The STi is fast, grippy and offers immense value, maintaining an image Subaru has cultivated through years of rally pedigree

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There was a time when the smart money thought the Subaru Impreza was in the vanguard of a new breed of affordable performance cars that would in time take over the world.

The hot hatch had had its day, and now it was time for the Playstation generation to have its say. Technology had never been more affordable: when the Impreza Turbo was introduced it cost just £17,999 despite its forced induction and all-wheel drive hardwear, which was almost £20,000 less than the Porsche 968.

A multi-link rear axle is key to the WRX's dynamics

But you could fit all your family in the Impreza, their luggage in the boot and still dust the Porker away from the lights.

But all that was a very long time ago – 1994 to be precise - and while Subaru have thrown at least 15 different variations on the original theme at the market since then and despite the collusion of Mitsubishi and its largely epic Evolution models, the invasion never came. To this day the Impreza, renamed the WRX STi since 2010 is what it always was: a niche player. Question is, is it still any good?

The WRX STI is available for £28k. If more power is required, the STi can be turned into the 335bhp 340R model for just £1699. 



Subaru WRX STI rear lights

The WRX is available either as a four door saloon or five door hatch. Oddly, both versions add up to the same claimed 1505kg kerbweight, a fraction heavier than the 20bhp more powerful, £3000 cheaper BMW 1 Series M135i.

The engine is the familiar all aluminium 2.5-litre quad cam 16-valve unit with a single turbo and variable valve timing. It runs a relatively low 8.2:1 compression ratio and high boost pressure

It would be a major understatement to call the design of this Subaru Impreza controversial

It runs through a six speed manual gearbox (there is no auto option) and directs its power to the four corners of the car via a driver programmable centre differential (offering four settings including fully locked) and a real Torsen differential.

In normal driving the default torque split directs 41 percent of the forwards and 59 percent of it to the rear wheels.

The suspension configuration is another tried and tested Subaru staple. Simple and easily packaged McPherson struts take care of the front axle while the rear is suspension by a pair of unequal length wishbones. Braking by ventilated discs at each corner clamped by four piston calipers.


Subaru WRX STI dashboard

Frankly we’d complain about this interior were it fitted to a car costing half the Subaru’s price. And complain loudly. An unattractive mess is one of the kinder things you could call it, and when you consider what is available not only from BMW but the likes of the far cheaper Ford Focus ST and Vauxhall Astra VXR you’re more likely to call it an insult to the customer’s intelligence.

Its biggest sin are the materials used for the dash: an unattractive soup of fake metal, hard plastics and different textures with no discernible style at all. The dials are easy to read but look old and cheap while the switchgear sets similarly low standards. 

You don’t need to look far to find some cheap-feeling materials

It’s not a difficult car to operate as everything is approximately where you’d expect to find it, so as we’d almost always prioritise function over form you’d expect this to count in the WRX’s favour. Unfortunately you only have to look through the window of a lowly Volkswagen Polo to know that if these aims were ever diametrically opposed, they certainly are not now. At a price point such as this, such scruffiness is simply unacceptable.

On the plus side the driving position is sound with only a fractional pedal offset though we’d have liked rather more reach adjustment for the steering column for that authentic wheel-in-chest rally car experience. 

The standard part leather Recaro seats are exceptionally supportive and comfortable on a long journey but they eat into rear leg room to the extent that only children and small adults will be happy to occupy them for any length of time. The boot holds an acceptable 420 litres, accessed through a reasonably shaped aperture.


Subaru Impreza WRX STI engine

The WRX is pleasantly fast but no more. It’s 0-62mph time of 5.2sec speaks as much of its all-wheel drive traction as its outright pace and even then it’s a barely half a second quicker than the time we recorded for the original 2-litre, 208bhp Impreza Turbo over 18 years ago.

It’s hard to see where all the progress has gone.

You need revs and a spinning blower to get the best from the WRX

But the engine itself remains a delightful device possessing a distinctive and characterful flat four voice at low revs and a delightfully smooth and purposeful song as the 6000rpm red-line nears.

It’s more responsive off boost than its compression ratio might suggest and its arrival is still clearly signalled: there’s a slight whoosh at around 2500rpm, building quickly to the 4000rpm torque peak and maintain urgency from there to peak power.

It’s a shame it’s not mated to a more cooperative gearbox. We have no issues with the six speeder’s close, short ratios – they are where they should be in a car like this – but we’d have far preferred a less notchy action which can actually become a touch obstructive if you try to hurry it.


Subaru Impreza WRX STI cornering

Some of the old magic remains. Drive the STi with a little commitment and you’ll discover it’s faithful, accurate and as a result easy to place on the road.

The steering has near perfect weighting and gearing and comes with the kind of feel that’s increasingly hard to find in these days where electric power steering systems proliferate. The feedback through the thick, firm rim seems authentic, not synthesised.

The standard Subaru Impreza chassis is fundamentally very good

Throw the STi around and you’ll discover its composure is retained right up to and then over the technical limit of adhesion. It’ll understeer a touch on the way into the corner just as you’d wish and if you completely deactivate the two stage stability control and reapply the power hard the apex, it can be expected to flow into gentle, progressive oversteer.

It’ll do the full Colin McRae too, but it needs to be substantially provoked in a way we’d not recommend you try out on the public road. But, yes, if you lob it at an over-optimistic speed on a trailing throttle and mash your foot into the floor once an appropriately big yaw angle has developed, it will still make even a mildly talented driver look like a superhero.

What it won’t do is hard-wire itself into your senses any more. The original Impreza Turbo weighed just 1118kg, less than a McLaren F1, but now it has over 1500kg to carry the result is inevitably softer and slower to react.

Then again, if Subaru stiffened it up, the already uncompromising ride would likely soon become intolerable. In fact it’s sufficiently comfortable at speed for the noise from the engine and tyres to be at least as wearing as the occasional jolt let through by the suspension, but around town you do find yourself actively seeking out and then avoiding the worst holes and humps the city streets can throw at you.


Subaru Impreza WRX STI

Fuel consumption is horrendous.

Overall the WRX returns 26.9mpg, just 0.2mpg better than a 500bhp, 2.3 tonne Bentley Continental GT V8 and giving a range of little better than 250 miles if you’re driving with anything less than saintly restraint.

Subaru’s excellent dealer network has long been one of the best reasons to buy one of the company’s products

An £815 first year tax disc is going to sting a bit too.

You might expect the residuals of these cars to be strong given that they’re relatively scarce and come backed by Subaru’s legendary engineering integrity. But a search around the classifieds soon reveals that if you pay full whack when new, don’t expect the car to retain much more than half its value after a couple of years. 


3.5 star Subaru Impreza WRX STI

It is sad to see how far from grace the WRX has fallen in recent times. With Subaru’s WRC exploits now a distant memory and with McRae and Burns long gone, there’s nothing now to link it to its glory days. And instead of moving with the times and presenting the punter with state of art interpretation with each successive generation, it’s a car that, more than any individual fault, just feels old.

Everywhere but nowhere more than the design of its interior, it is clear the world has moved on and left it behind while Subaru’s efforts to keep it on the pace have been half-hearted and inadequate. In this cut-throat market place where C02 emissions are just as important as 0-60mph times even for a car such as this, the WRX comes across not so much as a bad car, but one that was once good but is now simply and clearly out of date.

It's unlikely to tempt many premium car owners out of their seats, or even hot hatch buyers

And yet we cannot bring ourselves to damn it entirely. Call us sentimental old traditionalists, but the WRX still has something. You can’t see it or touch it, but you can feel it every time you drive it in the throb of the flat floor and the feel of its steering. For all its faults, this car has character and if that’s what matters most to you in your hunt for a high performance compact hatch or saloon, it may well be worth a look.

For us however it’s not close to being enough. When your competition includes such as the BMW 1 Series M135i, a smattering of residual charm will not see you through. Seen objectively the list of reasons for choosing it over the Subaru is as comprehensive as they come. It’s a car that’s had its time, and that time has now passed.

Subaru WRX STi 2007-2013 First drives