Personality makes all the difference. Take, for example, one-time World Rally Champion Petter Solberg. He's earned the nickname "Hollywood" - and droves of adoring fans - because, like a seasoned Tinseltown thespian, he's honest, down-to-earth, and as likable as a puppy, regardless of whether he just clinched a championship or spun his WRC Impreza into a tree.
The same can be said for the street-legal version of his rally car: the Subaru Impreza WRX STI. When judged against its competitors, Fuji's fastest often comes up short, but its fans don't care. The STI is so likable because it wears its heart on its sleeve, because it has capabilities far beyond what you'd expect, and because it never pretends to be anything other than what it is. It's just a good, honest, all-wheel-drive small car that happens to have enough power to light up Duluth.
Like its predecessors, the new, third-generation STI is based on Subaru's Impreza WRX - itself a turbocharged riot of a compact car with a big fan base. Problem is, the current WRX has lost its way. Or, more specifically, the WRX's Japanese product-development team has lost its way, somehow concluding that there is no longer a market for hard-edged funsters. In response to criticism, Subaru of America is reportedly working on an interim fix for the WRX, but, thankfully, no such mid-course correction will be necessary for the STI.
STI stands for Subaru Tecnica International, a separate motorsports engineering division at Subaru's parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries. The STI (the car) is developed by STI (the division) and serves as a road-legal homologation special that allows the Impreza to compete in the World Rally Championship. And you can bet that Petter Solberg had a hand in its development.
This time around, instead of the sedan, STI chose the Impreza hatchback as the basis for its project. The new car's rear overhang is 4.7 inches shorter than the old STI's - despite a 3.3-inch increase in wheelbase - which helps concentrate the vehicle's weight between the axles for better handling. It also stops Solberg from ripping off that pesky rear bumper as he slides his rally car sideways around tight corners on narrow rally stages.
The reinforced chassis wears squared-off, bulging fenders that create room for the eighteen-inch wheels and, along with the redesigned front fascia, help to eliminate aerodynamic lift front and rear, says Subaru. Although some of the styling elements look a little awkward in photos, the STI's overall look in person is mean, menacing, and modern.
The old-tech, low-compression-ratio, 2.5-liter flat-four engine returns from the last STI with the addition of variable valve timing on the exhaust cams (previous STI engines had VVT only on the intake cams). Don't for one minute be fooled into thinking this has mellowed the engine: it produces all of its 305 hp and 290 lb-ft of torque in one huge turbo-lagged explosion.
Because of that, a distracted soccer mom in a pushrod-engine minivan could inadvertently dust the Subie off the line. Under 3000 rpm, there's nobody home, and in first gear, boost doesn't fully build until five grand, at which point it rockets the STI forward - and immediately into its rev limiter. The STI still has one of the narrowest usable powerbands of any production-car engine today. For spirited driving, you'll need to keep the revs over 4000. Luckily, the flat-four is smooth enough that you won't tire of its thrum. Likewise, the clutch, the shifter, and the accelerator pedal work so well together that you'll never complain about having to shift. Again. And again.
Subaru made the mistake of allowing us to drive the STI on two different racetracks (Japan's Fuji Speedway, below left, and California's Laguna Seca, above right) before we drove it on the street, so our initial impressions weren't positive. On a smooth racetrack, the STI is a one-trick pony - one that does a perfect impression of an understeering pig. Tightening the line with the throttle is an impossibility - the only way the STI's tail can be coaxed out is by way of a violent Scandinavian flick-rally-style, replete with a well-timed throttle lift. Even then, it lasts but a second, as the car practically corrects itself.
In fairness, the STI is very quick around a track thanks to its relentless acceleration and the grip that the sticky Dunlop rubber generates in spite of the noticeable body roll. Its oversize Brembo brakes, with four-piston calipers in front and twin-piston rears, shrug off repeated abuse that would melt a WRX's binders into pudding. Fast as it may be, though, the STI just won't dance on the track.
Get the STI on a windy, hilly, bumpy canyon road - you know, the kind you'd see on a tarmac WRC stage-and all of that boring stability turns into dynamic magic. The STI's suspension is completely unfazed by jumps, midcorner bumps, frost heaves, railroad crossings - practically anything you can drive it over. You can jump it, landing sideways in a pothole, and there's nary a whimper of protest. Thanks to seemingly endless wheel travel, the ride quality is never harsh. It's no WRX wet noodle, mind you, but you won't have to go to the dentist to replace loose fillings after a long drive.
In addition to "on" and "off" settings, the STI's new stability control system offers a third mode that allows increased yaw and slip before it intervenes. On the track, it felt like it actually helped rotate the car, resulting in faster lap times. On the road, it barely intervened no matter how hard we pushed. That this new mode is called "traction" is comical because, at least in the dry, no amount of lead-footedness will result in wheel spin. Apply 305 horses worth of thrust as you're sliding around a corner, and the STI shrugs and says "uh, OK." There is no other car in the world that can explode out of a tight, first-gear hairpin like the STI. And, in fact, the STI is so stable, I'd feel comfortable sending my mother to climb Pikes Peak in it with the stability control disabled. In the snow. With bald tires.
There is quite a bit of chatter - and some torque steer - coming through the leather-rimmed steering wheel, but the system is accurate and well-weighted. The STI's standard xenon headlights cast a perfect blanket of light, so your pace won't slow unnecessarily in the dark.
Like the WRX upon which it's based, the STI has become much more livable in everyday driving. Its interior materials and fit and finish are worlds better than its predecessor's, and its funky hatchback body can swallow far more cargo. It will also swallow more of your bank account-the STI we drove, equipped with the only three available options (a navigation system, forged aluminum BBS wheels, and foglights), cost a whopping $38,000.
Does this mean that the STI has gone soft? No way. Ignore the complaints you'll no doubt hear about body roll and understeer - no one ever said the STI was a track car. Go beat an STI mercilessly on some insane mountain road, and you'll understand. You'll hear the subtle gear whine, you'll notice the endless suspension travel, and if you're patient enough to work through the turbo lag, you'll carve through bumpy, off-camber, blind corners at a rate of speed that would make a WRC driver smile. Sure, there are cars-especially in this lofty price range - that out-this or out-that the STI, but few have as much personality. In a world where so many cars, including Subaru's own WRX, are turning into lifeless appliances, it's the personality that counts. n