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Subaru's STi sharp as ever

The Subaru Impreza WRX STi is an awesome performer.

That their idol has been defiled by marketing executives.

In trying to convert the masses rather than being content with remaining an item of cargo-cult worship, they say, Subaru has succeeded only in diminishing the WRX's hard-core appeal.

So, before the new WRX STi — the hero car of the Subaru range —does battle with Mitsubishi's forth coming Evo X, it must redeem its duller siblings.

Symmons Plains Raceway, and the adjoining public roads of northern Tasmania, provided the first Australian exposure to the STi.

It looks how it looks, although the body kit, bespoke alloys and rich blue paint job make the most of things.

Only bonnet, roof and front panels are shared with the regular WRX. The STi also cops blistered arches, a mesh grille, exit vents and a rear spoiler, plus Dunlop SP Sport 600s wrapped around 18-inch alloys.

Seen in a rear-vision mirror, it's fairly anonymous, despite the gaping letter slot in the bonnet. Can “Subaru” and “styling” never sit comfortably in the same sentence?

Actually, the whole hatch thing, which has peeved the purists, came about not for reasons of family practicality (which this has in spades over the old jigger), but to restore Subaru to its former place of pride in the World Rally Championship.

With a longer wheelbase, shorter overhangs and a lower centre of gravity, the hatch offers significantly sharper dynamics than the sedan. If it's good enough for Petter Solberg, it should be good enough for boy(ish) racers.

Even with its wonderful leather/Alcantara Recaro front thrones and aluminium accents, the $64,990 spec. R barely begins to approach the interior ambience of the Golf R32/Audi S3 market at which Subaru claims to be aiming.

As for the drably turned-out $59,990 base model, there are lusher interiors out there for half the dough.

But, as a device to tempt performance-loving drivers away from the Euros, the STi makes its case where it needs to.

A performance bargain par excellence, it not only delivers emphatically when asked but can be driven daily without compromise or having an osteopath on retainer.

And, if the new STi is clinically accomplished rather than raw, well, it's 2008 now, not 1994.

The carry-over 2.5-litre turbocharged flat four has been revised with variable cam timing and a bigger intercooler to attain 221kW at 60000rpm and 407Nm from 4000.

While that translates to slamming straight-line acceleration (0-100km/h in 5.3 seconds), it comes in a manner that, although not exactly linear, is a good deal more progressive than was previously the case.

Nor should the STi outrage the Green-tinged, returning a claimed 10.3 litres of premium unleaded per 100km and emitting a Euro IV-compliant 243 grams of CO2 per kilometre. Which is nice, but not really why we're here.

Were here, largely, to see if the STi's host of electronic trickery is more than just a series of irritating gimmicks.

We know enough of SI-Drive from the Liberty to ignore the juice-saving Intelligent mode and simply ratchet it past Sport into Sport Sharp for enhanced response.

The Drivers Control Centre Differential (DCCD) is a new thing to us, and at first we leave it set to Auto so that it varies the front/rear torque split between 50:50 and 41:59.

Although the STi answers throttle inputs impressively and grips with grim determination and seemingly endless reserves, the setting feels somewhat soft, the nose wanting to push wide around Symmons Plains' sweepers.

Fingertip the DCCD back to Auto minus, which reduces the vigilance of the centre differential, and in comes the tail to shove the nose into those same bends.

The big Brembo brakes aren't immune to fade on a circuit where even neophytes achieve a good clip, but away from the duress of the track they slow the STi from any speed with immense authority.

Two laps of five in, it's time to flip the DCCD switch to manual and dial down its intervention factor.

Even with the stability control partly active, the STi is sharper and more alive, exhibiting definite rear-wheel bias if not oversteer.

This would be the mode of choice, although the beauty of this initial burden of choice is in allowing you to make of it what you will.

Off-track now, scaling the local hills, the almost infinite adjustability of all this gadgetry makes even more sense.

Switch between Sport and Sport Sharp from SI-Drive (Intelligent is for the M5 in peak hour) and set the DCCD according to mood and circumstance.

The STi's turn-in is as sharp as you'll find in an all-wheel-drive car, with commensurate feel through a steering wheel that rattles over rough stuff — at which point you'll need to raise your voice to be heard by passengers.

Noise control is light years behind a German car's, but you won't care.

The STi's front-of-corner talent is surpassed only by its explosive exit.

Roll, such as it is on twisting tarmac, is informative rather than distracting and ride is as close to compliant as could be had without distracting from the STi's core abilities.

And those abilities are there to be accessed to whatever extent you feel willing and able at the flick of a button or two — meaning that, for all its electronic frippery, Subaru's sharpest weapon is one whose deployment is limited only by the driver.





Price: $59,990, $64,990 (spec.R)

Engine: 2.5-litre/four-cylinder turbo; 221kW/407Nm

Transmission: six-speed manual, all-wheel drive

Performance: 0-100km/h, 5.3 secs


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