Subaru is going back to basics for its latest WRX STI. The third-generation car caused controversy with enthusiasts by ditching both the saloon body and iconic rear wing and the brand threatened to retire it permanently – in the UK at least.
Fortunately, there has been enough interest in the new car to secure the its future, and the company believes it shares enough of its D.N.A with the rest of the line-up to have a halo effect, particularly as it now costs £4,000 less than the previous car.
A quick glance at the specs might convince you that little has changed this time around. The new WRX is powered by the same 2.5-litre boxer turbo engine, has the same mechanical four-wheel drive system and six-speed manual gearbox, and covers the 0-62mph sprint in exactly the same 5.2 seconds as it did previously.
However, the evolutionary changes are all lurking under that aggressive bodywork. Subaru wanted the new WRX STI to be sharper and more involving to drive - not just faster - so all the tweaks are designed to enhance the handling, boost grip and reduce body roll.
Almost every suspension component has been made harder or tougher, and high strength steels in the chassis means it is now 140 per cent stiffer than in the previous car. Yet despite its no-compromise approach the WRX STI feels surprisingly compliant on the road.
At low speed the ride is still pretty firm – particularly over potholes – but through faster bends the thicker stabilizers and new damper mounts give the WRX superb composure. The wet, narrow and badly surfaced roads we tested the car on did a good impression of a typical British B-road – and it felt surprisingly civilized, with a firm but well controlled ride and supreme body control and stability at all times.
There may not be any more power, but thanks to the incredible traction from the four-wheel drive system you can all of the 296bhp available. There is a new torque-vectoring system to help push you round each corner and you can feel the extra rigidity in the body, with barely any roll no matter how hard you drive it.
Probably the biggest mechanical change though is the steering – Subaru has fitted a quicker hydraulic rack for faster responses and extra weight. Drive along a slippery surface and the wheel now gives you a much better idea of how much grip there is, and along with the excellent Brembo brakes it gives the WRX STI a level of raw engagement that has been engineered out of modern hot hatches.
Some of the old niggles remain though – the 2.5-litre engine suffers from turbo lag at anything below 3,000rpm, and the notoriously tricky gearbox still requires a very firm and deft shift from the driver when trying to change up into third gear.
Sadly, the interior is also as dated as ever. New additions include a 4.7-inch colour display in the dash, silvered climate control dials and a flat-bottomed steering wheel, plus some faux carbon trim, but when you can have an Audi S3 or Golf R for similar money the cheap and cheerful cabin feels like a real compromise. Every UK WRX will come with leather and alcantara heated seats, climate control, a reversing camera, 18-inch alloys and Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres.
The wheelbase of the STI has been stretched by 25mm, helping to improve rear legroom, and the boot has grown too, with an extra 40 litres taking the total to 460-litres – more than you get in a Golf R or BMW M135i. It will also be very expensive to run an STI– a combined figure of 27.2mpg is frankly optimistic, and a CO2 output of 242g/km puts it on a par with high-power V8s.
Only one trim will be offered here in the UK – and the huge spoiler is standard – while a set of gold alloy wheels and WR Blue paint are both on the options list.
Check out our history of the hot Subaru Impreza here...