First Drive: Subaru WRX STI

What’s your best memory of Subaru’s Impreza? Like many it’s likely to be a blue car with a big wing flying through a forest at an impossible speed. It might even have the late, great Colin McRae at the wheel.

Like all good things such memories don’t last forever. Subaru’s bold choice to switch from a four-door saloon to a five-door hatch stunned loyal fans. There are always two sides to this of course, and Subaru’s desire to boost its business with a more Euro-friendly hatch was a perfectly understandable one.

WRX and STi performance models followed and have, on the whole, been well received. But here’s the thing; with Subaru now keen to reposition itself as a maker of semi-premium models and a recent resurgence in the popularity of compact, premium sports saloons, the four-door Impreza WRX STi is back.

Only don’t call it an Impreza – Subaru isn’t – as dropping the name is part of a bigger rebranding plan for the high performance variant. Of course, if it looks like an Impreza and goes like an Impreza it must be an Impreza.

A development of the existing five-door, adding a boot has brought back a familiar profile. One thing missing is a mile-high rear wing, although a modest one can be specified. Again, this is part of Subaru’s premium repositioning of the car. Lary wings are a throwback to past times, crazy insurance premiums and, in Subaru’s case, a high profile motorsport programme.

That’s not to say that the car itself has gone soft. With 300 horsepower available from Subaru’s now familiar2.5-litre four-cylinder ‘Boxer’ turbo engine, this WRX STi has been designed to deliver all the usual thrills but with more polish.

Certainly the lack of a monster rear wing helps with that image. Frankly the four-door WRX STi is chunky and imposing enough without it. Its muscular wheel arches and deep front bumper send out all the right messages. At the rear the quad tailpipes ape those of the Impreza hatch, but this time there’s no race car-like diffuser.

In keeping with the car’s newfound premium positioning, the cabin includes higher grade materials. The obvious change from the regular Impreza is the inclusion of a pair of Recaro sports seats for driver and front seat passenger.

The rest of the improvements are more than skin deep, with this Impreza adopting the ‘Spec C’ suspension specification that would be more familiar to fans of Japanese market import models. Changes to the dampers, anti roll bars, bushes and the steering have resulted in a more rounded character.

Less ‘pointy’ and nervous than UK market STI cars of old yet capable of striking a pleasing balance of ride comfort and agility on poorly surfaced roads, this new WRX STi is still eye-poppingly rapid when it counts but won’t dislodge your fillings in the process.

The car’s ability to cover ground at a rapid pace is without question. The slight rear bias of the four-wheel drive system allows you to have some fun in the corners, too. That you can fine tune the behaviour of the centre differential and the throttle response adds a welcome extra layer to the experience.

Also welcome is the generous level of standard equipment on this WRX STI. The noticeable uplift in cabin quality is worthy of praise, as is the inclusion of numerous airbags, an unobtrusive electronic stability system and a decent audio unit boasting auxiliary and iPod inputs plus Bluetooth phone connectivity.

With its unusual but torquey turbo engine and the inclusion of an intelligent all-wheel drive system, Subaru’s four-door WRX STI model offers enthusiasts a driving experience that’s unique in this sector. Sure, most semi-premium cars at this price point are quick, but none can match the Subaru’s quirky character and all-weather capabilities.

In a world where ‘me-too’ has become the default setting for everything from exterior design to steering feel, it’s refreshing to see a maker brave enough to stick to its principals. Subaru acknowledges that the WRX STI won’t appeal to everyone, but if you find yourself drawn to the WRX STI’s blend of styling and performance you’re destined to have a blast.

Model: Subaru WRX STI, from £32,995 on the road.
Engine: 2.5-litre petrol unit developing 300bhp.
Transmission: 6-speed manual transmission as standard, driving all four wheels.
Performance: Maximum speed 158mph, 0-62mph 5.2 seconds.
Economy: 26.9mpg.
CO2 Rating: 243g/km.

By Iain Dooley

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