Let’s get one thing out of the way: Subarus are never pretty. Ever. You can call them purposeful, handsome, aggressive, functional, maybe. But never beautiful.
The last Impreza saw three different noses – initially the reviled-but-now-cult-classic Bug-eyes in 2002, then the generic-Japanese version of 2004 before moving to the extended-three-hole schnoz in ‘06. You could play paper-rock-scissors to figure out which one wouldn’t come last in a beauty pageant.
So when the company was redesigning its bread-and-butter Impreza for 2008, it really didn’t have a lot to live up to in the looks department. It’s amazing, then, that the latest version can either be fall-asleep boring or – in the right colour scheme, at least – truly evil. That’s especially true of the $40,000 Impreza WRX STI, the model sitting on top of Subaru’s performance flagpole, with its blistered wide-arch fenders, squat stance, quad exhaust pipes and gigantic hood-scoop. The regular 2.5i is so nondescript it would be the perfect vehicle for the witness protection program, but the visual changes made to the STI get you noticed in a nanosecond.
Thankfully, Subaru does know how to back up the STI’s visual hit with the appropriate level of performance. Propulsion comes from the familiar 2.5-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine that features a turbocharger and intercooler to maximize power. While ultimate horsepower is only up by 12 to a total of 305 versus the ’08 model, the maximum torque of 290 lb-ft comes lower in the rev range. That means the STI feels much snappier when you’re driving in the middle part of the power band, making it more flexible when tootling around town.
Subaru has also given drivers more choice over how that power is delivered by fitting every STI with its SI-DRIVE system. It’s controlled by a silver knob behind the shifter, and features three settings: Intelligent, Sport and Sport # (Sport Sharp). The system defaults to Sport, which is fine for everyday driving, but if you’re headed out to pound around a track, Sport #, well, sharpens throttle response even further. Intelligent is for the long drive home… It’s much less aggressive, and even dials back some of the engine’s power to produce better fuel economy.
All of this power is routed through Subaru’s all-wheel drive system, which also features some electronic trickiness. Using another switch on the centre console, the driver can either leave the question of how power is distributed front and rear up to the computer, or he can move the split further forward or rearward. You can even ‘lock’ it at 50:50, which is about ideal for nasty conditions or your favourite gravel road…
The six-speed manual transmission seems a little long of throw, but it becomes your best friend when you’re pressing on. And it now features a hill-hold system so you don’t roll back into the truck behind you at traffic lights.
Drive the nuts off this new STI and the first thing you notice is that it sticks. And leans. A lot. Much more than previous models. This is generally accepted to be a by-product of the new rear suspension design, and while it may not have the razor-sharp turn-in of, say, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X, the Subaru is much more confidence inspiring.
Slowing the STI down is a combination of Brembo brakes front and rear with a performance-tuned ABS system, and the sticky Dunlop SP600 tires on 18-in wheels. Stomp on the middle pedal, and the Subaru just stops – right now – without any drama.
You’ll notice I’ve gotten through most of this review without mentioning the interior. That’s probably because at best it can be described as functional. The design and shapes are OK, but the materials leave a lot to be desired. Hard plastics reign everywhere. Buttons and dials are cheap to the touch. However, the steering wheel has a nice, chunky feel, and the Alcantara-covered seats are grippy and supportive.
My tester also featured the Sport Tech package, which adds six grand to the asking price, but features things like Bluetooth, a DVD-based nav system, moonroof, different BBS wheels and HID headlights. The good news is that compared to the previous model, even fully loaded, the STI is still $3,000 cheaper than the ’07 model, and it comes with all the extra toys.
Competition mainly comes from its traditional rival, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X, but model for model, the STI is a couple grand less expensive and feels more substantial and reliable. A little out of left field, but similar in performance is the all-wheel drive Infiniti G37x, in normal or Sport guise, which only costs $1,000 more than the Subaru. The Infiniti is larger, has more power, more toys, better looks, better fuel economy and arguably a better badge. And, unlike the STI, the G37 runs just fine on 91 octane rather than 93 like the Subie. The G37x can’t be had with a manual transmission, but its new seven-speed automatic is one of the best in the business.
Honestly, though, the STI’s biggest worry is its little brother: Subaru’s own WRX265 model, which features a little less power, a lot less technology, but still captures most of the rapidity and verve of the full-blown STI. Best of all, it’s only $33,995, which leaves you more than enough money for larger wheels, grippier seats and a TomTom.
Price as tested: $45,995
Summary: Potent sporty offering with bad teeth
Exterior Design: 5/10. Plenty of drama, but no beauty
Interior Design: 5/10. Lots of space, good seats, hopeless materials
Engine: 8/10. Plenty of power and torque, little turbo lag
Transmission: 8/10. Long throws, but precise and strong
Audio/Video: 6/10. Touch-screen Nav system works, but isn’t pretty. Audio tinny and muffled
Value: 7/10. Between $3,000-$8,000 cheaper than before, depending on package, but needs expensive high-octane fuel
Overall (not an average): 7/10
By Mark Atkinson