JUL 11th 2014

Rain starts play in new Subaru WRX STI

Thankfully, it was raining. Other than on farms following a prolonged drought, those are words you don’t often see stitched together in the English language. This though was different. Quite apart from needing some cooling down after several days of hot, burning sunshine, some damp roads would ensure a suitable challenge for the car we were testing. The new Subaru Impreza Turbo.

Actually, it’s not called that at all. According to the official paperwork, this is actually the new Subaru WRX STI. However, thanks to its cult following in the ’90s and early 2000s, and thanks to the fact that I’m old enough to have grown up with BBC Rally Report and Colin McRae Rally on the PlayStation 1, I’m calling it an Impreza Turbo. Besides, it’s essentially the same basic structure under there as the new Impreza hatch, so there.

Subaru WRX STI

By under there, I mean of course under an entire Halfords worth of body addenda and add-ons. Fast Subarus have never been exactly the shrinking violets of the motoring world and the new WRX is no exception. That rear spoiler isn’t so much in your face as in your peripheral vision – every time you glance over your shoulder from the front seat it looks at first as if a white van is hovering inches from your rear bumper. There are also massive wheelarches, squared off at the edges to encompass the dark alloy wheels and of course a bonnet scoop that looks as if someone’s plonked the snorkel from a diesel-electric submarine onto a passing Japanese saloon. Subaru claims that it’s mounted lower down than before and is more efficient both in terms of the air it’s sucking in and the air it’s diverting around itself, but it still looks pretty mean to these ageing-boy-racer eyes.

This is not a mere styling exercise though. Subaru has had its spanners out. The suspension mounts are spaced further out towards the edges of the body than on the standard Impreza and there are stiffer cross members and thicker bushes to provide improved steering response. Iconoclastically amongst modern performance machinery, the WRX’s steering is assisted by a hydraulic pump, not an electric motor. The result of which is unusually sharp, responsive and talkative steering, feeding back the sensations of the road below to your palms via a chunky, squared-off steering wheel. Subaru has even found a new arena of one-upmanship in which the WRX STI can shine – it claims that the steering can begin to generate lateral G-force just 0.1 of a second after you start to turn it. That, according to Subaru, is twice as fast as the steering of a Golf GTI and about on a par with that of a Porsche 911 Carrera S. Whatever the science, subjectively it feels ruddy marvellous in your hands.

Just fitting within those dark-grey alloys are massive brakes supplied by Brembo. With four-pot callipers on the front and two-pots on the rear, they are exceptionally sharp and strong, well able to haul the WRX down swiftly from the speeds it can achieve.

Ah yes, the speed. There is no contemporary down-sizing of the engine here; no hybrid booster; just a sold lump of 2.5-litre flat-four with a huffing great turbo. Yes, there is lag. In fact, it takes about 3000rpm on the clock before the engine really wakes up, in spite of Subaru’s assurances that it’s optimised to deliver solid power from 2000rpm up. Get it pumped up though and suddenly you’re catapulted up the road, the steering going slightly light as the front end lifts a tad, and that classic, ’90s, McRae-is-a-coming wob-wob-wob soundtrack fills your ears. Grab another gear in the clunky mechanical six-speed gearbox and begin again. It’s addictive, wonderful, old-fashioned performance.

“There is no contemporary down-sizing of the engine here; no hybrid booster; just a sold lump of 2.5-litre flat-four with a huffing great turbo”

The chassis response is equally up to the task. The steering we’ve already spoken of but the rest of the dynamic package is (mostly) up to scratch too. The traction that the symmetrical all-wheel drive system, complete with an active centre differential and torque-vectoring, can find is just astonishing – an effect magnified by the sloppy, muddy back roads of our test drive. You can fiddle with settings such as how much torque the diff sends towards the rear wheels or how responsive the throttle is but to be honest it’s best to just leave everything in Sport mode and the diff to its own devices. No matter which way you tweak it, you’ll still be covering ground like a four-door Exocet with a practical boot.

The only wrinkle is the ride quality. The thick anti-roll bars and beefier bushes are all well and good but on a poor surface (exactly the sort of surface where a rally-bred Subaru should excel) the WRX just feels over-sprung. You end up backing off just to stop your eyeballs bouncing in their sockets. A little more pliancy would be nice.

Still, you do get a really practical car. The boot beneath that towering rear wing is big (420 litres) if a touch shallow and there’s lots of legroom behind the big bucket seats. Subaru interiors always tend towards the plain and occasionally cheap end of the scale. The WRX’s feels more expensive than most (lashings of carbon-fibre appliqué and Alcantara help), but you’re never going to mistake it for a Volkswagen Group product. The overall ambience isn’t helped by a central colour screen infotainment system that looks as if its graphic designers were poached from the original Super Mario Bros team.

Subaru WRX STI

Then there’s the question of just how the WRX STI fits into modern day Subaru. As a brand, Subaru has stated that it wants to be known more as a maker of practical SUVs, not special stage escapees. There has been no Subaru works rally team since 2008 and there is unlikely to be one any time soon. We spoke to Hiroyuki Fujioka, Technical Representative of Subaru Europe, at the WRX’s launch and asked him if a new car was a signal that Subaru was getting back into motorsports, but all he gave in response was a smile and ‘I’m afraid I don’t have any specific information on that subject.’ Ditto on questions as to whether Subaru might spread the WRX magic to other models in its range or whether plans were afoot to create high-performance cars with lower emissions figures.

Other figures within Subaru UK pointed out that, when the brand last competed in the World Rally Championship, it did so on a budget of about half that of Ford or Peugeot. Still, the new WRX made an appearance in the recent Nürburgring 24-hours endurance race, so perhaps a Touring Car assault might not be out of the question.

Having drifted so far from its rally-bred, McRae-Burns-Sainz-Solberg roots though, is there any point to a modern Impreza Turbo in the shape of this WRX STI? Can it really compete with a car such as the Audi S3 Saloon, which is every bit as quick, much more comfy and has significantly lower emissions?

Yes. Yes it can. Why? Because it’s fun. Old fashioned, loud fun. It makes all the classic Impreza Turbo throbs and whooshes, accelerates like it’s snagged the tail-cone of a passing Concorde, is practical enough to be a daily family driver (ride apart), is exceptionally well-priced (under £30k, stuffed with every option) and being a Subaru will probably never, ever break down.

So forget the boy-racer body-kit, the bouncy springs and the wallet-shredding emissions figure. Revel instead in the marvellous steering, the brilliant engine and the sheer solidity of it all. And hope it rains. A lot.

Power/weight: 192bhp/tonne
0-62mph: 5.2 seconds
Top speed: 159mph
Engine: 2.5-litre horizontally-opposed flat-four turbo
Power: 296bhp at 6000rpm
Torque: 407Nm at 4200rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, four-wheel drive + adjustable differential
Wheels: 18in light-alloy front and rear
Tyres: 45/40 R18 Dunlop Sport Maxx
Economy: 27.2mpg
CO2: 242g/km
Price: £28,995
On sale date: now

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