► Subaru WRX STI tested in the US
► New rivals include Golf R, Focus RS
► Is it a car still worthy of consideration?
America suffered sizeable turbo lag with its launch of the Subaru Impreza Turbo. While the Japanese performance saloon first appeared in 1992, America had to wait for 15 years and the third generation for it to arrive. By then we knew it as the Subaru WRX and range-topping WRX STI.
Today, in the UK, it’s easy to dismiss the WRX STI (no Impreza these days, and no WRX for us) as a curiosity in a line-up dominated by SUVs and crossovers. The rally championships that built the brand seem about as relevant to modern-day Subaru as they are to Audi.
America has been far more proactive in squirting fuel on Subaru’s motorsport fire. When Ken Block first powerslid onto YouTube, he was at the wheel of a WRX, and today Subaru is active in Global Rallycross and national rally championships: Manxman David Higgins has clinched this year’s Rally America National Championship, and even his brother Mark's production-car lap records of the Isle of Man are set-up by Subaru USA.
A trip over some epic roads north of San Francisco seemed a good chance to revaluate the WRX STI in what is now its most enthusiastic market.
Tell me more about the car...
Our car was finished in Pure Red (it was, to be fair, very red), with a $35,490 sticker (around £28.5k, which is now similar to the British price thanks to the recent drop in the British pound) and no optional equipment. No sat-nav either, so I would require a map-reading navigator, perhaps apt given Subaru’s rallying pedigree.
It was a surprisingly enjoyable car to use around Berkeley, California, even at slow speed: that burbly flat-four turbo engine, the surprisingly meaty hydraulically assisted steering, and the closely stacked gears, all of it gelled to deliver that unmistakeable Subaru DNA. Sure, the doors and boot clang emptily when you shut them, and this is a very easy car to stall when you combine first gear with steering lock, but the STI feels as usable on the daily grind as it does exciting and characterful.
What about on more challenging roads?
Urban pootling was never the plan. So early one Friday we set off towards Stinson Beach, plotting a route north up the famous Highway 1 a few miles beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, which would then loop right back round and further inland on the Panoramic Highway.
The fun starts a few miles after you’ve turned off the 101. Highway 1 bucks and coils and drops rapidly downhill towards the Pacific in a flurry of gear shifts, throttle and brake jabs and steering inputs. The WRX STI feels made for this road. Its firm steering is laser accurate, plenty quick enough and full of feedback to let you know just how hard you can push the Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres. It’s got the chassis to match, too. The body is very tightly tied down, so none of the left-right flicks throw it off-balance, and you quickly gain confidence to attack the corners hard.
The brakes make the biggest impression. Even if you didn’t know what was gripping the front discs, it’s obvious the WRX STI hasn’t left the production line with cheapo sliding calipers; the way the pedal stays firm and wipes off speed so resolutely lets you know there are some proper Brembo four-piston calipers up front.
Does that turbocharged flat-four still measure up?
After the turbo-boosted eagerness that’s so noticeable around town, the off-the-leash performance is perhaps a little disappointing. The stats say 296bhp at 6000rpm, with 300lb ft at 4000rpm. What you feel is a little too much turbo lag when you’re jumping on and off the throttle through these plunging turns, and then too narrow a powerband when you get back on the throttle –a shrill warning buzzer keeps reminding you to shift gear.
And that’s partly because of the closely stacked gears which, on the flipside, do add a sense of urgency to proceedings. The shift is short, the gate narrow, and the lever very notchy when cold, so it’s easy to fluff a shift. With fluids warmed through, that shift eases, and you soon start punching the lever back and forth far more freely.
Even on Friday, Highway 1 can be crowded with dawdling tourist traffic, and overtaking is forbidden over most of the 35mph route. American drivers do tend to get out of the way more readily than UK drivers, but you’ll inevitably find yourself joining a long 20mph queue behind a Winnebago at some time or another. There’s less traffic on Panoramic Highway, which feeds off to the right just as you arrive at Stinson. The road climbs up and away quickly from the coast and the clusters of housing, flicking through switchbacks with some faster, longer stretches in-between than you’ll find on Highway 1.
Soon you disappear into the treeline. While Highway 1 isn’t without its clifftop dangers, the Panoramic Highway feels edgier: you’re quickly hemmed in by huge trees, and the road drops away from your right-hand side, and tumbles steeply from far above to your left as you head north: get a wheel off the road and most likely the rest of the car will disappear McRae-style into some tree trunks halfway down the hillside. But this is a great road to drive in the Subaru, and with confidence rising and traffic near non-existent, I start to experiment with the drive settings.
What kind of differences do the settings make?
These novelties can sometimes make pointlessly small differences to a car’s dynamics, but twirling the Subaru’s centre diff button dramatically transforms its handling. As default you can leave it in auto, but selecting ‘+’ results in much more understeer for safe but stodgily reluctant progress down the road.
Select ‘-’, though, and the WRX STI snaps alive, feeling much more rear-biased, playful and agile. This isn’t only something you can feel on the absolute edge of grip, it’s a new-found perkiness that defines the car at lower speeds too. It quickly becomes my default setting, and the markedly difference characteristics instantly remind me whenever I forget.
Eventually you climb up and out of the trees on Panoramic Highway, and the views out over the Pacific are superb – it’s the ultimate riposte to the myth that America is full only of long, straight roads.
The Subaru might confound a few expectations. In the UK it seems we’ve lost interest in this car. We want plusher interiors, premium badges – and things like the Golf R have stolen its thunder.
But there’s no doubting the WRX STI is a more mechanical, more charismatic, more exciting thing to drive. It’s just taken us a spirited drive on one of America’s greatest driving roads to remember it.
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