Subaru recently invited us to Japan to drive their latest hot hatch - the RHD JDM-spec, WRX STI. Wow, that's a lot of three-letter acronyms. You can be sure, though, that the words coming out of our mouths on the first few laps around the Fuji Speedway were of the four-letter variety.
Much of that was due to the fact that the steering wheel was on the right side of the car. Though most of had driven right-hand drive cars on the street, it's quite a bit more difficult getting comfortable in a RHD car on an unfamiliar track pushing to the limit. Just when you thought you had placed the car right for a turn, you realize that you placed yourself correctly - the right side of the car was a car's width from the apex.
But for the sake of science, we pushed harder and harder. And the results? OMG.
WRX fans the world around have lamented the death of their favorite turbo econorocket, and for good reason: The 2008 WRX isn't much of an WRX. It's more like an Camrypreza with a few extra horsepower. The old WRX made people think fun, smiles, and giggles. The new one makes its driver think quiet, refined, smooth. And, if you're unfortunate enough to drive it really hard, body roll, brake fade, and wallow.
The new STI is based, of course, on that WRX, so it does carry much of the new car's added refinement. But where the new Rex is soft and spongy, the STI stays true to its roots. Because we drove the new STI only around the ultrasmooth Fuji racetrack, we can't yet provide any information on ride quality, but the WRX's lack of roll stiffness was definitely absent. Not that body roll wasn't present, but it wasn't at Camry levels like it is in the WRX.
The STI is a very quick car around a race course. If your right foot is anywhere near the gas pedal, understeer is what you'll get, but the rear end comes alive in high-speed corners if you ask it to. The JDM-market Recaro seats are supremely supportive, so you won't need a death grip on the three-spoke leather steering wheel to hold you in place. The Brembo brakes began to complain towards the end of the day with lengthened pedal travel and a spongy feel - but almost no fade. That's quite an accomplishment given the beating they took - and how weak the WRX's brakes are by comparison.
Under the hood of the Japanese-market car lives a turbocharged 2.0-liter flat four that's rated at around 295 hp and 299 lb-ft of torque. My initial excitement in seeing the tachometer's red line start at a lofty 8000 rpm was halved when I saw that the power peak occurred at only 6400. The remainder of the enthusiasm was quashed behind the wheel - although the flat-four is a supershort stroke design, it's not particularly smooth, nor does it make much power, over 7000 rpm. And the acoustic magic of other 8000-rpm four-cylinders (I'm thinking Honda Civic Si as I type this) is definitely not there.