Some reviews of the mighty Sti
Subaru's WRX STi drives your dollar faster than anything else but it requires great concentration and care.
For: Beautifully engineered powerplant and drivetrain. Spectacular performance from 4500rpm. Slick six-speed gearbox. Outstanding dynamics. Braking power. Well equipped. Great driver's seat.
Against: You need a racetrack to really appreciate it. Light-switch transition from midrange to top end. Too feral for city traffic. Brakes need heat to work properly. Hard ride. 98 octane may be difficult to find out of Sydney. Insurance a nightmare.
Stars: 4.5 (out of 5).
Verdict: Top gun.
The Subaru WRX made headlines eight years ago both as a brilliant budget performance car – and as the preferred mode of transport for ram-raiders.
Despite determined efforts by the Japanese maker to upgrade security systems, the car is still a prime target for those wanting to make a quick getaway.
WRX sales have softened since the second-generation model appeared two years ago. Potential buyers may be nervous about being a constant target for thieves or may simply not like the controversial egg-shaped headlights. Subaru also has faced stronger competition, particularly from the Nissan 200SX and the Honda Integra Type-R.
Subaru Australia has recently announced it will retro-fit a more sophisticated security system to WRXs built since 1999.
Hopefully, the new STi, the WRX's faster, bolder brother, will be a difficult proposition for would-be villains. Subaru has fitted a fortress of a security system on the STi version (more on this later) but Drive is aware of a small number of examples of the earlier model being towed away by thieves.
So, what's the appeal? The STi can out-manoeuvre and out-accelerate German supercars costing three times the price – even though the latest model is less powerful and heavier than the original.
This is the price of detuning the engine to run on 98 octane fuel (Subaru had a small number of fuel-related engine "meltdowns" with the previous model). The Japanese model produces 206kW on 100 octane.
The sweetener is that it also costs a whole lot less and has more standard equipment. The Version VI was $62,500; the new STi is $55,130. Nothing at the price comes close in performance – zero to 100 kmh in under six seconds, depending upon conditions and skill.
Mitsubishi's $79,990 Ralliart Lancer Evo VI is comparable, but just 100 arrived in Australia. Release date for the Evo VII is yet to be finalised; Mitsubishi hopes "to have it here by the end of the year at a price competitive with the STi".
The 2002 STi produces 195kW at 6000rpm, and 343Nm at 4000. The 2.0-litre four shares basic dimensions with the standard 160kW powerplant, but in other respects has been completely re-engineered, as have the drivetrain, brakes and suspension.
The internal design of the stronger engine block makes cooling more efficient; moving parts are beefier still.
When the temperature gauge heads towards the red, you can give the intercooler a spray with water via a button on the dash.
Subaru has developed a new six-speed close-ratio gearbox. The clutch clamping force has been increased.
Limited-slip differentials front and rear transfer torque from an inside wheel about to lose traction to an outside wheel.
The suspension layout reflects that of the standard WRX, but with stiffer springs and larger capacity dampers. At both ends, the brakes use bigger diameter, ventilated Brembo discs. The front calipers have four pistons; the rears have two. The anti-lock braking system has electronic force distribution, which controls the rear brakes individually, rather than as a pair, for optimum performance when cornering.
Seventeen-inch alloy wheels run 225/45 Bridgestone Potenza RE040 tyres.
There's not much happening thrust-wise below 3000rpm where, if caught in too high a gear, the STi is lethargic. Even a Corolla feels quicker off the mark to 60kmh. Sixth at 100kmh sees 2900rpm on the tacho, just below the point at which the turbo kicks in – so a change to a lower gear is necessary for brisk overtaking.
At 4500, though, the STi launches maniacally forward and you have to be really quick with the gear lever to keep it under the 7500 redline. In city traffic this all happens a bit too fast. The buffer between you and the car in front closes instantly, so you need to be a demon braker.
A warning beeper/dash light is adjustable in increments up to 7500rpm so you can keep your eyes on the road rather than the tachometer.
Find a piece of bitumen (lonely, preferably a racetrack) where you can fully exploit the money end of its power delivery and you'll have the time of your life, but the fearsome acceleration of the STi also requires great concentration and care. It is not a car for the inexperienced or idiotic.
In handling, the STi also steps up to a higher level than the standard WRX. It has a more neutral attitude when cornering, its back end is more tightly controlled and the car overall is better balanced when changing direction quickly. Grip is outstanding.
All-wheel-drive makes the WRX very forgiving, but in tight bends it prefers to get braking and line selection done with before entering the corner proper, then driving through with progressive rather than brutal use of the accelerator.
The Brembo brakes are designed for more ambitious work than everyday driving. When up to optimum temperature (ie, hot), they bite like a big dog and are amazingly powerful. In less extreme use, however, they need high pedal pressures and lack feel.
The ride is hard, and the tyres generate plenty of noise on coarse bitumen.
Inside, you get low-slung racing buckets with basic adjustments up front. Bolstering and support, especially for the upper body, are excellent. Partly compensating for the billycart ride, they're firm but surprisingly well-padded.
The STi instruments have a centrally located tachometer. The Momo wheel is trimmed in red stitched leather, as are the gear lever and handbrake. Dual airbags, air-conditioning, an in-dash six-CD stacker and, at long last, cruise control, are standard.
Security includes a rolling code key immobiliser for the ECU, plus an additional six points of immobilisation from a keypad into which you enter a PIN to start the car. An alarm, infrasonic sensor and anti-hijack mode are also part of the system. But check you can insure this car in your suburb before working out the finances. Some companies refuse to insure the WRx or STi point-blank – even if you have an impeccable record.
The back seat is fine for two adults (three lap-sash belts are fitted), though leg room is tight with taller occupants up front. The boot is large; there is only a central porthole for carrying long objects, and a space-saver spare is under the floor.
The 2002 WRX STi is still a no-compromise performance weapon. If you rarely get the chance to safely point and fire it as intended, it is a bit of a waste. The standard WRX is much easier to live with, and its 160kW worth isn't exactly feeble either.
When it's let off the chain, though, the STi is absolutely stunning, as is its price.
Subaru WRX STi
Engine: 2.0-litre 16-valve turbocharged intercooled four-cylinder.
Power: 195kW at 6000rpm (above average).
Performance: 0-100kmh in 5.5-6.0 seconds (faster cars can be counted on one hand and cost several times as much).
Brakes: Discs with ABS (great under hard use, lack progression and feel in normal conditions).
Economy: 12.2 litres/100km highway (thirsty); 14.8 city (excellent compared with larger engines of similar power).
Prices: Recommended retail – $55,130. Street price – no deals.
Main options: None.
Warranty: Three years/unlimited km (above average).
Safety rating: Not tested, but standard Impreza rates four out of five in ANCAP tests.
Residual value: 68 percent after three years (standard WRX; above average).
Alternatives: None within coo-ee of the price.
Pigeonhole: Mutant ninja turbo.
Philosophy: The WRX with 'roid rage.
Who's buying it: Not the caps-backwards, doof-doof music boys. The STi is selling to greying, responsible executive types and self-made men in the suburbs. Women can only speculate why.
Why you'd buy it: Because it's as much fun as a Porsche for just $55,000.
Why you wouldn't: Gauche styling, garish gold wheels and gratuitous bits of add-on plastic aren't an aesthetic triumph. The insurance premiums are stupendous, there's the constant worry about having it pinched and younger cops pull you over just to talk about the car.
Standard equipment: Air conditioning, leather steering wheel, fog lights, power steering, electric mirrors, central locking, 17-inch alloy wheels, six stacker CD, heavy-duty brakes, cruise control, aluminium bonnet, spoilers.
Safety: Dual front airbags and anti-lock brakes standard, as is a three-point centre rear belt. Subaru's other models suggest the maker is serious about safety. The body shell is spectacularly stronger than the oldone.
Cabin: A major improvement with higher-quality plastics and a more expensive finish. Noise levels are more muted. Reasonable storage, big clear instruments and an excellent driving position.
Seating: Rally-style buckets with height adjustment for the driver are better for young backs than old ones. Rear pew is serviceable with competitive head and legroom for the class. But nobody buys the STi for the back seat.
Engine: A rusher and a whoosher, this 2.0-litre turbocharged flat four cylinder produces 195 kW and 343 Nm of torque, up significantly on the standard WRX. Active valve control, a bigger turbo, intercooler and exhaust do the business. And for serious gear heads there's a water spray to hose down the intercooler. All that equates to shattering performance, in the five-second bracket for 0-100 kmh.
Transmission: Not the sequential box of the rally car but a new, close ratio six-speed manual and Subaru's signature all-wheel-drive system, with front and rear limited slip differentials. With so much torque on tap you don't actually need six ratios but swapping them is half the fun.
Steering: Agile and fast rack and pinion system with just 2.8 turns lock to lock. Great steering wheel. Effortless to park with good visibility.
Ride: Taut but not intolerable.
Handling: Give it a mountain road, better still a wet mountain road, and it will embarrass most six-figure blue chip Euro badges. Good drivers will relish it. Dopes will get themselves into strife.
Fuel: Best fed on Optimax but is calibrated to run well on premium unleaded. Consumption figures depend on driving style.
Brakes: Standard Brembo ventilated four-wheel disc system with four pot front calipers and well-sorted anti-lock control. The WRX has big reserves of stopping power.
Build: High-quality Japanese.
Warranty: Three years/unlimited kilometres.
Anti-theft: Engine immobiliser and remote, key operated central locking are state-of-the-art but fiddly to use.
Audio-system: Six speakers with CD stacker.
Cost: The manual-only STi at $55,130 is one of the great bargains of our time. This doesn't include on-road charges. But get an insurance quote first then put a beefier lock on the garage door.
Verdict: This is heavy-duty sports equipment with subtle engineering qualities that belie its styling. It's a precision tool at an affordable price, and a long-term collector's item.