When the wraps came off the all-new Subaru Impreza at the New York Auto Show earlier this year, the covers had barely hit the floor when enthusiasts began asking about the STI version - the closest thing to a street-legal World Rally Championship (WRC) car. That question was answered in a November unveiling at the L.A. Auto Show. Described as a "wolf in wolf's clothing," the 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STI certainly looks the part of a WRC contender, and enthusiasts will be happy to know it was worth the wait.
Completely redesigned for the 2008 model year, and available only as a 5-door hatchback, the STI sports not only a completely fresh look, it's been further differentiated from the rest of the Impreza lineup. How do you know that no one will mistake your new STI for a standard WRX? Beyond the badging, the STI has a distinct grille, bold fender flares, side air vents, a rear spoiler, and 18-inch alloy wheels shod with 18-inch Dunlop summer tires.
Inside, the STI is considerably more refined than the outgoing generation. The previous STI felt like a high-performance economy car, mainly because that's what it was. In the new STI, Subaru has used higher-quality materials, including double-stitched fabrics and higher-grade interior plastics. Sport seats with large bolsters provide excellent cornering support without feeling too tight. The interior is also considerably more spacious, owed primarily to a wider track and longer wheelbase.
Under its sculpted hood lurks a revised version of the last-generation's 2.5-liter turbocharged horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. With a maximum boost of 14.7 psi (versus 11.9 in the standard WRX), the powerplant puts out an impressive 305 horsepower - an increase of 12 over the outgoing model. Peak torque of 290 lb-ft is available at 4000 rpm. A 6-speed manual is the only transmission offered, and as with every other Subaru, power is put to the ground via the brand's Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive System.
Subaru has also added SI-Drive, which first debuted in the Legacy spec.B. Three different modes (Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp) can be selected, depending on driving conditions and desired compromise of performance versus efficiency. SI-Drive adjusts the Engine Control Module (ECM) and electronic throttle control to either reduce power output for traffic or reduced-traction conditions, or to increase throttle response for more spirited driving.
With a power-to-weight ratio on par with the Porsche Cayman or Nissan 350Z, this compact hatchback is bound to impress. Subaru claims 60 mph comes up in less than five seconds, and our experience provided no reason to dispute this. The STI also gets brakes to match, with Brembo binders at all four corners, electronic brake-force distribution and "Super Sport" ABS.
The 2008 STI is two inches shorter than the previous generation, but its wheelbase is almost four inches longer and track is about two inches wider. This makes for shorter overhangs but also improved handling. With special chassis reinforcements, a new double-wishbone rear suspension and additional safety equipment, the new STI weighs only 22 pounds more than the outgoing version.
For the Track, for the Street
To experience firsthand the improvements made over the previous generation, we had the opportunity to push the limits of the new STI at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca. The last-gen STI was a stellar performer, but it took a lot of skill to take advantage of its extreme performance. The new model is considerably more forgiving, making it possible for even amateur drivers to take greater advantage of its capabilities.
Still quick on the straights, it's in the corners where the new STI really shines. The stiffer platform and wider stance make the STI incredibly easy to control. Even when exceeding the grip of the tires, only small steering corrections are required to regain the proper attitude.
Of course not everyone will be driving their STI at the track, but the new STI also makes for an improved street car. While the ride is stiff, the seats are comfortable, and the interior is much more upscale than the previous generation. The rear seats are usable, and the plentiful cargo space makes this car quite versatile as a daily driver. Fuel economy is also impressive for a car with this level of performance - EPA ratings are 17 mpg city and 23 mpg hwy.
Base price of the Impreza WRX STI is $35,650, and there are only two factory options available: a navigation system that features Bluetooth connectivity ($1,800) or 18-inch BBS aluminum-alloy wheels (gold or silver, $2,000).
Standard content is plentiful, including sport seats, side-curtain airbags, a new multi-mode stability control system, a new Incline Start Assist feature (prevents the car from rolling back on a hill when the clutch is released), a standard AM/FM premium stereo system with MP3 player input, and a 6-disc in-dash CD changer with 10 speakers. All told, it's a pretty good value for a machine that feels at home on the street or track. Even with an amateur at the wheel.