Evolution; unless you happen to be at an Alabama Methodists’ convention it’s generally considered a pretty sound concept. The engineers at Fuji Heavy Industries certainly seem to think so, for that’s very much the approach they’ve taken with the Subaru WRX STi.
Introduced last year, the WRX STi (no longer sporting the Impreza tag) bears more than a passing resemblance to its recent predecessors. There’s the same characteristic burble from the four-cylinder boxer engine, which remains at 2.5 litres and produces the same 296 bhp output. The six-speed gearbox has been lightly reworked to improve shift quality, but otherwise it’s the same. And the interior, despite a few changes, remains recognisably fast-Subaru. All of which is a good thing if you were a fan of the old car.
Under the skin, however, there have been some significant changes. Greater use of high tensile steel, additional reinforcement in key areas and stiffer cross members add up to an impressive 140 per cent rise in torsional rigidity. There are also thicker anti-roll bars front and rear, substantially re-engineered subframes and a quicker steering rack. The latter, Subaru is at pains to point out, remains hydraulically assisted, despite the trend towards feedback-zapping electric systems elsewhere.
The WRX STi has grown slightly in both wheelbase and overall length. Nonetheless, it’s actually lower and fractionally lighter than the car it replaces, while the A-pillars have been moved forward to give it a more coupé-like stance. Aesthetically, this works better from some angles than others, but there’s no denying that interior space and boot capacity (now 460 litres) trump the hatchback competition.
On the move it initially feels familiar. The new car is perhaps a little more civilised; there’s still a faint hint of whine from the transmission and the offbeat burble is fractionally subdued, but the trademarks are still there. Subaru has attempted to shift the cabin more upmarket, with increased use of soft touch materials. Overall, though, it still feels more Burns and McRae than Marks and Spencers.
Press the accelerator and the most notable difference is the reduction of turbo lag. The tweaked engine still needs to be revved, but there’s no longer the ‘one-Mississippi two-Mississippi’ sensation you used to get you if caught the old car off-boost.
In a funny sort of way, we actually miss the challenge of adapting to the previous model’s lairy turbo characteristics. The subsequent rush of torque feels less explosive as a result, but this is very much a matter of perception. In all quantifiable terms, the revised engine is an improvement, with sharper, more immediate responses. And it’s still a pretty mighty thing. Nought to sixty in 5.2 seconds might not put the Subaru as far ahead of the front-wheel drive pack as it once did, but this is still a very rapid car.
The reworked chassis also feels broadly similar to the model it replaces. There’s the same sense of virtually unbreakable traction and a familiar surfeit of lateral grip. But where the old WRX STi could feel a touch floaty until you got the suspension loaded up, the new car feels more keyed in to the road surface and more responsive to your inputs. There’s also a satisfying degree of heft to the steering, although it can feel a tad rubbery at times and the level of feedback is nothing to write home about. Ironically, Subaru does it far better with the electrically assisted system on the BRZ (although, admittedly, the comparison to a skinny tyre’d rear-wheel drive coupé is not entirely fair).
The brakes are also worthy of mention. This WRX STi has carried over the 17-inch Brembo brake package from its predecessor. Not surprisingly, then, there’s the same firm and wonderfully feelsome brake pedal.
Ultimately, though, the Subaru’s Achilles’ heel remains the same. Traditional hot hatches have caught up since the heyday of the four-wheel drive rally replica. Cars like the Volkswagen Golf R offer a similar level of point-to-point performance, while scoring a decisive hit on interior quality, emissions and economy.