The Subaru WRX STI has been with us since the early 1990s and over the years it has won the hearts of many rally fans, motoring journalists and even James in 2014. But as is always the way, it’s time for the daddy of AWD hot saloons to pass the torch and take off its boots for good. Where the Subaru used to dominate the niche market for high-power high-performance small saloons and hatchbacks along with fellow Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi with the Lancer Evolution, a combination of rising running costs and stronger competition from the likes of VW/Audi and Ford mean these straight-out-of-the-box hooligans are no longer viable.
This is sad news for anyone lucky enough to have ever driven a WRX STI or a Lancer Evo, as even though the new breed of AWD hot-hatches like the Ford Focus RS and Golf R are brilliant, they’re all a bit too serious compared to the loony Japanese cars of the past. When you sit in an Impreza or Mitsubishi, it’s not a great place to be. You’re not sat in soft comfy supple leather seats and you’re not surrounded by pleasant soft-touch materials and a shopping list of mod-cons. Instead, you are in a hard but supportive bucket seat and the dashboard is more like the inside of a biscuit tin than a $50k car. This all sounds terrible, but then when you drive the car you soon completely forget about the quality of the plastics and just enjoy the sheer driving thrill.
The first time I got to drive an Impreza was about 13 years ago round an old disused airfield as a warm-up before taking a Ferrari F355 round and I distinctly remember that even though the F355 was great, those first few laps in the hawk-eye Impreza were far more fun! The grip was the main thing that impressed me, how you could throw it into a corner at just about any speed and you always completely in control. The Ferrari was more fragile feeling, you had to really make sure you were on the ball with entry speed in the turns and work the revs to pick up speed again whereas the Impreza was so forgiving, and completely idiot proof – perfect for an 18-year-old me with little-to-no track experience at the time.
Fast-forward to 2019 and I find myself back in the driver’s seat of a Subaru WRX STI – but this one is the latest and unfortunately the last edition of this now iconic and adored car. Finished in blue with that unmistakable rear spoiler, this current version looks all as aggressive and race-ready as all its predecessors. The car only comes in one spec with the turbocharged 2.5litre 4-cylinder Boxer engine producing a satisfactory 296bhp and 407nm of torque giving it a 0-62mph time of around 5.1 seconds which doesn’t actually sound that impressive compared to cars like the Focus RS and Golf R, but due to its super-still suspension setup and fantastic 6-speed manual gearbox, it feels so much quicker. Brakes are the same 17″ 4-pots at the front and 2-pot at the rear from the previous edition, but a larger master cylinder and tuned brake booster have been fitted sharpening up braking response and these sit behind a set of 18″ alloy wheels clad in high-performance Dunlop SP Sport Maxx rubber.
Inside you get some lovely body-hugging Alcantara and leather front race seats with some “trendy” red stitching and STI branding and a bit of the now-standard naff faux-carbon we seem to be seeing in more and more cars of late. Compared to a lot of other cars in its class, the overall feel of the cabin is not the best, but it has definitely come a long way from Subarus of old. There’s also a definite “less is more” feel to the buttons and dash. It all looks a bit dated and analogue compared to Audi’s virtual cockpit and such, but I’m old school and hate all that stuff anyway, so to me it’s bang on. To me, you have a steering wheel in front of you, a gear lever to the left, three pedals down below and a road ahead. I couldn’t care less about the rest of it. If I wanted all that stuff, I’d get back in a nice exec-spec Mercedes – that is not what this car is about.
On the open road, there is a real sense of nostalgia with this car, from the slightly behind-the-times interior to its heavy steering and clutch. These days everything is built for comfort and ease and, let’s be honest, most Golf Rs sold will have the DSG ‘box fitted as they are mainly leased by car salespeople and estate agents who commute in them every day, but all the controls in the WRX have some weight and resistance behind them, meaning you have to actually work for the reward. The steering may be heavy, but it’s so precise and the grip is unbelievable from those Dunlop tyres, the car seems unflappable on tarmac. I think the part of the driving experience I like the most about the car though is the way you still have a real amount of turbo lag and you really have to work those revs to get the most out of it on a good piece of backroad. Modern turbocharged engines have all but eliminated this lag resulting in instant power and that’s great if you like that sort of thing, but the fact that there are still these dull spots in the lower rev range where the immediate power deficit is almost laughable mean that when you drop down the gears before that turn and then push your way out and then you get that sudden surge of boost as the turbo spools up is so rewarding and you still feel like you’ve done at least some of the work. It makes you feel like you are in charge of the car and that’s rare nowadays.
I really like the WRX STI but the problem is, like it, I am also a Dinosaur in the car world. Times are changing faster than ever and both the Subaru and I are being left in the dust by younger, cleverer and more tech-savvy counterparts. It is a real tragedy that this much-loved model will be dropped but at the same time, it’s paved the way for so many great cars that just address the demands of today’s buyer so much better. Where you used to either have balls-out performance and fun OR everyday comfort and economy, manufacturers like VW/Audi have mastered the art of creating the best of both worlds in one handsome package. If someone asked me to recommend a high-performance AWD saloon as a second car for weekend track and stage fun I’d point them towards a Subaru every time, but if they wanted the same recommendation for use 7 days a week the VW Golf R wins just about every time. I’ll miss the WRX STI greatly, but it’s definitely better to go now on a high with a model as good as this one than just fade into the background in a few years time.
*Don’t worry folks, the WRX STI has only been discontinued in Europe. We’re expecting a refreshed WRX STI in Australia in 2020.