Pat Devereux17 February 2014

First drive: new Subaru WRX STI

Good news! The rally-bred Impreza is back! Pat Devereux straps into the 300bhp, 4WD turbo-loon

So what is it?

It's the car formerly known as the Subaru Impreza WRX STI, now shorn of the ‘Impreza' bit for reasons TG doesn't quite understand. No matter. Point is, the Subaru WRX STI is the fastest and most extreme car in the Impreza range.

I thought that wasn't coming to the UK?

It wasn't for a long time. Then so many people in the UK, Top Gear included, moaned about the STI not featuring in the UK line up. And the Yen lost a stack of value, so Subaru UK gave in and is now going to bring ‘a limited number' into the country.

Limited to exactly the number of people who want one, or a fixed number?

No word on that yet. Just be happy any are making their way here. With the Mitsubishi Evo disappearing, this is the only proper rally-style car you will be able to buy in the UK.

It's not really a rally car anymore though, is it?

It is. It might not be in the WRC, which is filled with smaller cars like the Polo, Mini, and Fiesta. But it's front and centre in the US Rally America championship, helmed by none other than our old friend Travis Pastrana.

So what's new about this car? It looks very similar to the last one.

Despite a bulgy, squat concept car hinting that the new STI would go all Group B on us again, the production car does look remarkably like the last one. But look closely and you'll see there are a number of changes to the outside.

At the front, the bonnet, bumpers, doors and lights are all new. At the back are the trademark huge boot spoiler and diffuser, which kill all lift at speed - and remind other road users they are in the presence of someone in a permanent blinding hurry.

The wheelbase is now an inch longer, the side sills lower and the door openings wider. If you could ever persuade anyone to sit in the back of the car, they'd find an extra two inches of legroom. The two other key changes are the front A-pillar, the base of which is now eight - eight! - inches further forward, giving a more raked windscreen. And a more recessed bonnet air intake. Both improve forward vision.

What's it like inside?

Better. It's still not a patch on anything from Germany, but the new STI is still a huge improvement on the quality of the last car. There's a new flat-bottomed steering wheel, revised seats with separate and adjustable headrests and there's now a reasonable stereo system. The fit and finish is tight and there are flashings of carbon fibre. But it's still what you'd call functional rather than plush.

What about the chassis?

This is where the real work has been done. The key word here is: stiffer. Everything from the springs, dampers, bushings, control arms and all their attachment points has been beefed up substantially. Together they make the STI some 24 per cent more roll-resistant than before.

With such a strong base to work off, the steering rack has been quickened from 15:1 to 13: 1, which Subaru claims make the car respond three times quicker to steering inputs than the last STI. It definitely feels faster on the road, but that's not all the steering's work.

What else contributes?

Two systems. The first is Active Torque Vectoring. This development of the stability and traction control system brakes the inside front wheel to help the car around the corner. It has three modes: normal (everything on); traction (which reduces the intervention); and off, which completely disengages the system. The first two work best on the road, the second two are best for the track.

The second system is the Driver Controlled Centre Differential (DCCD). This box of tricks is a mechanical and an electronic differential working together centrally to direct power to whatever wheel can best use it. It measures everything from steering angle, lateral g, RPM, and several other details before making its decisions. There are three auto modes and six manual levels to choose from. The sensible thing to do is leave it in auto until you know what you're doing.

Why's that?

Because there is yet another system you need to program before you can get going. This is the SI-Drive powertrain management system. This three-mode setup allows the driver to choose between Intelligent (linear throttle response); Sport (more aggressive initial reaction, then linear); and Sport Sharp, which basically turns the throttle into a trigger.

What's new in the engine dept?

Not much, really. It's still an intercooled turbocharged four-cylinder boxer doing the work. In this latest guise it produces just over 300bhp and 290lbft, which is a little disappointing when the last STI bowed out with 335bhp and 361lb ft. But it does leave the door open for future power upgrades. The good news is the engine still has the unequal length headers, so that offbeat exhaust note is still alive and well.

And the gearbox?

No sign of an auto or flappy paddle anywhere here, thankfully. Just a six-speed manual with an optional short throw.

Anything else new?

The STI gets a new Brembo Performance Brake System. This, like almost every other system on the car, measures a basket of the car's vital signs before regulating the braking on each of the rear wheels to reduce understeer.

So what's it like to drive?

Predictably banzai. Our first drive of it was at Laguna Seca racetrack where the STI felt totally at home, if a little breathless. Even working the engine as hard as possible the chassis didn't feel even slightly stressed. Steering feedback is definitely improved - if still quite detached - and there's a healthy dose of lift-off oversteer available with everything switched off.

Brakes were strong and progressive, gearbox slick and engine noises appropriate. Preferred settings here were: Intelligent; Traction; and DCCD in manual mode with a rear bias.

On the road, the STI feels much the same as on the track, but you immediately feel all that new stiffness in the chassis. Every bump, lump and crack is telegraphed to not just your hands, but your back and backside, too. This is exactly what you want when you are blazing to your next destination in an imaginary hurry, but progressively more painful after about an hour of the same.

Which is exactly the way an STI should be: hard, fast and grippy. Preferred settings: Sport; Traction; DCCD manual with no bias.

Should I buy one?

There are other cars that are faster, more exotic and/or more premium. But none of them offers the same offbeat combination of rally-bred performance and handling like the WRX STI. If you like your console driving games, you'll love this car.

Spec
2,457cc, 4cyl, AWD, 301bhp, 393Nm, 19 mpg, N/a g/km, 0-60mph 5.1secs, 160mph, 1,535kg

Price
From £28,995

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