Mountain Wheels: Subaru’s ferocious WRX STI still reigns as rally king
August 9, 2014
2015 WRX STI
Powertrain: 305-HP 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder Boxer engine, 6-speed manual transmission
EPA mpg figures: TBA
Having recently experienced some extremely impressive driving dynamics and raw excitement in a $20K-plus Ford Fusion ST, I had pretty high expectations for the car that's always considered the senior king of that class, the rally car-derived Subaru WRX STI.
And in its all-new 2015 edition, the full-blown version of the WRX is indeed a more well-rounded and oftentimes frightening version of that little Ford, with a full-time all-wheel-drive system that makes the STI the best-handling car I've ever driven.
It's not the best-looking or the most comfortable, mind you — STI fans have long appreciated the car's iconic but standoffish looks, and the 2015 is still more geared for a poster on a 15-year-old boy's bedroom wall than the kind of vehicle your wife really wants to see in the driveway. Especially with that loop of a wing on the back, crafted to — I did not know this — actually reduce downforce, especially when careening along a dirt road in Poland at 130 mph, as the rally guys do. Or with the old-school blue paint/gold wheels combo, standard guise for the car.
But if you're in that thin demographic that genuinely wants a purebred rally machine for daily usage and is happy to get the steering, Brembo-powered braking and overall twist-eating dynamics of an Italian exotic for about $40,000, this would be your car.
Yes, the 2.5-liter Boxer engine still angrily burbles like a sewing machine if you go more than 72 mph on the highway. Yes, the standard six-speed transmission has a race-worthy clutch that did indeed decimate my knee muscles after a day spent driving like one of those hard-to-pronounce Finnish rally champs. Yes, the cheapo Recaro seats in the Fiesta ST were more comfortable than STI's leathery but oddly flat and not intensely race-styled seats.
For the dedicated fan base, that's nirvana. As a civilian version of those championship-winning rally machines, 305 HP is plenty enough to get the stubby car as fast as you want it to go before taking it completely sideways — and always completely in control, despite being suddenly sideways.
The new WRX is nothing to sneeze at, but the STI version really pulls out all the stops, with upgraded hydraulic power steering that's ominously sharp. What's more, with the driver-adjustable center differential system, you can send more of that power to the front, useful for hill-climbing or snowy situations, or drop the bias to the rear and lighten up the steering effort.
Whatever the case, you have a vehicle that handles curves in an almost organic fashion, seemingly effortlessly. You'll frequently get the impression that you're going way, way faster than you are — and you will be going fast — but STI's compressed stance and glassy interior (A-pillars and windows you can actually see through in a corner, for instance) do accentuate the vehicle's primal, explosive responses.
Is the ride brutally stiff? Maybe. Does the blatter of the engine get tiresome, especially when pushed too hard? Possibly. Does any of that matter, if this is the car of your dreams? No, these are all positive attributes in the extremely focused niche the STI occupies.
Those are the folks who will most appreciate the car's menacing add-ons, including an oversized hood scoop, road-hugging aero treatments front and back (the rear ones looking about as serious as those you'll see on the Nissan GT-R or the new Corvette), plus beautiful, open-spoke wheels. Quad exhausts serve to finalize the point. Smaller details, such as the brake-cooling slots in the rear of the wheel wells, do accentuate the STI's performance objectives.
You will find, however, ample evidence that this is not a $100,000 race car, such as the dull and thin-sounding trunk lid, and a mixture of finishings that are classy but in no way luxurious. Purpose-driven, race-oriented design – the ultimate in cool for those who know what they want.