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2008 Subaru WRX STI (Japanese-Spec)

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.

Still, the 2.0-liter provides lots and lots of thrust. Its twin-scroll turbo builds boost more linearly and gently than the last STI we drove - the last-generation 2.5-liter U.S.-spec STI. Whereas that turbo's boost hit the motor like a tidal wave, this one oozes in like a hurricane. Don't expect much boost - or torque - under 4000 rpm. Strangely, off-boost at low rpms, this engine felt stronger than the 2.5-liter in the U.S.-spec WRX. That might be due to this engine's variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cam.

Regardless, this 2,0-liter mill won't be coming to the U.S. Our STI will continue to have a 2.5-liter four, and that likely means even more horsepower. From what we understand, Subaru continues to use the 2.0-liter engine for the Japanese market (and the Japanese market only) so that it can me homologated for the World Rally Championship. Oh wait, that's another three-letter acronym: WRC.

And speaking of WRC homologation, Subaru decided that a hatchback body is the best way to go, so the STI is a hatchback only - no sedan. The hatch's shorter overhangs reduce yaw inertia, and its shape allows for better front-to-rear aerodynamic balance. And, compared to the last STI, the wheelbase is 85 mm longer and the track is 40 and 45 mm wider front and rear, respectively.

The STI gains a much more aggressive looking body, too, with bulging fender flares front and rear. While it looks a little overwrought in photos, it looks positively menacing in person, especially in darker colors.

The supersupportive Recaro seats won't be coming to the U.S. (at least not initially) but a few trick electronic gizmos will make the trip across the Pacific. The first is a VDC stability control system which, for the first time, gives the STI three modes of operation: Normal (all systems on), off (all electronic systems except ABS are turned off) and a new mode called Traction. Traction mode works similarly to other manufacturers' "Sport" modes - it raises the intervention thresholds and limits traction control functionality for aggressive driving. Around the track, it works well to smoothly mitigate understeer without yanking power unnecessarily.

The second new electronic control in the STI is Subaru's DCCD - the Driver's Control Center Differential. Previous DCCD applications gave an automatic mode or a manual mode, which either the computer or the driver select the front-to-rear power bias. The new DCCD system keeps those two modes but adds two more: Auto+, which gives the computer control but favors loading the differential to maximize overall traction, and Auto-, which similarly tries to maximize handling by favoring an open differential.

Subaru's all-wheel drive system can vary the torque split between the front and rear axles only from 41:59 to 50:50, so the difference in any of these modes isn't drastic. In fact, we could feel no real difference on the high-grip track - but we look forward to trying the system in more slippery conditions.

We will be driving the U.S.-specification STI soon, and that experience will include both on-track and street driving. We expect to know a lot more about how the STI drives afterward. Because a handful of laps on the wrong side of the car around a racetrack just isn't enough to give you the full picture. We look forward to doing that, um, ASAP.