But if the Subaru Impreza STi was human it would smack you in the face if you dared to call it pretty. Or ugly. The testosterone-charged newcomer replaces the ‘bug-eye’ Impreza, a car that left even die-hard ‘Scooby’ fanatics wondering why the Cookie Monster had been allowed to style their favourite car.
They mostly stayed loyal, but were clearly not happy. Something had to be done.
So, here it is. Behold the nipped and tucked Subaru Impreza WRX STi. Still no beauty queen perhaps, but hungrier, more aggressive, more hardcore. In fact, if it was any more visually assaulting, you’d probably have to cover your kids’ eyes as it prowled by. Pictures do not begin to illustrate the nature of the beast.
The huge rear wing and colossal bonnet air-scoop (now posing a serious threat to bird-life) detract attention from a facelift that has brought a much-improved front-end design. The offending bug-eye headlamps are gone, replaced by new ‘almond-shaped’ clusters that look like a mix between those on the Alfa 147 and Subaru Legacy.
There are new bumper side ‘fins’, sill spoilers, a redesigned bonnet and, of course, the huge rear wing (now standard fitment). New Impreza also gets redesigned rear lights – brighter, more modern and similar in pattern to those up front – and a new rear bumper. But with that spoiler, few will notice…
Does it all work? Let’s put it this way. The PlayStation generation loves it. In fact, their eyes glaze over when they see it. “Hey, it’s like… lank kiff man, fully,” we were told. If you have to read that comment more than twice, then this probably isn’t the car for you…
But seriously now, the new look certainly puts the bug-eye’s ghost to rest and works well within the typical ‘ready-for-rally’ Impreza framework. After the sheer drama of the sheet metal, the interior will come as a disappointment
to some, and as a relief to others. Changes are limited. The revamp has brought darker silver trim on the centre console, a smaller steering wheel, and blue carpet inserts to match the new seats.
Turn the ignition key and the most obvious change becomes visible. The needles of the instruments (with the tacho taking pride of place in the centre) come alive, light up in red and do a lap of the dials before the markings are illuminated. The silver-surround dials still feature the race-like gearchange warning light and ‘beep-beep’ buzzer, but a turbo-boost gauge would be a welcome inclusion. The rest of the facia, however, is much less impressive. Very functional, yes, and certainly ergonomically sound, but oh-so-bland.
Turning to build quality, the Impreza is solidly put together, but it must be said that, at this price level, the quality of some fittings are below par – the silver cover on the new steering wheel, for example. And then there is the drinks holder – surely the automotive world’s worst example of the species.
The Impreza STi has a fairly decent level of equipment, although nothing to bother similarly priced BMWs etc. Air-conditioning, power steering, electric window and mirror adjustment, six-disc CD front loader radio, power steering, cruise control, central locking, dual front airbags, the nifty intercooler waterspray, and ABS with EBD are all standard.
When it comes to stopping power, the STi averaged a brilliant 2,71 seconds in our emergency braking test routine, one of the best times ever recorded by CAR. The powerful Brembo brakes measure 330 mm in front and 305 mm rear.
Turning to the oily bits now, fans will be somewhat sad to hear that, although Japan’s Impreza STi gets a new engine with 394 N.m of torque, nitrided crank and special alloy con-rods and pistons, models destined for export are basically mechanically identical to the outgoing model. They even retain the same six-speed manual gearbox and ratios.
The turbocharged and intercooled boxer four-cylinder, two-litre engine develops 195 kW at 6 000 r/min and 343 N.m torque at 4 000. There are slight detail changes, however. The scoop on the bonnet is bigger not only for aesthetic purposes, but also allows air to flow over the intercooler’s fins quicker to improve cooling. And the engine gets new shimless cam followers that are lighter than those on the previous model, allowing the new car to rev higher (up to 7 750 r/min) and more smoothly.
The difference in engine performance is hard to detect in normal driving, but out on our test strip, the changes proved to be effective, certainly when it came to the 0-100 km/h sprint. With so much grip and no traction control or any electronics to switch out, there’s not much you can do for the benchmark sprint run except pile on the revs, drop the clutch and concentrate on the gear changes. And hold on.
There’s just a slight chirp from the Bridgestone tyres before the rally-bred all-wheel drive system bites down hard and launches the Impreza forward. Below 3 500 r/min you may wonder if someone’s forgotten to bolt on the turbocharger, but once past that then, well, it gets a rocket up its chuff and starts reeling in the horizon at an eye-watering rate.
Imagine being on a roller coaster just after it’s crested its highest point, building momentum for a second or two, and then plummeting down the ramp at speeds that’ll peel back eyelids. The gear change buzzer is actually essential since the needle races around the dial at an alarming rate, and to get the best time, it’s important to change gears slightly sooner from second to third than you may think, to use the available boost longer (100 km/h is reached in third).
The result? An awesome 5,15 seconds. That is more than three tenths faster than BMW’s M3! The Beemer has bigger lungs though, and gets to the kilometre marker fractionally faster. The turbo kick-in is addictive, but brings with it a hefty fuel bill penalty if the driver has a permanently heavy foot. A fuel index figure of 14,36 litres/100 km was achieved – ouch!
But back to the performance testing… At around 200 km/h there’s a real Subaru moment that will have Scooby fans grinning and non-believers wincing – the frameless windows pull away from the seals slightly, resulting in a jet-engine like whistle. We achieved a top speed of 234 km/h (limited), which is slightly higher than that of its predecessor, and is explained by Subaru as being due to a mix of factors – improved aerodynamics, tyres in better condition etc. Quick it certainly is, but a large number of cars will blitz it on top speed. Good thing, then, that most roads are not straight, and that the Scooby has a large appetite for twists and turns.
Suspension is mostly unchanged – why fiddle with a winning recipe? – but the rigidity of the front end has been improved by adding additional rods to the crossmember, and by strengthening the mounts of the transverse linkages. The steering is no quicker than before, but the STi now feels more eager to turn into corners, because it has more front-end grip. Once it knows where you want it to go, the rest of the car just follows. Colossal grip and supreme poise will be enough to impress most driving enthusiasts.
The Impreza goes a few steps further. The driver is never a passenger, but always part of an interactive experience and can adjust what’s happening as he or she wishes. Depending on what the driver does with the steering wheel and throttle, the STi can be made to understeer, oversteer and four-wheel drift with consummate ease. Go into a corner too quickly, or be too aggressive on the throttle on the exit, and it will tell you via the steering wheel that you’re being silly, but then sort itself out as if patting you on the back and saying, ‘next time you’ll do better, old chap.’ Few cars can match the Impreza’s ability to both reward precision driving and forgive clumsy piloting.
For a thrilling cross-country blast over real world roads and in mixed conditions, there surely isn’t much that could keep up. And it’s not only the suspension that’s well sorted. The seat/pedals/steering wheel interface is spot-on and the leather-stitched gear lever falls perfectly to hand. With the firm low-speed ride, you would expect it to bottom easily, but it doesn’t.
The suspension has surprisingly long travel, and around corners it does tend to lean a bit, but just enough to let you know you’re pushing the boundaries.
Even right up to its grip limit, the car feels entirely controllable, and herein lies a degree of danger. It makes average drivers feel like WRC rally racers, but make no mistake, the STi does have limits – albeit very high ones – and stepping over them will see a dent in your ego equal to the crater in the nearest solid object next to the road…
Which brings up the topic of safety. The STi has only two airbags, less than most other cars these days, but it is inherently a safe car, and recently scored top marks in an American front-impact crash test.