POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Subaru have come up with an Impreza WRX STi to properly rival Mitsubishi’s Evo X. Jonathan Crouch drives the 330S version.
Drive this car like you stole it and it’ll never fail to plant a huge grin on your face….
If you doubt that motorsport really does improve the breed, then a car like Subaru’s Impreza WRX STi should offer all the reassurance you need. This car’s bloodline has been honed across rally special stages the world over, with a heritage that goes back to the early Nineties. ‘STi’ stands for Subaru Technica International and is the go-faster wing of Subaru, much as M is to BMW, AMG is to Mercedes or, more accurately, Ralliart is to Mitsubishi.
WRX Imprezas with well over 200bhp on tap have been officially imported into the UK since the turn of the century, with plenty of grey imports before that. However, it was only when this car’s rally replica arch-rival, Mitsubishi’s Evo, threatened to embarrass Subaru in the power stakes that the WRX STi version arrived in 2002, boasting an extra 60bhp in an effort to settle the issue once and for all.
It didn’t of course and Subaru quickly authorised tuners Prodrive to boost it close to 300bhp with optional kits aimed at keeping upstart Evo owners honest. The third generation STi model we’re looking at here got 295bhp from the start to deal with standard Mitsubishi Evo Xs, before the even faster STi 330S we’re driving here added a further 30bhp to the mix.
If you really want a car that will make you feel like World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb on the back road home, then this four wheel drive replica rallycar will certainly deliver. Even the standard 296bhp version will jet to sixty in around 5 seconds with an urgency that makes you feel as if you’ve been clouted up the rear by a wrecking ball – or at least that’s what you feel once you’ve past 4,000rpm, when the turbo cuts in with a savagery clearly intended to make up for its slightly lethargic feel at low revs. The extra 60Nm of torque offered by this 326bhp STi 330S model comes in useful here but it’s still a very on/off experience, like the early turbocharged cars of the Eighties.
In other words, drive this car like you stole it and it’ll never fail to plant a huge grin on your face. Approach the whole thing in a slightly more restrained manner and the noisy exhaust, rather vague steering and lumpy ride might leave you wondering what all the fuss is about. Still, there are so many dimensions to the hard core STi driving experience that it’ll probably be difficult for this car’s target petrolhead audience not to find it an addictive drug. And a very personal one. Once you’ve mastered the intricacies of the handbook, you’ll find that you can set the car up exactly to your driving preferences, just like a race team would if this was your racecar.
Let me give you a couple of examples. If, for instance, you want to change the front or rear end bias – like an F1 driver would – then the DCCD (Driver Control Centre Differential) lets you do it, via a switch on the transmission tunnel, enhancing either straightline ability or the car’s agility through corners. Then there’s ‘Si’ mode. Here, you can play with the throttle mapping via three different modes. It’s a sign of our times that one of them (‘I’ for ‘Intelligent’) is aimed at keeping the engine economical, with a change-up light for efficient driving. Do the decent thing and ignore it. Or go buy a turbodiesel. The second setting, ‘Sport’, is the normal one but it’s only you switch the setting to this one, ‘Sport Sharp’, that the power boost becomes neck-snapping.
This car can catapult through a set of twisties with a glorious yowl and incredible agility, aided by an all-wheel drive set-up that distributes torque from front to rear using a viscous coupling and from side to side courtesy of mechanical limited slip differentials. It also helps that the unique flat four boxer design of this car’s 2.5-litre engine keeps the car’s centre of gravity low, sharpening up a driving experience further aided by a slick, short-throw 6-speed gearbox.
All Imprezas now use a five-door hatchback bodyshape that can look pretty anonymous in lesser guises but which is properly macho in this one, mainly thanks to heavily blistered wheel arches. These allow the wheels to be pushed out another 45mm at the front and 40mm at the back, giving the car a pugnacious, foursquare stance. A mesh front grille, fatter wheels, a huge air intake and a prominent tail spoiler also up the ante. Side skirts give the effect of visually lowering the car while a high-mounted spoiler and quad exhaust pipes will leave those who have just been overtaken in little doubt as to what’s just blown by.
Moving inside, the leather and alcantara-trimmed sports seats look inviting, the steering wheel’s good to hold and the little pre-start dance performed by the instrument needles when you twist the ignition key is quite a nice touch. Overall though, despite the fact that interior quality has taken a step forward from that of older Imprezas, it’s still not quite what you’d expect from a £25,000-£30,000 car. At least the cabin’s a little bigger than you might be expecting, with fair rear seat legroom, thanks to a 95mm wheelbase increase over the previous generation version. The same goes for the boot, thanks to the adoption of multi-link rear suspension which has freed up space for 538 litres of luggage room.
List prices suggest that you’ll be paying somewhere between £26,000 and £30,000 for your Impreza WRX STi, with a premium of over £4,000 for the 330S version that we’re testing here. So it’ll save you a significant amount on a comparable Mitsubishi Evo X and it also undercuts Audi’s S3, a car with 30bhp less.
Whether you choose the standard 296bhp model or this 326bhp 330S, equipment levels are strong, although an Impreza STi is not the car to buy if you want luxury. Standard gear includes Brembo brakes with ABS , ESP stability control, front, side and curtain airbags, 17-inch alloy wheels, high intensity headlights, Alcantara and leather front bucket seats, a 6-disc CD autochanger, climate controlled air conditioning and, rather curiously for a car of this kind, cruise control. The 330S tries to justify its large premium with Recaro sports seats, bigger 18" alloys, stiffer springs, a big Prodrive exhaust and touchscreen sat nav. Either way, for a car with this kind of power and technology, you’re getting a lot of kit for the money.
Although the Impreza WRX STi 330S might be relatively affordable to buy, it’s never going to be a cheap car to keep on the road. Despite an excellent reliability record, service intervals are short and spares costly. A quoted combined fuel consumption figure of 23.7mpg for the 330S version is, in our experience with this engine, hopelessly optimistic and if you return 20mpg in mixed driving conditions you must have the restraint of a monk and you’ll be lucky to squeeze 250 miles out of a tankful. Insurance is Group 20 and some will try to load the cover, knowing the Impreza is such an attractive target to thieves. 281g/km of carbon dioxide will also deter anyone who cheekily thinks they’ll slide the WRX STi past their fleet manager’s beady eye. The one bright spot is that residual values look to be improving as time passes, though at 36% after three years, they still lag behind those of a Mitsubishi Evo X.
Where the Impreza WRX STi 330S really impresses is in the way it never forgets that its key role is not to serve up outright speed per se, but deliver fun. It also scores big in terms of value for money, the asking price reading like a misprint for such a formidably equipped high performance car and giving it an important advantage over its Mitsubishi Evo X arch-rival. Yes it’s pricey to run of course, but the usual Subaru qualities of brilliant reliability, everyday practicality and a sense of camaraderie with fellow owners go some way to offsetting that.
Is it a four-door Ferrari? That probably depends on your definition. It certainly has a supercar’s speed, if not its sophistication. It’s some time now since Subaru dominated world rallying but in this car, you can tell that they haven’t forgotten just how to create a machine that can take on the very best.