Last year we tested the 2008 Subaru WRX and were left hoping the STI version would make up for the suburbanization of the model. Well, the 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STI arrived in our garage and set all our worries to rest. From our first look at the STI parked in our garage, we could tell that it was a pit bull compared with the cocker spaniel-like standard WRX. The smooth sides of the standard WRX get bulked out by meaty fenders on the STI, wide enough to make room for the 245/40R18 Dunlop Sport 600 summer tires wrapped around 18 inch rims. Big Brembro brakes sit in the rims, and special vents sit behind the front fenders ready to bleed off excess heat.
Where the standard WRX we tested was the sedan, the WRX STI only comes as a hatchback--an unnecessarily bulky body for a car that should not be consigned to grocery runs. The blister-like design of the new WRX looks even worse in the hatchback STI, with its weirdly rounded back end. We weren't at all impressed with the stock stereo in our STI, but the car can be optioned up with a navigation head unit that includes Bluetooth cell phone integration and an additional 20 watts for the audio system.
Test the tech: WRX compared
When we reviewed the standard WRX, we complained about the body roll in hard cornering. To tech test the STI, we took it over the same winding mountain road we had driven with the WRX to see if the handling and overall performance was different. Right from the start, we can attest to a major improvement, as the STI gripped the road and stayed flat in the hardest turns we could throw its way.
The road we took runs from the California coast, near Stinson Beach, inland toward San Rafael, North of San Francisco. The first half of this road is about a lane and a half wide in total, without center markings, and running through ravines and along hillsides, with a number of rising hairpin turns. The second half broadens out to two marked lanes and has generally broader turns, although there are still a few sharp hairpins.
The STI has Subaru's SI drive feature, which lets you set the throttle response among three positions: Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp. We left it in Sport Sharp for this run, getting the quickest response from the engine. The car also has, along with limited slip differentials on the front and rear axles, an adjustable center limited slip differential. For most of the run, we left the center differential in automatic mode, although we tried its minimal and maximum lock positions as well.
One of the first things we noticed about the STI was its almost complete lack of power at low rpms. We approached our first hairpin turn in second gear, hitting the brakes as we prepared to snap the wheel around. As we hit the gas on the entrance to the turn, the car bucked and bogged down because of the slow engine speed, barely reacting to our insistent push on the gas pedal. It was with disappointing speed that we came out the other side. The car has amazing boost between 4,000rpm and 6,000rpm where it gets its peak 305 horsepower. However, it completely bogs down about 2,000rpm. Unfortunately, with this tight of a turn, we had no choice but to let the engine drop its speed. On a similar hairpin, we tried dropping it down to first gear, which gave us decent boost out of the turn, but it forced us to practically park on the approach.
On the broader turns where we could make our attack at 30 mph or 40 mph, the STI handled extremely well while requiring us to put in a satisfying amount of work with the wheel. The car has visceral handling, forcing us to use the wheel throughout the corner. While some people prefer a car that will take corners effortlessly, the STI is for people that like to be heavily involved with the driving experience. We had a great time blasting through the apex of a turn, feeling through the seat of our pants for wheel slip, modulating the accelerator while working the wheel to keep the car on course.
As for wheel slip, we didn't feel much of that, as the STI is incredibly grounded. We could feel the wheels biting into the road as the car transferred torque appropriately, keeping the front end from running towards the outside of a turn. One particular section had a slight curve marred by a series of humps in the road. It's the kind of thing that will bounce many cars' tires clear of the asphalt, but the STI rode over those humps like a snake, its stiff suspension keeping the tires in contact with the road at all points.
During our drive, we tried locking and loosening the center differential, but couldn't feel much of a difference. The center differential's maximum lock is for slippery conditions, such as mud and slush, while the looser setting is supposed to work in dry conditions. For our purposes, the automatic setting did the trick.
The standard WRX gained a few points over the STI model because of its more even power delivery--its peak horsepower comes at 4,800rpm so it wouldn't leave us in the lurch on the approach to a hairpin. However, we preferred the STI overall for its markedly better handling. As a bonus, the STI gets a six speed manual transmission, which we like better than the five-speed manual in the standard WRX. The gears that count, second and third, seem to have similar ratios, but sixth is a nice gas saver when you're driving at freeway speeds.