Mountain Wheels: Learning to fly in Subaru’s speedy WRX STI (review)
Why, in the name of all that is holy, why the wing? What does the wing mean?
Ah yes, fellow travelers, the wing — the fierce demarcation of those who lead an automotive lifestyle that is not much like yours. Unlike yourself, those with wings on their cars believe they can fly, and that they should fly, as much and as frequently as possible.
Therein lies the strange truth at the heart of the Subaru WRX STI, the ultra-zooty, upgraded, rally-raised and fast-moving icon for racer boys everywhere. That damned wing is a symbol of a car that’s not just a set of tires and a steering wheel, it’s a lifestyle. A lifestyle that’s even more problematic when its adherents start to mess around with the exhaust, as well.
The STI remains the primary target in a field that’s quickly become loaded down with similar high-performance, relatively small-sized machines, all built to swerve, spin and sweep into corners, with less of the outright ridiculousness of today’s 500-plus-horsepower full-size monsters. Mitsubishi’s Evo may be gone, but the Ford Focus RS and the new Honda Civic Type-R have appeared as challengers, plus a bevy of muscle-car competitors.
In the STI’s case, the new WRX chassis is reinvigorated with a 2.5-liter turbo four-cylinder that’s tuned to 306 horsepower, integrated with a left-leg-killing (but absolutely faultless) six-speed manual transmission, and then massaged with Brembo brakes, all around.
Just to further annoy the world, my Limited edition’s Brembos were painted day-glo yellow — but with good reason. It is very difficult to land a flying car without a striking way to stop. Or, in the mysterious rituals involved in the bro subculture that generally pilots these machines, perhaps yellow (on a black paint job) just makes the automobile’s prowess that more pronounced, especially on the new, 19-inch alloy wheels.
STI is not made for ambling, for lollygagging or simple tooling around. You never see them casually blend into traffic, doing double nickels on the dime, or patiently driving behind slower automobiles with out-of-state license plates.
No, this is a car built for action. From the oversized (but, from the factory, not overly loud) exhaust pipes to that tall and squarish wing (whose proportions, plus a high-center brake lamp, sometimes give STI drivers the permanent impression they are being followed at all times, which is usually true), everything is an extra degree of ridiculous, in mostly good ways.
Ginormous aero treatments along the rocker panels, a fire-breathing hood scoop and carbon-fiberish trim on the lower front lip also serve to demarcate the STI from the by-comparisons pedestrian standard WRX.
On the inside, maybe a little too stock for its own good (or the nearly $40,000 tab on my tester, though mine also had surprisingly less-than-brutal Recaro race seats and a push-button starter system added).
But it’s in the STI that all of those mode knobs and buttons, which now appear in variants on lesser models, really make sense. My advice is to go with Sport — which intensifies the throttle responses and the idle — and then set the customized electronic center-differential control for forward torque split if you are climbing or autocrossing, or move it to the rear for more old-fashioned rear-wheel-drive styled speed and careening. There’s also a zillion pages of performance readouts on the center console-topping display; focus on the digital speedometer on the instrument display instead.
Because, dear friends, STI really does believe it can fly. The boost is unthinkably fierce and the six-speed manual can actually help safely mitigate so much acceleration, especially if you ever plan on turning.
Those Brembos are stupendous but STI’s gait is often so great that heavy engine braking by downshifting is your primary means of control. You may consider the clutch weight to be brutal for standard driving, but a couple of laps spent trying to put the 90-MPH-vehicle into a 15-MPH corner, and you’ll appreciate the industrial qualities and precision.
STI’s steering is also notably rigid, perhaps a little alarmingly so in the electronic differential’s default mode; I found things lightened up a bit with either forward or rear bias, as regular driving required a lot of tugging otherwise.
The car’s ride quality is not fluffy in any sense, and while that may be disconcerting for your occasional civilian-duty passenger, STI pilots recognize the necessity. The supremely turbocharged engine burble and whine is also another love-it-or-hate-it part of the package.
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