How do you like your high-speed travel? Sipping cocktails in the first-class carriage of a train, or strapped to the wings of a biplane, screaming for mercy?
If it’s the latter, then you’ll be glad to see the return to the UK of Subaru’s WRX STI. The last word in elegant, fluster-free travel it’s not – you can probably tell just by looking at it – but it has few peers when it comes to setting pulses racing, even if you’re just popping to the shops for a pint of milk.
That this pumped-up rally replica is here at all is testament to the strength of the pound against the Japanese yen, making it profitable for Subaru’s UK wing to import just enough cars to meet demand from a core band of loyal supporters. Three cheers for a faltering Japanese economy!
And a high-five to Subaru for continuing to style the WRX STI with a lump hammer instead of an airbrush. The new car sports a new shape that’s sleeker at the front but still reassuringly un-pretty, and the essentials – gaping bonnet scoop, flared wheelarches and comically enormous spoiler on the bootlid – remain.
The wheelbase has been stretched by 25mm, which means more leg room for back-seat passengers, assuming you can find anyone brave enough to join you for a spin. The sills are lower and wider apart than before, so the car is easier to get into and there’s more elbow room for everyone. The boot is 40 litres bigger than before, at 460 litres and, although the STI is strictly a saloon, a 60:40 folding rear seat adds extra practicality. Alcantara and leather seats are comfortable and supportive and, although the dash is better than previous offerings, with a smattering of carbon fibre to liven things up, it’s still a decade behind the STI’s rivals, such as the Audi S3 Saloon and VW Golf R, in terms of touchy-feely quality. It’s clear Subaru invests the bulk of its time and effort in the driving experience.
Under the bonnet is the familiar 2.5-litre, turbocharged boxer engine. It makes the Subaru sound (“burble” is officially part of the car’s appeal, according to the equipment list) and power output is unchanged at 296bhp, but a larger intercooler and tweaks to the ECU improve acceleration response and reduce turbo lag.. Certainly, I found this latest incarnation of the STI easier to get along with than its predecessors. It still needs a lot of revs to extract every last drop of performance, but where previous STIs were a bit “all or nothing” in the power delivery stakes, this one offers a broader range of options if all you want to do is keep up with other traffic.
Or blow it into the weeds: in June, a WRX STI upgraded only with stiffer springs, set a new best time for a lap of the Isle of Man TT course in a four-wheeled vehicle, scooting round the 37.75-mile loop in 19 minutes and 15.9 seconds, at an average speed of 117.5mph, beating its own previous best in the process. There’s a picture of it on the cover, or you can search YouTube for “Subaru WRX STI Isle of Man” to re-live the experience from just over the driver’s shoulder. It’s nuts.
Scotsman Motoring doesn’t have the clout to close public roads for private test drives, but we do know a few lanes where getting close to the speed limit and staying in control takes immense talent and/or a very capable car. In our case, one out of two ain’t bad, and we revelled in the Subaru’s immensely entertaining cross-country capabilities. Several things help the car’s cause – lying the pistons flat has always given Subarus a low centre of gravity, but now the bodyshell is stiffer than before, the suspension has been re-worked, the power steering has been re-calibrated for quicker turn-in and the four-wheel drive system employs a few tricks (torque vectoring and an adjustable centre-diff, if you’re in the mood for a spot of Googling) to make sure no power is squandered.
The result is tremendous agility and massive amounts of grip. Anyone bar racing drivers or the certifiably insane will be backing off the accelerator long before the Subaru’s Dunlop tyres squeal in protest. We really wanted to test the STI in foul weather, but the best the Scottish summer could muster was a light drizzle and a greasy road. The Subaru stuck like a limpet.
The short gear ratios help keep the engine in the power band, but you’ll long for a seventh (or eighth) cog on the motorway. Tough – you’re stuck with a six-speed manual, since automatic isn’t an option. Talking of options, there are none, save for a choice of four colours. But since you’re going to pick World Rally Blue over black, white or grey, even that’s redundant.
There are lots of reasons to dismiss the WRX STI in the face of more polished and similarly-priced rivals. The dated interior, the challenging looks and the lack of a paddle-shift auto option, for starters. On the flip side, it has character in spades and few cars this side of £30,000 make me grin as much. I love it, in a way that only another slightly-behind-the-times dinosaur can.
Car Subaru WRX STI
Engine 2.5l, 4cyl, petrol, turbo, 296bhp, 300lb ft
Performance Max speed 159mph; 0-62mph 5.2s
CO2 emissions 242g/km