It’s been a long time since Subaru took part and won a title in the World Rally Championship – if Volkswagen wins the WRC this year, they’ll be evenly matched with Subaru for championship titles in the sport. Yet the WRX STi is still synonymous with these victories all those years ago; and for decades the fight has raged on between Subaru STI and Mitsubishi Evo, with each producing a more boy-racerish car than the last. The Evo is now dead, though, and only the STi remains…
The latest incarnation of the Subaru WRX STi is primed to be the best yet. The new body shell is 40% stiffer than the last one; and most importantly, the STi now features brake-assisted torque vectoring – the same system found on the latest WRX. But whilst the new design, new body, and new suspension setup are all major strides forward, some things remain the same. The large boot mounted wing, Symmetrical AWD, large bonnet scoop, and turbocharged Boxer engine are all there, as is to be expected – but the engine is surprisingly the same 2.5-litre turbocharged EJ25 engine as in the previous STi, delivering the same 221kW @ 6000rpm and 407Nm @ 4000rpm as before.
Subaru has drawn much criticism for the decision not to utilise a new engine – although a WRX-derived FA20 engine is in the pipeline for the facelift STi – with many citing the engine’s lack of reliability as a problem, while others simply feel Subaru needs to move with the times. But truth be told, the engine feels at home in the new model; mated to a 6-speed manual gearbox with a short-throw shifter and a rifle bolt action to match.
Unlike most modern turbocharged engines where torque is freely available from just above idle, the STi only comes into boost from about 3000rpm upwards. The result in the driving experience is one that I didn’t expect, but one that was warmly welcomed – the build up of anticipation is tangible as the tachometer rises towards the 3000rpm mark, and when it comes into boost there’s a sudden slug of torque that arrives with a roundhouse kick to the chest that not only sets your senses alight, but plasters a smile on your face that could best be described as Cheshire. It adds a dash of character and soul to a world where turbocharged cars are flat and predictable, and it draws you into the spirit of turbocharged cars as they once were back in 20th century motorsport. Upshifts yield snorts and grunts from the quad-exhausts, and a clearly audible ‘BRAAAAP’, as you lift off the throttle, further widens the boost-induced grin.
The engine responds well to its partnership with the 6-speed manual ‘box – the sharp shift action feels among the best, and the heavily weighted clutch takes evenly and predictably. Its short throw and notchy action is precise and accurate, but requires some working over to muscle into gear. Despite the clarity of the shift, it responds best to precise movements, and doesn’t take kindly to snap-shifts; it’s the kind of machine that requires a certain level of mechanical empathy, rewarding finesse with outright pace on the tarmac. But whilst the shift action feels great, the gearbox’s short ratios don’t make for the ideal sprinter of a car – Subaru claim a 0-100km/h sprint of 4.9 seconds, but the need to shift into 3rd slows that somewhat to the mid 5 second range.
But the short ratios soon become a blessing in disguise when the STi is taken out to a race track or twisting mountain pass, where the combination of high boost threshold and short ratios ensures that with correct cog-swapping the STi is always able to use a solid chunk of its 407Nm of twisting force coming out of corners. It’s on these bits of winding road that numerical values hold little to no value; where feeling and a confidence-inspiring drive is paramount.
It’s in this scenario that the new WRX STi sets itself apart from its forebears. The engine, carried over from the previous model, melds with the 6-speed gearbox, stiffened chassis, and All-Wheel Drive system. The brake assisted torque vectoring sharpens up turn in and reduces understeer – noticeably so, but in a manner so subtle and unobtrusive that it feels natural – and the 3 differentials (Limited slip diffs on the front and rear axles, Driver Controlled Centre Differential in the middle distributing torque from front to rear) come into full use, reducing slippage on the wheels and apportioning up to 65% of the torque to the rear axle, from a standard 59%. With the DCCD set to “–“ via the controls on the centre console, the STi’s torque flows freer to the tail end of the car, sharpening up handling, making it nimbler and more agile in tighter bends on high grip surfaces.
Brembo high-performance brakes housed within 18-inch forged BBS alloys wearing 245/40 tyres, complete with 4-pot calipers up front, aid torque vectoring immensely, but come in handy in particular ahead of tight corners. Time after time when jumping on the brake pedal, the STi decelerates with alarming aptitude – consistently refusing to fade. Sublime pedal placement and the short-throw gearshift set the perfect stage for heel-and-toe precision downshifting more akin to dancing across the pedals than a mere shunt down your nearest mountain pass.
Then there’s the steering. There’s no replacement for a great hydraulic steering setup – something the folks at Subaru Tecnica International (STI) clearly understand. Despite the accuracy and efficacy of the electronically assisted setup in the WRX, they decided the STI deserved nothing less than a quick ratio hydraulic setup. They quickened up the rack from a ratio of 15.0:1 in the old model to 13.0:1 in this, and the difference is unashamedly obvious. Even the tightest of turns require less than 180° lock on the wheel, and slight direction changes are made by millimetre-precise changes to the steering angle, telepathically so almost, as reflex inputs via the wheel register instantaneously on the road.
But by far the greatest quality of the hydraulic rack is its ability to communicate so deftly the most delicate changes in the road surface. Infinitesimal amounts of feedback are received by your fingertips wrapped around the leather D-shaped steering wheel every second. That, and the firm, communicative nature of the suspension, read like a map to the senses, allowing for perfect placement going into turns. So vivid is the communication through these systems, I could drive over a coin and tell you the year in which it was minted.
The resultant combination of the ingredients above is the recipe for a driver’s car whose first and foremost intention is to communicate with its pilot. The WRX STi voraciously eats up the road, rapidly reeling the horizon in beneath you – seemingly sucking the ribbon of tarmac in through the intake scoop on the bonnet before your eyes. The chassis remains unshakably balanced throughout even the most daring of high speed turns, precision the order of the day. Somehow, the STi draws immense amounts of mechanical grip from its setup – drawing the driver into the experience and immersing him wholly, inspiring confidence not just in what the car can do, but what the driver can do with it.
It’s completely controllable at all times with the very finest of inputs, even in the most clumsy of driving manoeuvres. Barrel into a turn to quickly, too viciously, and understeer will eventually work its way into the equation; but coming off the throttle for a brief moment and the rear of the STi pivots around progressively to bring the car under full drive control again, allowing placement by feel and instinct alone. It’s a feat that makes the driver feel superhuman, but one that displays just how well the STi tunes into the soul of the driver.
Whilst the Subaru WRX embodies easy-to-access ability, the STi is an in your face racer that demands you concentrate at all times. Ham-fisted inputs will see the STi spit you out quicker than you know what happened, but finesse and precision will see it reward you in kind. The STi requires you keep your wits about you and remain ever-vigilant. Its mechanical nature draws you in; the sound of the engine winding up with a flat, even pitch, and a loud Boxer hum from the exhaust, partnered with the spool of the turbo. You feel a part of every gear turning, every valve opening and closing, and every twitch of the differentials as they calculate and adjust grip levels at each corner – the WRX is a tool, but the STi an extension of one’s self.
The 2015 incarnation of the Subaru WRX STi is a vastly improved machine from any model that’s come before it. It’s shifted the goalposts, trading in boy racer rally appeal for scalpel sharp driver-focused ability. But with the refinement of the drive, the quality of the product on the whole has been improved too. High quality leather and soft touch finishes adorn the interior of the STi, along with a smattering of ‘STi’ badges and carbon fibre-look inserts – but the Subaru still fails to match the perceived quality of its German rivals. The console is clean and features a new touch screen entertainment interface with GPS navigation, and below the manual shifter, the SI-Drive – which controls throttle response and engine mapping in 3 modes; Intelligent (I), Sport (S) and Sport-Sharp (S#) – and DCCD controls. The leather-clad, red and black upholstered STi sports seats, carried over from the WRX, are supportive and provide ample bolstering – although the option of bucket seats would’ve been a welcome one for enthusiasts – and the cabin feels of a high quality, even offering commodious luggage space and rear-passenger leg and head room.
There’s an assortment of standard kit too, including a sunroof, dual-zone climate control, automatic headlamps, automatic windscreen wipers, keyless entry and start, cruise control, steering wheel mounted controls, Bluetooth connectivity, and a rear view camera, to name a few. But with a price of R629 000, these additional amenities almost seem like luxuries the buyer should be entitled to.
These extras all make the STi a more appropriate, usable daily car – but do little to offset the fact that it’s primarily a sports sedan with a clutch too stiff to use in a traffic jam comfortably, a suspension setup riding on the harsher side of firm, and a 12.1l/100km fuel consumption reading. The massive spoiler brazenly stares you in the face every time you look in the rear view mirror, and constantly reminds you of its presence in your blind spot.
The boy racer appeal is still undeniably there; blatant, despite the improved refinement in almost all areas. The STi is a bat-shit insane and completely garish anti-establishment salute to our inner 5 year olds, complete with flared arches, mile-high wings and bonnet-mounted air intakes that extract a smile and an excitedly pointed finger at every street corner.
In a straight line the Subaru is beaten by many a similarly- and sub-priced competitor. But for those who care little for traffic-light Grand Prix and instead demand driver involvement and mechanical aptitude where it matters most, the STi is second to none. Around any set of curves and corners, the WRX STi will not only be quicker from A to B, but it’ll put a bigger smile on your face. Every. Time.
The Subaru WRX STi is for those that demand involvement; those that crave the feeling of the blacktop beneath their wheels and at their fingertips at every second of the day; those that lust after tight turns and kissing the apexes of the racetrack on a weekly basis. It’s the driver’s car; the analogue in a world of digital; the touch of colour, insanity, and emotion in a world otherwise viewed in black and white. It’s the emotional choice, and at the end of the day isn’t that the best kind?
Turbocharged, Horizontally-opposed 4 cylinder
221kW @ 6000RPM
407Nm @ 4000RPM
4.9 seconds (Claimed)
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