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New Car Test - Subaru Impreza STi

An affordable supercar - pity 'bout the engine though...

Words by Michael Knowling, Pix by Julian Edgar and Michael Knowling

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For just over 55 grand, Subaru's MY02 Impreza STi is an affordable supercar. While its modest pricing earns some concessions, there's no excuse for the fact its tuned-for-Australia turbo engine has the worst torque range of any vehicle on the market...

It's pretty sad that the STi gets gobbled up by ninety percent of traffic in normal day-to-day driving. No joke - caught out at anything less the mid-range rpm, the Super Rex is an absolute
s-l-u-g.

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To give you an example, not long after picking up our test car, we found ourselves stopped at a set of traffic lights with our lane ending about forty metres ahead. The lights change green, we engaged first gear and stomped the loud pedal all the way to the floor - just to make sure we could merge into the next lane with plenty of room to spare. What followed was tragic. Despite its wide-open throttle, the STi proved unable to muscle its way past a humble Mitsubishi Colt in the adjoining lane....

We couldn't even pull out a nose length before we had to abort and hit the brakes...

Embarrassing - not to mention dangerous - situations like this quickly teach you the MY02 STi is a no-goer at anything below mid rpm. It's tractable - yes - but don't expect any useable acceleration.

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Keep the throttle floored past 4000 rpm, however, and - bang! - the STi transforms into a head-kicker. It slams your head back with the subtlety of an uppercut to the chin.

Unfortunately, though, this sensation is short-lived because local tuning (to suit our relatively low grade 98-octane fuel) has slashed the STi's top-end power. You see, in order to maintain engine longevity, Subaru Australia has been forced to cut back top-end boost pressure...

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This boost graph tells the story of the STi's on-road performance - bugger-all up to about 4000 rpm, a giant rush from 4000 to near 5500 rpm, followed by a steady drop-off towards the 7500 redline.

It's the most non-linear power delivery you could possibly imagine.

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Lurking under the MY02 STi's aluminium bonnet is a familiar sight - the EJ20-series flat-four with quad camshafts, 16 valves, 8.0:1 static compression, a single turbocharger and intercooler. The MY02 STi also brings Subaru's new AVCS (Active Valve Control System), which varies inlet camshaft timing over a 35-degree range to improve emissions, tractability and - supposedly - low rpm torque.

Furthermore, Super Rex is equipped with a larger intercooler (including an automatic water spray) plus a higher capacity IHI turbocharger than the normal WRX model. Set up to deliver maximum huff, the Japanese-spec car is listed with their politically-correct 206kW, but in de-tuned Australian guise you're looking at 'only' 195kW at 6000 rpm along with 343Nm of torque at 4000 rpm.

Ripped off!

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For the first time, the STi backs its flywheel with a 6-speed manual gearbox. Those six ratios are stacked very close together, which means it's easier - though not necessarily easy - to keep the engine running in its optimal rev range. Like previous Subaru 'boxes, the 6-speed has a notchy but decisive shift, while the clutch is relatively heavy and prone to shudder when cold.

In terms of outright acceleration, the STi is quick - but it's no pacesetter.

Unlike 'the old days', the current STi is shaded by the local Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, HSVs and - unless you're prepared to be ultra brutal on take-off - even cars such as the 5-speed SS Commodore and Ralliart Magna.

Somehow, despite weighing 1470 kilograms (a considerable 200 kay-gees more than the previous STi sedan) Subaru Australia say their new hero can manage 0 - 100 km/h in 5.45 seconds; we can't help wonder where the 50-horse nitrous shot was hidden! Independent testing reveals more realistic low 6-second 0 - 100s. But critically, without a huge clutch-dumping launch, you're well up into the 7s.

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Top speed is limited to 235 km/h.

Driven like it should be - not mindlessly caned, mind you - the STi gulps through a fair amount of fuel. Use its power and you'll inevitably pay - we averaged nearly 15 litres/100 kilometres over our combination of urban and highway driving!

And make sure you're careful at the bowsers - the STi requires a minimum of (rare) 98-RON fuel. Inadvertently filling up with lower grade fuel increases the risk of engine damage - and don't expect the Subaru 3-year warranty to come to the rescue in that scenario.

Okay, now we won't discuss the deficiencies of the engine any more, because in other respects, the STi is a very capable machine.

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The STi's ride/handling compromise is about perfect for this category of vehicle. Its MacPherson strut front and multi-link strut rear suspension is set up with noticeably more supple rates than the STi's of old. Yes, it's taut enough that you'll spill your drink down your shirt when you hit a sharp bump, but it doesn't become intolerably wearing.

Handling wise, the all-wheel-drive STi is exceptional. Taken for an open road romp, the STi inspires with tremendous amounts of grip - it just says no to letting go.

Driving through a conventional centre viscous coupling, the new STi boasts a pair of Suretrac front and rear limited slip diffs, which - apparently - free-wheel when not under load. The result is minimal turn-in understeer followed by enormous traction when you get back on the power. The large 225/45 Bridgestone Potenza RE040s no doubt helping in the search for grip.

When it rained, we discovered no bite-you-on-the-arse snap oversteer - and far less understeer than any other four-wheel drive Subaru we have driven.

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Speaking of steering, the STi has perfect tiller weight, linearity and feel. Our only criticism in this area is the occasional spasm of tramlining - though this is one of those things you'd be prepared to live with, given the relatively low cost of the car.

The STi backs its point-to-point speed with stonkingly powerful anchors. Peering from behind the front alloys are four-pot Brembo calipers biting into 326mm ventilated discs, while the rear sees two-pot Brembos munching on 316mm ventilated discs. All you need to do is brush that centre pedal and the brakes bite; push the pedal hard and the STi will wrench your eyes out of their sockets. EBD and ABS ensure maximum braking efficiency in all conditions.

In all, the ride, handling, steering and brakes are well up to standard.

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There was a time when STi stood for 'Spartan Trim inside', but the MY02 is much improved in features and comfort. Standard is an in-dash tuner/cassette/6-stack CD player, which offers fairly good sound quality at medium volume - but look for an upgrade if you want to gain attention from the other side of the road.

The trademark STi bear-hugging front seats are a bit wider than those found in previous models, making things a lot more comfortable for anyone larger than a gnome. Once seated, you'll also find there's plenty of headroom and legroom available.

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More stock-standard stuff includes a Momo leather wheel, gear knob and handbrake lever, drilled aluminium pedals, dual front airbags, adjustable front seatbelt anchorages, power windows and mirrors, remote central locking, cruise control and analog climate control (which is nice and simple to use). There's also a button to manually activate the intercooler water spray.

Note that the 7500 redlined tacho - complete with an adjustable shift light - elbows its way into centre position of the binnacle, pushing the 260 km/h speedo, LCD odometer (with twin trip meters), fuel level and coolant temperature gauges to the sides.

Protecting the STi from theft is an immobiliser/alarm system hooked up to a numeric keypad on the centre console. The more security added to a car like this, the better.

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In the rear, we found adequate knee room but foot space and headroom is marginal. Although it's officially listed as a five seater - and despite its retractable centre seatbelt - the STi proves much more comfortable as a four seater; fold down the centre armrest and have a sleep while you wait for torque to arrive. Ooops - did we say that?!

Based on the everyday Impreza, it is no surprise that the STi offers decent boot capacity. A space-saver under-floor spare ensures good cargo depth, while you'll also find the water bottle for the intercooler water spray tucked in the right side trim.

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Thankfully, from the front the STi looks a lot less 'googly' compared to lesser WRXs - its WRC-spec headlights certainly make a huge visual improvement. Further distinguishing it from the band of merry WRX drivers is a unique grille, fog light aperture covers (where the fog lights normally reside), a taller bonnet scoop, large diameter STi exhaust tip, 17 x 7.5-inch gold alloys and a few traditional STi pinkie bits (badges, we mean). The gold and pink contrast effectively against the 'WR Blue' paint treatment seen here.

Unlike many other vehicles with this level of performance, it's refreshing that the STi's standard body kit has no ground clearance problems - it is a rally-bred machine, after all.

So to put the MY02 STi in a nutshell...

At $55,130 (plus ORCs) the STi offers a combination of practicality, braking, ride, handling, grip and performance you can't match until you reach 80-odd grand Evolution 6.5 land. The only problem - and it's a major one - is the engine's atrocious torque development. This hugely detracts from an otherwise excellent package.

At the end of the day, however, a test drive is the only way to decide if an Impreza STi is for you - if you can tolerate its engine behaviour, you'll surely be impressed by the rest of the car.

MY02 Subaru Impreza WRX STi Fast Facts...
  • Ride is firm but bearable on a day-to-day basis
  • Handling is fantastic - much less understeer than previous STi's
  • Wonderful, up-spec brakes
  • Torque spread is appalling - nothing 'til 4000 rpm and it tapers off toward redline
  • Without a brutal launch, the 1470kg MY02 STi is very slow off the line
  • Relatively cheap at $55,130

Test car supplied by Subaru Australia.

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