Amid all the brouhaha around the Ford Focus RS and VW Golf R and their blend of family-friendly shape, 300bhp+, four-wheel drive and £30k-ish price tags people seem to have forgotten that another manufacturer has been offering such a package for years.
In fact, Subaru has been producing relatively low-cost firebreathing family cars for more than 20 years. And for at least a decade you’ve been able to have an Impreza WRX STI with 300PS (295bhp) straight from the factory.
The Impreza name is now the preserve of Subaru’s ‘vanilla’ family hatch but the supercar-baiting saloon we’re driving this week has hung onto the all-important letters – WRX STI.
It has also hung onto the spacious saloon shape, the 2.5-litre flat-four engine, symmetrical all-wheel-drive system and over-the-top bodykit.
The engine still puts out 295bhp but has been tuned to improve response and economy. Three drive modes alter the throttle map but even in “sensible” intelligent mode it is ferociously quick. Crank that up to sport or sport sharp and you’ll see 62mph in 5.2 seconds and the landscape will start to get blurry.
Subaru WRX STI
Engine: 2.5-litre turbocharged petrol
Transmission: Six-speed manual driving all four wheels
Top speed: 158mph
0-62mph: 5.2 seconds
Fuel economy: 27.2mpg combined
CO2 emissions: 242g/km
Keeping it old school
While it is brutally quick it is also old-fashioned. On song, the 2.5-litre boxer will drag you up the road like the hounds of hell are chasing you but let the revs drop below 3,000rpm and you’ll get bogged down in old-school lag.
Straight-line speed has never been what quick Subarus are about, though. They’ve earned a reputation as a formidable cross-country weapon and the current model is no different.
The body’s been stiffened and the suspension, steering and AWD systems have been adjusted to improve grip, handling and steering response. As a whole, they add up to a car that can dispatch the gnarliest of back roads with ease, flitting rapidly through twists, over bumps and bursting up short straights.
It’s not all great news, though. The WRX STI’s all-hydraulic power steering offers no more feedback than the electrically-assisted systems in rivals, and adjustments to the suspension might have improved ride comfort over older models but it’s far harsher than a Golf R or Focus RS.
An inside job
Inside, the WRX STI is a let-down too. The layout, materials and equipment levels are a long way behind the likes of the Focus and Golf. List price is at least £2,000 cheaper than an RS but it feels every bit of it.
A Prodrive-tuned 2005 Impreza WRX STI was one of the first performance cars I drove. I loved it then for offering outrageous cross-country performance at sensible money. Now I’m not so enamoured.
The WRX STI’s biggest problem is that it’s so similar to that decade-old car. The driving experience is still thrilling and involving but in 2016 raw power and a clever drivetrain aren’t enough.
In a world where flexibility is king its engine and ride haven’t evolved to match the competition and it’s missing the high-quality, well-equipped interior offered by Ford, Volkswagen and others.
For some the idea of Focus RS performance for near-Focus ST money will be enough but for others the lure of greater refinement and easier day-to-day usability will win out.
Ford Focus RS
An extra £2k gets you 50bhp more plus a better car to live with on a day-to-day basis
VW Golf R
Costs thousands more but that’s reflected in refinement, kit and quality
Honda Civic Type R
Only two-wheel drive but closest to the WRX in terms of old-
fashioned noise and drama