Depending on your viewpoint, it's either a glorious return or a remnant from a bygone era that refuses to die. The Subaru WRX STI has always divided opinion - as Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
Tonight we're going to party like its 1999. Yes, the Subaru WRX STI is back. It's new but it's old and it's all the more loveable for it. If you can put up with uncompetitive emissions and fuel economy, you'll be rewarded with a ripsnorting all-wheel drive 306PS road rocket for just £29,000. If you think that modern performance cars have become predictable and dull, your chariot awaits.
"We consider ourselves an SUV manufacturer." Those were the words from a senior suit at a recent Subaru launch. You could hear grown men sniffle a little bit. Hardened hacks whose licences bore the scars of years of driving Impreza WRX models at improbable speeds got all dewy-eyed and reminisced about Colin McRae, Richard Burns and whether a P1 was better than an RB5 or a 22B. Subaru may consider itself an SUV manufacturer but its customers and its biggest proponents still consider it something other than that.
On the 14th January 2014, Subaru finally caved. Its UK importers backtracked and announced that the WRX wasn't dead after all. It was merely sleeping. Those that thought it had hopped the twig were given due notice that the 305PS, all-wheel drive WRX STI was about to make landfall. It's like the dawning of an old era.
The thing is, a lot has changed since the Impreza was a hero car. In those days, 210PS would scare us stupid and have us gibbering for hours afterwards before we were sat down or sedated. These days, we have power fatigue. It takes a lot to make us sit up and take notice, but the WRX STI looks to be made of the right stuff. All-wheel drive and 305PS in a car that weighs about as much as an Audi A8's door card tends to focus the mind. Under the bonnet is the familiar 2.5 litre turbo-charged Subaru boxer four-cylinder engine, which in STI guise, produces 393Nm of torque. The six-speed manual gearbox has been reinforced and now adopts even shorter throw and a more direct shift feel.
Subaru's trademark Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive employs the latest vehicle dynamics control (VDC) and Active Torque Vectoring for maximum control. Spring and damper rates have been re-tuned to provide a more compliant ride while retaining body composure and the electronic power steering is now mounted on a more rigid steering gearbox mount for improved fuel efficiency and better response. It's quicker too at just 2.5 turns lock-to-lock, compared to 2.8 for the standard WRX. Drivers can use the Subaru Intelligent Drive module (SI-Drive) to switch through Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp, using a rotary controller on the centre console. There's even a Multi-Mode Driver-Controlled Centre Differential (DCCD), which offers the driver six manually-adjustable modes for various traction situations. The default torque split is 41:59 front to rear. Expect 62mph to come and go in around 4.7 seconds with a top speed in the region of 155mph.
Design and Build
After the excitement comes a slight sense of disappointment. The design draws upon the influence of the WRX Concept that has been hawked around motor shows for a few years now and looked utterly fantastic. Yes, we suspected that a few of the wilder details would be toned down for production but maybe not to this extent. The production-ready car that appeared at the 2014 Detroit Motor Show had lost that rakish four-door coupe shape and resembled the earlier Impreza saloon with what looked curiously like a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo front end grafted on. The high waistline and bulging rear arches also served to make it look rather meekly under-wheeled too. Still, the WRX was never a car that sold on its elegant good looks so we can probably move on here.
It's more spacious inside, with the wheelbase being extended by 25mm to the benefit of rear seat occupants and there's also more shoulder and elbow room inside the cabin, without increasing the exterior dimensions. By shifting the bottom of the windscreen pillars forward by 200mm and adding a quarter light to the front window, drivers have better visibility all round. Boot space is increased and the bigger doors make access easier. A lot of work has also gone into improving the perceived quality of the WRX STI interior, although the cynic may point out that this was always going to be one of car design's easier assignments. For the new model, highlights include a smaller diameter flat-bottomed steering wheel, soft touch materials are used in key areas and higher quality dials. There are also the obligatory metallic and carbon-effect trims.
Market and Model
How does £29,000 sound to you for a car with all-wheel drive and 306PS? I guess that will depend very much on your viewpoint. There will be some who will hold that paying another £1,500 or so for an Audi S3, which fronts up with 300PS and all-wheel drive, is money well spent here. Equally there will be many who will ask where else you can buy this sort of all-weather capability and sheer pace for this little. There's merit in both viewpoints. Perhaps the bigger question is whether all-wheel drive rally replicas, with their old-school emissions and economy figures, have had their day. The sheer competence of front-wheel drive superhatches with their clever suspension and traction control systems, lower running costs and broader dealer networks made the Impreza and Lancer Evo redundant some time back. What has changed?
While you ponder that question, here's what you get for your money. UK buyers get the trademark big rear wing, with a diffuser integrated bumper and twin dual mufflers. The eighteen-inch alloy wheels are good looking and are lighter and more rigid than those seen in the previous generation STI. Full LED lighting is employed for the headlights, tail and brake lights, while 'STI' badges are found on the front grille and wings. There's also a very nice Harmon Kardon stereo on the options list that you might well be tempted by.
Cost of Ownership
Although the WRX STI might be quite affordable to buy, it's never going to be a cheap car to keep on the road. Despite an excellent reliability record, service intervals are short and Subaru spares aren't the cheapest. The last model achieved a fuel consumption figure of around 27mpg and that was extremely tough to achieve in real life. When you can buy a 280PS SEAT Leon that can get better than 44mpg, you start to realise quite what a penalty you're set to pay with this relatively old 2.5-litre boxer engine. Likewise, it's hard to see how Subaru can radically alter the carbon dioxide figure that used to sit at 243g/km. These days a 520PS Porsche 911 Turbo emits 231g/km. The game's moved on.
That said, Subaru's UK importers aren't positioning this model as a volume model that will sell to people who hanker for something a little bit pokier than a Golf GTI. It's a specialist car that's being sold in small numbers to die hard fans and to act as a demonstrator of Subaru's technical excellence in all-wheel drive chassis technology. In that regard, it's hard to see it failing. Just make sure you get an insurance quote before committing to buy.
It's easy to pick holes in the Subaru WRX STI. In many regards, it looks and feels like a car that's fifteen years out of time. Fuel economy and emissions are the two areas where manufacturers one-up each other to demonstrate their engineering sophistication and yet the WRX STI can't even approach the state of the art here. Does that matter? We suspect not. There will be a solid rump of hardcore customers that will delight in the fact that there's an element of the old school about this car and will accept its flaws in return for the excitement it delivers.
There's an X-factor about the WRX that's missing from so many of its rivals. Now that the Lancer Evo has departed, the Subaru is in a class of one. Victory by attrition, maybe, but it's only here because of the loyalty of its fan base. This version doesn't move the game on by much, but we suspect its most ardent adherents are going to revel in that fact. The WRX STI is the Keith Richards of the performance car division. It may not have the newest moves but it certainly knows how to have fun.