The arrival of the latest Subaru speed machines brings big changes to the WRX and STI. The go-faster sedan is finally back in the mix alongside the hatch and both models have pumped-out guards, the STI gets a giant rear wing and there is a bunch of other detail stuff. But the biggest change in many ways is the first WRX automatic.
The five-speed self-shifter is old-school, not a double-clutch manu-match, but has been on the wish list for a lot of WRX buyers for a long time. They might like the idea of a rampaging all-wheel drive turbo car, but the reality of a day-to-day suburban slog turns them towards an auto instead of a heavy-clutch manual. The only problem? The auto only comes on the STI. But we'll get to all of that stuff soon enough right.
Now Subaru has done the usual job and also kept prices sharp with a $39,990 starting sticker for the WRX and a price cut to $59,990 for all the STI cars, manual-sedan-auto-manual. There are ways to bump the prices, and the fully-loaded STI - Recaro seats, sunroof, satnav - hits $66,990, but it's still a good deal.
The WRX has always been great value and nothing has changed. A $39,990 sticker compares very well with a Golf GTi from $40,490, the Golf R at $49,990 and the Lancer Ralliart SST from $43,990. There are other hottish hatches around, for example a Mini or a BMW 1 Series. The STI is up a gear from there and, in Australia, the only series opponent is the Lancer Evo from $61,390.
The update to the Subaru range brings extra value with the wide-body look on the WRX, as well as Bluetooth, an STI exhaust, lightweight 17-inch alloys and a rear-suspension upgrade. The STI kick includes a five millimetre cut to ride height with revised suspension, new 18-inch wheels, darker instrument panel and door trim and Bluetooth.
We're looking primarily at the STI so the big changes are the revised suspension and the automatic transmission. It's a five-speed with a sequential change, but the shift is the 'wrong way' for sporty driving with downshifts requiring a pull backwards instead of a push forwards. But the big disappointment in the STI auto is the engine. It still makes 221 kiloWatts but loses a full 57 Newton-metres from the manual car to protect the gearbox from damage under maximum acceleration.
The 2011 updates gives the STI a real visual kick. At last the sedan is back in the family and it looks tough with the big wing, droopy front spoiler and the big alloys, as well as the minor tweaks inside.
Subaru has always been big on safety and the important change this year is - surprisingly - Bluetooth. It's not as important as airbags, ESP, ABS or all-wheel drive, but it allows the driver to go hands-free on the phone and that is a huge thing in 2010.
The new STI looks rally-bred tough and that's great. It's also comfortable with chunky sports buckets, has quality in the trim and equipment, and comes with rock-solid resale and service backup. And yet ...The STI automatic is a major disappointment. It's the first turbocharged Impreza I've driven in more than 10 years that fails to deliver the goods.
I can live without the huffing and puffing of the turbo, and without the wicked redline rush which has always been part of the STI experience, but this car is plain dowdy in the middle gears. The loss of all that torque hits so hard that the STI is a snoozer around town. You can give it a rev - provided it does not make an unwanted automatic upshift - to get some fun but it is not remotely what an STI driver wants.
If Subaru was so keen to have a self-shifter, it should have done the job on the regular WRX and left the STI as the kick-hard car. The rest of the deal is good, with excellent cornering grip and balance, classy brakes, and pretty good fuel economy. Some things still feel a bit cheap and tinny, like the way the boot closes, but the STI compensates with the tough new look and the welcome return of a four-door sedan.
SHE SAYS - Alison Ward
There is a sticker on the back window that says 'All 4 the driver' and I believe it. Every WRX I have driven is definitely a fun experience, and not much comfort is given to the passengers.
But this latest, easy-to-drive version of the legendary car is not as formidable as earlier models, or even - I suspect - the manual models today. I think the effort here from Subaru might be lost to the usual WRX customer. Where is the speed? Where is the slam-into-the-seat feeling? Well, it's still there, but a little quieter and a little more refined. And without any urgency unless you give the car a rev.
It's probably brilliant for those people who enjoy a practical car for everyday use, or for the lazy driver who just wants to punch it out every now and then, not at every set of lights. With the toned-down grunt, the automatic gearbox is a breeze to use but can really fire up when you add on some power revs. It a sobering ride, and still reasonably comfortable and edgy enough to feel all the bumps. So perhaps it's the legendary car it always was, just now its showing off its softer side.
VERDICT: The wrong car for a lazy automatic gearbox.
Subaru WRX STI auto sedan
PRICE: $59,990 as tested
ENGINE: 2.5-litre turbocharged four cylinder
OUTPUT: 221kW@6200 revs/350Nm@3000-6000 revs
CO2 EMISSIONS: 249g/km
TRANSMISSION: Five-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
BODY: Four-door sedan
DIMENSIONS: Length 4580mm, Width 1795mm, Height 1470mm, Wheelbase 2625mm
TRACKS: 1530mm front/1540mm rear
STEERING: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
SUSPENSION: Fully independent with front MacPherson struts, rear double wishbones
FUEL TANK: 60 litres
FUEL TYPE: Premium unleaded
SPARE TYRE: Space saver
BRAKES: ABS four-wheel discs
WHEELS: 18x8.5 alloy
SAFETY GEAR: Front-side-curtain airbags, ABS, ESP, all-wheel drive
HOW IT COMPARES
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo (from $61,390): 9/10
Mini Cooper S (from $48,600): 7/10
Volkswagen Golf GTi (from $40,490): 9/10
Volkswagen Golf R (from $49,990): 8/10