The WRX STi comes with a fabulous lineage but has always been a car born to rally to a cause. So with the helmet hung up, how relevant is it now?
Pros: Dynamic ability, smart performance, sheer charisma, improved styling.
Cons: Thirsty, lacks design finesse and finish of like-priced hot hatches.
Overall score: 4/5
TAKE a moment to salute a true champion; three world titles and so much top-shelf New Zealand silverware – 10 seasons at the top, two crews accounting for eight national titles.
This sites the WRX STi as the most successful car in the national gravel-spitting stakes, beating out the Lancer Evo (nine titles) and the Ford Escort RS (six) in a challenge that began in 1977. Chuck in category successes and Subaru’s dominance is all the greater.
Is the stuff of legend now also set to be the stuff of memory? The last world title clocked up 11 years ago; Subaru then pulled from the WRC and the factory hasn’t bothered to certify this latest STi for rallying.
This background weighed on my mind when testing the 2015 model, a car costing $64,990 premium form that seems to be a rebel without any particular cause.
Design and engineering
Purists (and Subaru marketing people) will suggest the Impreza and WRX are separate.
The STi’s sedan body structure undermines this, though by my reckoning only the roof and doors could be traded. The bonnet with its huge scoop, the blistered wheel arches, the boot lid and the attached huge rear wing … all are STi-pure and proudly true to its blood-line. The flagship car also has a more hunkered stance and its own tyre, wheel, brake and exhaust tune.
Like all STi cars, it’s not subtle, but there is less of a bogan air to this boldness; even with the big wing that is, for the first time, a no-cost option. Avoid? Some will; not me. Regardless that this past imperative for sport really only has aesthetic value now, an STi just doesn’t look right without this tray.
Subaru can stand accused of paying little attention to the quality of previous WRX interiors; it basically seemed to think an expensive look was a waste of effort, given it’d be dumped in conversion to motorsport.
Powertrain and performance
No-one –outside of professionals who wear a driving suit to work – should step from an STi complaining about the paucity of power. Assuredly, while the 2.5-litre turbo in NZ tune falls 7kW short of the full international output with a claimed 221kW, it is not in any way dull.
Torque is meaty at 407Nm and there’s more in the mid-range which saves working the now slick, close-ratio six-speed quite as frantically as previously despite the power peaking at 6000rpm and the torque at 4000rpm.
Manual-only might seem strange, given that the WRX now has the Lineartronic CVT which achieves 50 percent of the sale, but Subaru’s assertion that the gearbox choice reinforces that this is a driver’s machine is not without substance. The only thing better would be a direct-shift gearbox, but that seems beyond Subaru’s talents or budget.
There are two types of STi living in this car. The first is placid enough – just – to continence being driven sedately; that’s a new side that will appeal.
Then there’s the more familiar persona, the one that emerges readily when you work the gearbox and hammer the throttle. Then the STi is an animal that feels utterly focused on setting winning stage times; get the revs above 4000rpm and it bangs in a smack-in-the-back surge that’s hard to forget.
Though it’s a reissue, the engine remains a potent and quite addictive thing; you want to chase the rush right through to the redline – and it’ll happily comply. A continuing attribute is the minor, but still obvious, influence of turbo-lag (as the STi has always had). And the exhaust note from the four-tipped system has lost that classic sound. But otherwise, it’s a classic.
Basically, your left hand is never going to be out of work, though the gear action feels crisper, more decisive. Likewise the clutch action. This stuff becomes important once the scenery goes into blur.
The new chassis is fantastic. More resolved but also more fluid; a much stronger body shell is a good thing but it impresses that while the spring rates are up 22 percent and the stabiliser bars are thicker than before (and of those on the WRX model).
The new steering is old-school only in the sense that it is hydraulic. A wheel feel that is decisive and pure in its feedback is a highlight of the experience and, more than anything else, contributes to a sense of ‘oneness’ that comes so easily when driving the car. Even when acceleration and cornering forces are high, you find yourself trusting it implicitly, using the throttle to maintain motive grip. This car still rewards talent.
Ride refinement and quality
This car marks a big change; comfort is improved and while material qualities aren’t up to European standard, more care is given to the look and feel of the fittings, with soft-touch mouldings on much of the dashboard drawing attention away from the less impressive plastics continuing lower down in the cabin.
The driving position shows where priorities lay: It’s brilliant. A perfectly-sized, Alcantara-covered steering wheel with good adjust is abetted by a chair that’s as good as anything from the specialist brands often chosen by competitors.
Naturally, it’s not an easy ride. The suspension is still firm enough to be genuinely uncomfortable at low pace, but once you get going, the car settles, not soft but definitely flustered by ruts and ripples than its forebear. Don’t worry. It’s not getting all new-age. As always, it delivers plenty of mechanical grip, but this new chassis has better balance.
Practicality and packaging
The equipment level lifts: Sat nav, reversing camera and dual zone air con are standard now and, as in the WRX, you get an animated display that shows everything from boost pressure to fuel burn. Assuming you have the guts to watch the latter. Being high up in the centre of the dash, the display is easy to miss and not sensibly operated (there’s a toggle awkwardly-located between the front air vents).
A welcome benefit of the extra 25mm wheelbase gain and extra width afforded by the new body is extra rear room. True, rear seat occupants will deserve a bravery award should they experience a driver out to fully exploit the car. Family-friendliness also carries through to a 460 litre boot.
Safety-wise, the first line of defence is its four-wheel drive, excellent grip and strong brakes, and behind this twin front, side and curtain airbags. Subaru’s smart-acting Vehicle Dynamics Control system is standard.
How it compares
Wring its neck and the WRX STI is amazingly quick and rewarding. The more challenging the road, the better it feels. The new platform and revised steering are big improvements; the carryover engine proves it still has spirit. And it’s hard to think of a car at this money with better all-weather traction and stability.
Beyond this point though, the talents shrink away. The best cabin yet for an STi is still only class-average against European hot hatches. The engine is thirsty and the drivetrain, though effective, seems dated; even that trick differential.
The talent is there - it’s the best STi ever - but the timing is wrong.