
Transfer the STi to a smoother, more flowing section and it grows happier, introducing your ribs to the nicely-bolstered leather and alcantara seat as lateral load builds, the raised driving position offering a commanding view as the road unfurls between ancient gums. On-boost, on a smooth surface, you wade through the steering’s kickback under power, the balance changing from slight understeer through to neutral as the torque vectoring and centre diff work in unison to build speed with confidence. It quickly becomes absorbing.
Parked up in a lay-by later, the sun is pricking light between the forest’s canopy to highlight that gargantuan rear spoiler. It can, for the first time, be deleted for no charge, and it’s arguable as to whether it aids downforce at everyday driving speeds, but it adds to the racer look (and the car’s 1525kg weight, though it is 0.3kg lighter than the previous car’s); if only the 18-inch alloys filled the arches more completely. Another note is the sheer heat haze spread around the STi’s extremities, including the rear brakes. It is evidence on just how hard the torque vectoring system works when the going is as tight and punchy as it is scything beneath the mountainous peaks of West Gippsland.
Returning to the cabin is a bit of a non-event, given the extrovert exterior. The seats do a solid job and STi touches lift the cabin, but it’s mostly a story of poor plastics, faux carbon fibre trims and a level of fit and finish that lags behind a bevy of Euro hot hatches that generate similar performance.
Moving off in ‘intelligent’ drive mode with the driver-controlled centre differential set to auto (the drive split varies from 41:59 front to rear up to an understeer-inducing locked 50:50 split for when maximum traction is required), the light-throttle mapping is spot-on, masking the torque hole experienced when asking for more performance. Indeed, when not seeking to extract the most from the WRX STi it does docile quite well, but that’s not what the STi is really about. Within a few minutes the centre differential is once again wound back to hold the rear-biased drive for longer, sport mapping is selected (sport sharp is too aggressive) and TRAC mode is engaged on the three-stage traction program, loosening the electronic hold on dynamics.
Thus set, the WRX STi is in its sweet spot, and it remains a convincing ground coverer, and the best performance car Subaru has on-sale. At $49,990 (plus on-road costs) it’s also $10,000 cheaper than its duller predecessor, but it still lacks the completeness of Volkswagen’s Golf R, or the pure interactivity of the best modern front-drive hatches, such as the Renault Megane R.S. 275.
Click here for our 2015 Subaru WRX STi video review.
|Specs||2015 Subaru WRX STi|
|Price||$49,990 (plus on-road costs)|
|Engine||2457cc turbocharged flat four-cylinder|
|Power||221kW at 6000rpm|
|Torque||407Nm at 4000rpm|
|Power to weight||8.54kg/kW|
- Impregnable traction
- Solid body control
- Top-end shove
- Steering rack rattle
- Average cabin quality
- Low-speed torque