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Subaru WRX STI manual 2014 review

The new STI is an epic drive - on road and track.
Subaru's performance flagship is the car it should have been last time. But is that enough now?

Subaru's performance flagship is the car it should have been last time. But is that enough now? Halfway to The Corkscrew, the epic twisting, challenging bend as the top of the Laguna Seca raceway in California, everything drops into place.

I've been hammering the new Subaru STI for the best part of a day, on public roads and now on one of the world's best racetracks, without finding answers to my questions. I cannot understand why there is no increase in power or torque, why the cabin looks so underwhelming, why the styling falls so far short of the thunder-punch STI Concept, or why Subaru is so busy talking about handling, handling, handling.

Then I realise, as I push the slick-shift manual gearbox up into fifth, that this car is more than the sum of its parts. It's a sleeper in a world of shouty cars, from the Renault Clio RS to the Mercedes-AMG C63 507. I have no fear as I attack The Corkscrew, the brakes are great, I can get all 225kW hard down on to the road, and the balance through corners is terrific.

I have no hesitation in saying the new STI is easily the best driving car yet from Subaru, with a balanced package of performance that buries memories of earlier cars that were spoilt by monstrous turbo lag, diagonal pitching in corners, and brakes which were better for the school run. In short, the 2015 STI is an epic drive. Not just at Laguna Seca but on the sort of gnarly backroads that are rare in northern California but as common as kangaroos at home in Australia.

Still, is it enough? We don't know the price yet, although it's likely to sit right on the $59,990 of the current car, but the new STI will be competing in a different world when it lands in April.

There was a time when the only real rival to the STI was the Lancer Evo from Mitsubishi, which was always a bog-basic car with a belter drivetrain package. Now there are AMG Benzes in the compact class, lots of brilliant hot hatches including the Renault Megane RS, a new Mini line-up and more — including plenty of second-hand GT-R Skylines.

The global press preview of the new STI is very Japanese, with plenty of talk from project chief Masuo Takatsu about inspiration and feelings. He wants us to believe that driving a performance car is like surfing or skateboarding. "The factor I consider the most important is that the vehicle behaves as the driver thinks it will. And drives exactly as the driver intends," Takatsu says.

"A controllable car is fun, also safe." His bottom line is fine, as far as it goes. "The driver should step out of the car with a smile on their face. This is my approach to vehicle development."


But what about the unchanged 2.5-litre turbocharged boxer four — when the WRX has the new-age 2.0-litre? Or the unchanged six-speed manual gearbox? Or the lack of any sort of hybrid assistance? Everything I'm hearing tells me the STI should be an underwhelming disappointment. There is no more power, the sprint times are unchanged, the styling is pedestrian and the car doesn't have the wow factor of previous cars with an STI badge.


There are also signs of cost cutting, from the sedan - only bodywork to the Recaro front buckets that are missing from the new cabin. So let's drill down into the detail of the changes, just to see what has happened. Obviously, there is a new Impreza body to play with and Takatsu talks about a much stiffer chassis, sharper steering, less roll in corners, firmer springs, stiffer cross members, rear shock absorbers set closer to the wheels, and — the big one — active torque vectoring in the drivetrain to feed the wheels with best grip.

There is also some improvement to the shift action in the car and the bodywork gets the predictable stuff from puffed-out guards to a four-pipe exhaust and a giant rear wing. Even Takatsu admits it's an evolutionary job. "Adding new things doesn't mean making a better car. New is not always good," he says.

So, what about the bodywork, which has lost the impact of the STI Concept car and disappointed lots of enthusiasts? "Those cars would be illegal for many countries. It is just impossible for car makers to reproduce concept cars as production cars," he says. What about the lack of an automatic, particularly as Subaru has turned to economy-first CVT transmissions? "Never. A performance car must always be manual."

And the decision to only build the STI as a sedan? "Engineering resource. We wanted to make the best, best car and to do that we had to focus on one style of car. We are still a small company."

And there you have it — an admission that Subaru does not have the money, or the people, to do everything. That's why it was forced to partner with Toyota to make its BRZ sports car, and why it has cut corners on the STI.


But now it's time to go and carve a few corners, and tackle Laguna Seca, to see if Takatsu is right and the people who have always enjoyed the straight-line handling of a turbo-boosted flat four have been living a dream.

There is only once choice for the drive — a rally blue STI, even though Subaru says its motorsport focus is now on the Nurburgring 24-hour race in Germany.

The car looks nifty enough, with its bonnet scoop and rear wing, but the cabin looks like a regular Impreza with a bit of carbon-fibre tweaking and some red STI highlights. It really needs a bigger display screen and something more special than red-lit instruments.

The sound is familiar but the shift action is more positive than I remember, and the step-off is better thanks to a change to the programming for the accelerator. The ride is firm but not ridiculous, which is a good sign. And then we get to the corners … As I put the hammer down, the STI does everything I want.

It has an abundance of grip, is far more neutral in its cornering balance than any previous Subaru, and is easier to keep above 4000rpm and in the turbo band. It also copes far better with bumps and thumps, handles mid-corner potholes with ease and is always driving forward with the torque vectoring system feeding the right wheels at the right time.

The brakes are good but not outstanding, and I worry about tyre noise on coarse-chip Aussie bitumen. Takatsu's words come back: "For this model, it's not the numbers. I think the chassis from previous models were not using the full potential of the engine power." But back to Laguna Seca, a track I have tackled and battled before in the Mercedes-AMG SLS Gullwing.

I expect the STI to be underwhelming after the belter Benz but it's good, even better than good. It has plenty of power, is easily to keep in the turbo zone, sits flat in corners, and doesn't fight my decisions on where we're going and when. It is a car that's great to drive, even on a track this tough.


As we leave the circuit, I'm certain that the new STI is an epic drive - on road and track. But is that enough today, with AMG doing such a good job in the compact class, and so many other ways to spend your money on a car that's fun to drive? It's a definite maybe.

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(AWD) 2.5L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $16,700 – 23,210 2014 Subaru WRX 2014 (AWD) Pricing and Specs
Premium (AWD) 2.5L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $18,300 – 25,520 2014 Subaru WRX 2014 Premium (AWD) Pricing and Specs
STI 2.5L, PULP, 5 SP $23,500 – 31,900 2014 Subaru WRX 2014 STI Pricing and Specs
STI Spec R 2.5L, PULP, 6 SP MAN $28,900 – 38,280 2014 Subaru WRX 2014 STI Spec R Pricing and Specs
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