If you’re interested in reading about an automotive appliance, you’re about to scroll through the wrong article. If it’s luxury and prestige you’re after, click right on by, friend. And if runway styling and cutting-edge gizmos are your motivations when shopping for a new car, shop elsewhere. We’re talking about Subaru here, and although they do make trusty appliances like the Impreza compact, Forester crossover, and Legacy midsize, we’re not going there today.
Nope, we’re going to talk about the Impreza WRX and WRX STI: tough, turbocharged little rockets that deserve your attention if you have any 91-octane fuel coursing through your veins. These bulging, snorting, slightly demonic-looking rascals are Japanese hot rods, pure and simple. And although “hot rod” is an awfully retro term for vehicles that have an almost mythical image with Gen-Y buyers, the Subaru WRX is indeed a hot rod. Doesn’t matter how many video games it’s stared in.
I’ll let Subaru prove the point: they’ve taken a vehicle the size of a Honda Civic and packed it with 265 horsepower (most Civics motor around with 140 horsepower). Does an extra 125 hp. get your attention? Excellent.
Subaru then pushed the front and rear track out by an extra 1.5 inches. Do those brazen new fenders peak your interest? Good… very good. They’re new for 2011 and make the base WRX look almost identical to the 305-horsepower STI model. And if the term “stiffer rear sub frame bushings” even registers in your prefrontal cortex, then Subaru’s got you in their crosshairs, because now even the most basic WRX looks and feels like the pixelated Xbox fantasy that drives its image. Xbox, X Games, or ex-BMW driver, it doesn’t matter: the revised 2011 WRX and WRX STI are gunning for your attention if you’ve got any interest in cars.
Last year’s WRX looked a bit too much like the domesticated Impreza it’s based on, so the new car is now the spitting image of its more maniacal STI sibling — a vehicle that’s been terrorizing international rally racing for years. And in turn, the STI has been moved up the automotive food chain with stiffer springs, bigger stabilizer bars, and suspension joints that forgo some rubber bushings for solid mechanical connections: pillow ball bushings, as they’re called, although there’s nothing pillowy about them (they’re stiff as hell). This comes on top of the STI’s already stiffer body structure, stronger engine and more sophisticated all-wheel-drive system — which, by the way, features mechanical limited slip differentials on the front and rear axles. So while the basic 2011 WRX now looks nice-‘n-nasty, it’s not as hard-core as the STI. And that’s a good thing.
Drive the new WRX like a commuter car and it’s docile. The big 2.5-liter boxer four cylinder makes its amusing “pucka pucka pucka” engine sound while pouring torque into the full-time all-wheel-drive system. Subaru’s power steering has a light, almost lazy feel, and the five-speed manual transmission pops each gear into place with a soft, rubbery nudge of the shifter. It’s never quite as alert or precise as a Honda or VW, but it has its own easy, endearing character. Until you snap out of your rush-hour stupor and show the little Subie who’s boss, that is. At which point the WRX gets interesting, because below 3000 rpm, and during pedestrian cornering speeds, the WRX simply feels like a competent Japanese compact with a big chip on its shoulder.
In reality, it’s a competent Japanese compact with a big chip under its hood. And when the tachometer finally swings into the power zone, the turbocharger huffs and puffs and blows 14 PSI of boost into the engine — and then you’re outta’ here. It’s a bipolar Jekyll and Hyde routine that bounces between frustrating and fantastic. Let the engine fall below 3000 rpm and the WRX chugs along like a suburban beast of burden. But keep the shifter stirring and the turbo spinning, and the WRX is a five-passenger laugh factory. The all-wheel traction and wider new 235/45 WR17 summer tires eliminate any torque-steering, wheel-spinning shenanigans, and instead catapult the car forward in bursts of pressurized acceleration. Plug the transmission into the next gear, wait a second for the turbo to inhale, and there’s another whistling whoosh of power. Hilarious.
Luckily, the ride quality isn’t hilarious, and unlike too many boy-racer compacts, Subaru has left the WRX with lots of suspension compliance — even with the stiffened rear suspension. There is no nervousness over rough pavement, no chattering chassis parts on city streets, and no spinal readjustments when you hit a pothole. The WRX stays relatively flat and stable in turns, and you can even coax the rear end into a nicely controlled slide on lift-throttle; but the main character of the suspension is compliance: not quite European levels of suppleness, but it’s never brittle. And if anything, the rear springs are still rather soft.
However, if the civilized suspension and wide ratios of the five-speed transmission aren’t edgy enough, there’s always that industrial-strength STI to consider. Six forward gears keep turbo lag at bay, and the suspension is far more focused. Plus, the adjustable center differential and limited-slip front and rear differentials allow you to use the extra 40 horsepower and additional 46 foot-pounds of torque with a certain amount of abandon. It’s a car that you can push, pull and slide around corners with almost unnerving speed and predictability. Which is why Subaru had the confidence to let us hacks run wild on an off-road rally-style dirt course. And lets just say that a 2011 Subaru WRX STI does sideways like the Bolshoi does ballet. This point was brought home again when we took another set of STIs out on a paved race course, where any normal car would have pirouetted right off the first corner at the speeds these Subaru’s generate. Dial the center differential for the front-to-rear power distribution you want, and you can scrub speed with the front tires, rear tires or all four tires. Just keep the boost up and the steering wheel pointed in the right direction, ’cause that’s were you’re gonna end up. And fast.
So what do we have here: these rather odd-looking five-door hatchbacks, and their new-for-2011 four-door sedan counterparts? Starting at $25,500 and coming close to $40,000 for a loaded STI Limited with leather, navigation, HID headlights and 18-inch BBS wheels, they’re certainly not economy cars. Same can be said for their appetite for premium unleaded fuel. And yet their slightly austere interiors and Japanese build quality say that they are useful tools. Add the cargo capacity of the five-door and the big trunk on the sedan and they’re harder yet to characterize. Japanese Audis? Not quite, because the Germans can’t offer this much wackiness and fun at these prices. Asian GTIs? No, because the VW doesn’t have the Subaru’s all-wheel drive, and the Subaru doesn’t have the VW’s seriousness and restraint. There’s a certain karaoke comedy lacking in the Volkswagen.
No, they’re sport sedans without the baggage of a premium brand. They’re sports cars that aren’t afraid of winter (but bring snow tires). And they’re one of the last daily drivers that make you do more than just operate the turn signals and adjust the audio system. With a WRX, if you don’t pay attention to it, it doesn’t pay attention to you. Sounds kinda cocky, eh? But then, if you’ve read this far, there’s a good chance these street-seeking missiles have an attitude you can relate to.
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