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The BMW 235i takes on the Subaru WRX STI

  1. "WE SELL SHOVELS AND QUICKLIME"

    No doubt there’s an entirely innocent reason why a hardware store on the border of the dark, empty forests of the Catskill Mountains is advertising a) sharp-edged spades and b) bone-dissolving powder. Most likely it’s catering to all those hygiene-conscious upstate New Yorkers who like to dispose of the carcass of last Sunday’s roast chicken in clinical, remnant-free fashion.

    Maybe I’m just a little on edge. Last night, I was woken, jet-lagged, at 3am by the noise of a bull elephant attempting to dry-hump the door of my budget motel room. Blearily opening it, I discovered the wardrobe-sized ice machine across the hall had loosed itself from its mooring and vibrated across the corridor in an apparent attempt to make beautiful icy babies with my door. I called reception and asked if they could possibly switch off their horny ice machine. They said it wasn’t possible, “in case someone needs ice”. It’s late winter on the mountainous eastern seaboard. It’s 3am. It’s minus twenty outside. Who needs ice?

    Photography: John Wycherley

  2. And then, at breakfast this morning, the beehived 60-something waitress told me my accent was “so cute I wanna cut it out and keep it”, before flashing a demonic, lipstick-smeared smile and uncurling an orange-painted talonof a fingernail at my throat.

    So you’ll forgive me, as we swing off the freeway and into the cold, dead, tree-knitted roads of the Catskill Mountains, for reading suspicion into a friendly hardware store sign and for worrying that, should I spear off this track and into a tree, I’ll be crudely chopped into small pieces by a shovel-wielding hillbilly and then quicklimed into oblivion. If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that every American forest is stuffed to the boughs with shovel-wielding hillbillies.

  3. And this, this is exactly the sort of road upon which an opportunistic, bloodthirsty hillbilly would lurk, waiting for a crash and the first kill of spring. The track from the Ashokan Reservoir to Sundown is an evil B-road, not to mention proof that America can do corners. A lane-and-a-half wide, lined on one side with a dense, gritty bank of snow and on the other with a scrabbly drop into the demi-frozen river below, it’s liberally coated in an intoxicating blend of gravel, mud, snow, ice and, every couple of hundred metres, smeared animal innards. The temperature stands at a balmy -5°C, and there’s the whisper of a snow shower in the air.

  4. The hillbillies may have shovels and quicklime, but, hey, I’m armed with what might just be the world’s ultimate B-road bullier. Doff your branded baseball cap to the latest Subaru Impreza WRX STI, the rallying icon that’s earned its stripes destroying dirt tracks, snow stages and boy-racer reputations for two decades.

    For 2014, the STI is all over its brief fling with hatchbackdom, reverting to its traditional three-box shape, a shell that Subaru says is 40 per cent stiffer than that of the outgoing STI. It’s a shell addended with all the traditional ‘Preza cues: gold alloys, blue paint, a hole in the nose that speaks of a lifetime snorting squirrels, and a bookshelf of a rear wing so vast and unsubtle it causes every teenage boy within a 12-mile range to spontaneously detonate.

  5. Mechanically, the new STI is very much as we’ve come to expect on Planet Scoob: a 2.5-litre turbo boxer four huffing 301bhp to all four wheels through a baffling array of diffs and traction trickery that can send the full monty to whichever corner can make best use of it. Subaru is keen to point out its Active Torque Vectoring system is all new, a system that brakes the inside front wheel to banish understeer and adds yet another acronym to the STI’s already impenetrable stash of capital letters.

    More letters it may have gained, but on this gritty, snowy, nasty road, the new STI feels very much like every hot Impreza past. Which is to say, heinously fast, utterly unstickable and about as refined as a bar-room brawl. No matter the surface, you can exit corners at properly puckering speed, tyres clawing for purchase like a cat on a scratching post, steering reacting to every input with a rabiddive left or right. It isn’t an intuitive thing to drive, exactly - no matter into what mode you dial the diffs, you’re aware the acronyms have more say over exactly what angle you exit the corner than you do - but it’s a brutally functional one.

  6. We flit past a white clapboard church tucked among the trees. WE’RE CLOSED UNTIL SPRING, reads the board outside. What do upstate New Yorkers do for their religious fix out of season? To whom do they confess? “Father, forgive me, for I did shovel to death a small man from England in a loud, blue car…”

    You’d have to catch me first, hick. There’s not much in the world that would keep pace with the STI on this road. Still, this is not a car for the faintof heart or bottom. This thing treats potholes as enemies to be battered into submission rather than negotiated with, transmitting every disagreement straight through the chassis and into your coccyx. Engage Honourable Banzai mode, and the STI becomes a little more fluent, but the noise on board remains cacophonous at any speed, turbo whining, exhaust grunting and diffs graunching. It feels like a rally car. Hell, it is a rally car.

  7. The M235i is not a rally car. It is a posh little German coupe that should be far from its autobahn comfort zone up here in the Big Indian Wilderness (we’ll take a Massive Desolate Korma, ta). But whether BMW likes it or not, the Impreza is very much in its ballpark. They haven’t traditionally spun within the same orbit, BMW and Subaru, but here they are standing virtually tyre to tyre. When it arrives in the UK (yeah, it definitely will but won’t be called the Impreza), the STI will start at £28,995, fair value for a 301bhp rally-saloon. But five grand more gets you into an M235i. This creates an interesting dilemma for both sets of potential buyers. Hankering after a Subaru STI? You could have a proper Beemer coupe for barely more. Heart set on a 235i? How about a race-bred rally icon for a few grand less?

  8. Even so, you know what’s coming next, don’t you? The oh-so-predictable conclusion that, if you want to go battering down a Catskill Mountains road infested with shovel-wielding tramps, you’d have the Subaru, right? Only… you might not.

  9. The 2-Series, remember, is 2014-speak for “1-Series Coupe”. Even though it’s only a few horsepowers short of the epic old 1M Coupe, this new 235i - with its 322bhp turbo straight-six -doesn’t quite fill that ballistic brief: it’s a bit softer, less shouty, more practical day-to-day. Even so, this is a rear-drive, wide, squat coupe with as much power as an E46 M3. By rights, it should be a bitey handful in this environment. But it isn’t a bitey handful. In fact, within two minutes of driving, it’s apparent the 235i is a bloody revelation, easy to hustle down this traction-deficient track as quickly as the Subaru. That’s not much to do with the extra power - what’s 20 horses between friends on a road like this? - but more how extraordinarily capably the BMW smooths its way over the surface, flattening out bumps the Impreza treats to a firm headbutt. It’s a prime demonstration of TG’s Harder Isn’t Always Better philosophy, the extra compliance settling the BMW where the STI shakes itself to a frenzy.

  10. And yes, the definitely-not-4WD 235i does lose grip from time to time. Pretty much all the time, in fact, on a day like today. But it does so in such a lucid, honest fashion that you always feel you can poke the tail back into line on the brakes or throttle. You feel it more through your - what do physios call it? - glutes than through the steering wheel, the 2 shifting subtly about beneath you, giving you the latest news from all four tyres. Of course, it can’t grip with the same ferocity as the STI, and it might look in rather worse nick after half a dozen stages of Rally Sweden, but at even the iciest edge of what normal humans ask of a car, the 235i is a whole lot less stabby than I expected. In fact, it’s sublime.

  11. A pair of deer skip from the undergrowth and across the road, followed, a trifle unexpectedly, by a dozen confused-looking peacocks. No idea. Back on the power. According to the official stats, the BMW is a mite quicker than the Subaru, getting to 62mph in a nick under five seconds to the Impreza’s 5.1. But it’s the STI that feels faster, mosy likely a by-product of all the thumping snorting churning whistling graunching noise. The BMW cossets you in deadened, hillbilly-proof calm, only a cheery gnarr from the engine making itself known as you wind past 7,000rpm.

    And what a glorious engine it is. Where the Impreza detonates its torque in a single violent sneeze of turbo, the BMW’s six dispenses power in the most even-handed of manners. Maybe, if we’re being pernickety, we’d prefer the eight-speed auto ‘box to flip ratios with more of a snap, but there’s always a manual for that, a transmission less bicep-forming than the Scooby’s heavy six-speeder, which crunches through its ‘box with the gristle of an elderly skier’s knee joints.

  12. Where the 235i is slathered thick with 21st-century technological butter, the STI parties like it’s 1999. Our test car doesn’t have satnav. We improvise by gaffer-taping photographer Wycherley’s iPhone to the dash, thus creating the First World’s first in-car infotainment system with 100 per cent iPhone compatibility. We discover this makes it impossible to use the STI’s own infotainment set-up, but this turns out to be no great loss. BMW’s iDrive Subaru’s system ain’t. That said, iDrive itself isn’t quite perfect. The 235i’s satnav has a whingeing East Coast accent and refers to roundabouts as “traffic circles”. Traffic circles? Seriously?

    A tempting road snakes off to the left, plunging down a mountain face resembling, in gradient and iciness, the rear of my freezer. WELCOME TO PETER’S KILL AREA, reads a sign at its entrance. We decide to give it a miss, on the off-chance we’ll encounter a smiling man wearing a namebadge reading “Hi, I’m Peter!” and leaning on a shovel.

  13. “Hey… Peter. We were actually… just leaving.”
    “Oh, don’t leave! Come on in! There’s much fun to be had!”
    “No, really, Peter, we’re good. And… what’s that on your hands?”
    “That’s, um… that’s ketchup, friends!”

    We spin the cars round and aim back to the budget hotel of doom, 80 miles distant across the worst (by which, of course, we mean finest) B-roads in the northern hemisphere. But which car for the job? Tricky one.

  14. See, we often moan that modern cars all feel too homogenised, too similar. And the Subaru, for better or worse, feels like literally nothing else on the road, yet more so since its arch-rival Mitsubishi Evo threw in the towel. But whereas 15 years ago, if you wanted rally-grade 4WD performance, you had little choice but a hot Impreza or Evo, now there’s a whole world of fast, grippy metal on sale, from the Merc A45 and Golf R on page 146, to Audi’s ever-expanding quattro range via a Range Rover Evoque and Nismo Juke on the way. All of these are very much better at playing normal family car than the recalcitrant Scooby.

    Even so, we applaud the Impreza for refusing to mellow into mass-market inoffensiveness, for continuing to plough its odd furrow. If we’d hit the Catskills six weeks earlier - when the ice was slapped slick across the roads rather than lurking in patches only - then we’d have no doubt been worshipping the Scooby for keeping us a) alive and b) out of the clutches of chilly, killy hillbillies. And when Top Gear finally gets round to relocating to the Canadian wilderness or the northernmost Finnish lakes, the apparently indestructible Subaru would be top of our shopping list. And, beyond that, there’s no denying the Impreza looks inherently… right, blasting down a muddy, icy, back road, blue paint and gold alloys and workbench-sized spoiler flaring in the late afternoon sun.

  15. But it is, in truth, a bloody-minded sort of car, one you’d buy because of its flaws rather than in spite of them, a car that chases rally-spec thrills at the expense of any comfort or sociability. But for the rest of us, the rest of us who don’t have a rally stage on our doorstep and for whom snow is an occasional surprise rather than daily chore, the STI is probably too focused of purpose. Especially when the M235i proves that even a rear-drive coupe on winter tyres can handle some pretty serious power. And, yet better, that the light, biddable, fizzy BMW coupe is alive and kicking.

    We park up on a bridge spanning a vast, frozen reservoir, the Catskills calm, watercolour-still and utterly, utterly empty. We haven’t seen a car or human in hours. I realise two things. One, I might have slightly overreacted about the shovelly hillbilly thing. And two, I’m properly smitten with both these cars. Truth is, given sufficient budget and floorspace, you could justify both an M235i and Impreza in your perfect B-road garage. They’re proper drivers’ cars, proof that real-world heroes trump showboating supercars every time - a fast, practical, mildly threatening combination. Like shovels and quicklime.

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