Wing and a prayer
The new STI is what the WRX should have been
FOR some people, fast just isn’t fast enough. That’s why there are several levels of Ferraris and Porsches from which to choose.
The formula has not been lost on the mainstream brands, which use highly profitable and highly desirable performance cars to subsidise more affordable models in the range, while boosting their brand image.
Volkswagen is cutting the guts out of the base model Golf at $22,990 drive-away, including metallic paint, and dealers can’t even afford to throw in floor mats apparently. But, in the same breath, VW increases the price of its Golf GTI by $500 because it’s an indemand model with up to a four-month waiting list.
VW figures buyers in this price range can comfortably cough up another $500, to $41,490. The top-line Golf R stretches the friendship further at more than $50,000 (though, as we discovered last week, this is a cut-price BMW M5 that’s worth every cent).
Which brings us neatly to the Subaru WRX STI released this week.
It’s the more potent version of the regular WRX, cooked up with the customary ingredients: bigger brakes, bigger wheels, a bigger engine and a bigger turbo. Oh, and how could we forget, a bigger rear wing.
But there is one critical element missing: the epic price gap. Since the first STI was released locally in 1999, Subaru has gotten away with whacking a massive $20,000 premium on top of the regular WRX for the STI version. Not any more.
Sanity has prevailed and the new WRX STI is $10,000 cheaper, starting at $49,990.
That’s still $11,000 dearer than the standard WRX, so Subaru executives won’t be turning up to soup kitchens with an empty cup anytime soon.
The new price point is aided in no small part to an artificially devalued Japanese Yen, a strong Australian dollar, and the realisation that Subaru can’t possibly justify such a ridiculous premium amid the current competition.
But Subaru shouldn’t congratulate itself. All of the STI add-ons equate to about a $5000 premium (brakes, wheels, tyres, and more robust drivetrain hardware). Subaru has even saved money in the engine department. It’s the same turbocharged 2.5-litre four-cylinder that’s been used in the STI for the past seven years.
It’s been barely touched. Power is unchanged. Furthermore the STI’s engine is likely cheaper to build than that of the regular WRX, which is a fancy new direct injection unit. Subaru can get away with charging more than the sum of the STI’s parts because enthusiast buyers will pay.
As before, there are two models in the range. Standard fare on the $49,990 version includes cloth-covered sports seats, navigation, a rear view camera, a sensor key, a premium sound system, dual zone air-conditioning, and a liberal application of STI badges, one of which is tastefully illuminated in the centre console (albeit in pink). The STI gets the bigger brakes that the regular WRX also deserves: Brembo four-piston calipers upfront and two-piston rears, and 18-inch alloy wheels.
The luxury version, priced from $54,990, gains leather seats, a sunroof, bespoke BBS 18-inch wheels, heated mirrors and front seats, and electric adjustment for the driver’s seat. A six-speed manual transmission is standard.
Subaru still lacks fixed price servicing (maintenance intervals are 12,500km or six months, whichever comes first) whereas VW and others give buyers transparency and peace of mind.
Resale values of the WRX STI take a bigger hit than the regular WRX because you’re starting from a higher price, although this may improve with the new model.
Used examples in original condition (resist the urge to modify the exhaust, engine and suspension; apart from potentially voiding the warranty, it’ll dent resale value) with a perfect service history and low kilometres (45,000km) can fetch 50 per cent of their RRP after three years (average).
There is a tricky boost pressure and G-force display in the digital screen on the top of the dash. Meanwhile Subaru uses its “Si Drive” dial to adjust the sharpness of the throttle response, although it doesn’t deliver any extra power.
The canyon between the stunning Subaru WRX concept car and the showroom reality has been well documented. Sadly, the STI does little to bridge the gap and may have even committed a bigger sin: an overreaction to the sedan’s blandness.
The main visual difference
between the regular WRX and the STI is the plastic picnic table mounted on the boot-lid that doubles as a wing and can been seen on Google Earth satellite view. The big wing wasn’t cool in the 1990s and looks even more ridiculous now.
Fortunately, Subaru has decided to make the STI’s wing a “delete option” for the first time. If you buy the car with a wing and then change your mind, be warned. The wing is tapered at each end to handle airflow over the car, so you can’t use it as a table.
The coffee mugs would slide off. Check the magnet on your fridge for the local council’s next hard rubbish collection date.
Seven airbags and a five-star safety rating carry over from the WRX and the rest of the Impreza range. Stability control has two settings — standard mode and a racetrack mode — as well as ‘off’, which should be only used on a track.
A rear view camera is standard (the same as that found in the WRX) but the screen is small and there are no parking sensors front or rear (these are standard on the cheapest VW Golf GTI).
The new STI is exhilarating. It’s what the WRX should have been.
The STI’s ageing 2.5-litre engine may have redefined turbo lag in the modern era, but once revs rise above 3500rpm and pull all the way to 6500rpm, the car thrusts with such force that your body is obliged to release a shot of adrenalin to give your brain sufficient power to keep up.
The turbo engines on European rivals deliver better overall performance over a broader power band. The STI’s narrow power delivery defines its character and makes it feel faster than it is. Subaru says the STI can do the 0 to 100km/h dash in 4.9 seconds but, using satellite-based timing equipment, the best we could achieve after numerous attempts (without melting the clutch) was 5.7 seconds.
The STI’s weight gain and the lack of a slick-shifting twinclutch transmission blunt acceleration. Europeans can achieve the same accelerative feat in a real-world, neckbreaking, 5.0 seconds.
Nevertheless, the STI is a blast. The six-speed manual gearshift is smoother than before, which is a good thing as you row through the cogs to keep the revs in the engine’s sweet spot. The steering is heavier than the regular WRX but more communicative. You feel the front wheels clambering over the contours in the road under hard acceleration. It delights the senses. Grip from the Dunlop 18-inch tyres is impressive — in the wet or dry
— and the ride comfort over bumps is excellent by performance-car standards. The only caveat is that, at suburban speeds, the STI’s suspension feels busy, although not firm.
The STI’s four-piston front brake calipers and large discs ensure there is ample stopping power, time and time again. The brake pedal also has a much more precise feel than the regular WRX. The sooner the base model WRX gets these brakes, the better.
Downsides? The interior is all but identical to the WRX but for some STI logos and, although the appearance and quality seem better than before, they’re no match for the euros.
Nor does the over-sized rear wing suddenly transform this fairly bland sedan into a visual heart-starter. The very fact that there’s not much to differentiate the STI from the regular WRX highlights just how much extra profit margin there is in the STI.
But as long as performance cars delight the senses, buyers will open their wallets and sign on the dotted line.
The new STI won’t win any style awards or attract buyers of European cars, but its disciples will continue to appreciate its eccentricity.