The Subaru WRX STI is back. Those three letters: W, R and X struck fear into the hearts of drivers of much more expensive machinery back in 1994 when the bargain pocket rocket first landed in showrooms, and still kicked up a fuss when the last version went off sale in 2012. While Mitsubishi is killing off the Lancer Evo, Subaru has turned up with this, the flagship STI model, for the UK.
What is the formula?
Simple: turbocharged boxer engine, all-wheel drive and a saloon body. It’s based on the Impreza that’s on sale in the USA – Subaru’s biggest market globally – which means it has a longer wheelbase, sits lower and is the same width as before. There’s a 460-litre boot out back, where that trademark rear wing lives, while underneath the 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is mated to the same six-speed gearbox as its predecessor (there’s no auto), and makes the same power, too: a VW Golf R-matching 296bhp.
What – no more power?
That’s right, but it’s far from game over for the STI. Subaru’s STI boss, Masuo Takatsu, says that the development team has focused in driver involvement and satisfaction: and the STI doesn’t fail to deliver. Fire up the boxer engine, with its traditional warm burble, and immediately it’s like a WRC reunion. Yet there are some significant changes: the suspension is significantly reworked, with lower mounting points and greater stiffness, as well as thicker anti-roll bars at both ends. The body, too, is 40% stiffer in terms of torsional rigidity, and despite the size increase over the old hatch sold here in the UK, it’s 10kg lighter overall.
So is it different to drive?
The STI is a more polished performer than its predecessor, but don’t confuse polished for bland. Of the three drive modes, ‘Intelligent’ is the pick for stop-start traffic, but even ‘Sports Sharp’ – the most extreme mode – sees this high-performance saloon perfectly livable day-to-day, even in terms of ride quality. The 5.2sec 0-62mph time is wasted by cars like the impressive new VW Golf R and Seat Lean Cupra, which are all a similar ask to the STI’s £29k, but again, it’s how the STI delivers this experience that makes it a serious contender.
How good is it around bends?
Sublime. On the soaked Swedish roads that we tested on, the STI held on like fat-rubbered sports car in the dry. Keep the revs above 3000rpm and there’s a constant answer whenever you flatten your right foot, maximising the turbo boost and the 300lb ft of torque. Turn-in is pretty good, and steering response near instant, but its steering weight is a little inconsistent. It lacks precision on long, sweeping bends, but on the tight stuff it’s spot on, allowing you to place this saloon with absolute accuracy. Even with VDC off, the torque vectoring (which can’t be turned off) and all-wheel drive will help push the rear around a bend if you overcook it and lose the nose into a bend.
The STI weighs 1534kg, but it feels nimble and agile, pivoting superbly – especially if you set the centre diff to the rear bias, reducing understeer. Its road holding is exceptional on its 18in Dunlops, and the amazing flat stance under throttle and supreme stability when abusing the brilliant four-piston front brakes gives you far more confidence that you should have…
The gearchange, too, is smoother than before, bit it’s still not a slick-shift action: it’s a two-step process from second to third, for instance, not one knife-through-butter movement. The ride is excellent, and it settles instantly over larger bumps when you’re on the run, and is still comfy around town. This is a supremely fast, livable machine.
The interior. Subaru has partied like it’s 1999, with no elegance or flair inside. Like the brand's SUV products, it’s agricultural and dated – adding carbonfibre can’t gloss over this. The interface, the dials, the lack of a touchscreen and the cheapness of materials combine for a car that feels way too familiar for an all-new offering. It really is all about the driving. Oh, and you can option gold wheels and WR Blue paint if you really want to…
Our first drive of the STI has us grinning ear-to-ear for its Tarzan-like grip in the road, its accessible, useable engine punch and it’s accurate steering. Its chassis is so well balanced and the more and more you drive it, the more it melts into you and you start to realise just how good this car is. It’s a supreme point-to-point performer and, based in its brisk, effortless pace, would be a four-star car.
Yet as a complete package, the dated cabin lets its down. There are also so serious holes in the spec, such as no dual-clutch transmission option, while the engine – made of aluminium and loaded with character – has missed out on tech like the BRZ’s direct injection. For that, the STI will easily be overlooked in the sales war – but for many, it’s the return of the messiah.