I drove the Subaru WRX STI on several occasions this summer as well as some of the competition. My initial afternoon drive took place in late June – a local ride and drive event on some excellent twisty roads I was well acquainted with. A couple weeks later, I had an obsidian black pearl 2008 press vehicle for a week, followed in early October by a track day at the Mosport International Raceway in some 2009 models.
This year is the 20th anniversary for STI, which for the uninitiated is short for Subaru Technica International Inc., the motorsports division of Subaru. Having been involved with British rally specialist Prodrive and the Subaru World Rally Team since the late 1980s, STI is also responsible for transforming normal WRXs into ultra high-performance machines.
Currently presiding over the Impreza lineup, the STI is unquestionably the best-performing Subaru. It’s been this way since the first production models came to market in small numbers back in 1994. Originally, STIs were only available in Japan. Australia and New Zealand were added in 1999 with Europe following in 2001. North Americans finally got into the party in mid 2003 when the 2004 WRX STI arrived to the glee of enthusiastic tuners and rally teams big and small.
305 hp and 290 ft-lbs of torque from a turbocharged 2.5L flat-four.
2. Better daily driver than the Mitsubishi Evo with softer clutch, smoother shifts and useable hatch.
3. Only available with a six-speed manual.
305 HP WITH A REAL SIX-SPEED MANUAL
U.S. versions of the 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STI come with a potent turbocharged and intercooled 2.5L flat-four with a dual-active valve control system that helps chew up 305 hp and 290 ft-lbs of torque for a six-speed manual transmission and full-time AWD to spit out.
Supported by a host of multi-mode technologies like Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI-Drive), a driver-controlled center differential (DCCD), vehicle dynamics control (VDC), traction control and huge vented Brembo brakes with ABS (sized 12.8-/12.4-inches in the front and rear respectively), the vehicle can be driven as sedately or aggressively as the driver wants, or dares.
ADJUSTABLE THROTTLE SENSITIVITY, POWER DISTRIUBTION, TRACTION AND STABILITY CONTROL
Accessible by a control knob near the shifter, SI-Drive lets drivers choose Intelligent, Sport and Sport Sharp settings that change the attitude and behavior of the vehicle by remapping throttle input sensors. The Intelligent setting offers the most fuel-efficient operation (10 per cent better than sport) while sport mode has the most linear powerband of the three modes. Sport Sharp mode is meant for more visceral driving experiences, probably best left for track outings. While Sport and Sport Sharp are clearly more potent, with 305 hp passing or merging with traffic is easy no matter what setting you’re in.
The STI also comes standard with three limited-slip differentials (LSD) starting with a Helical type in the front, Torsen in the rear, plus the aforementioned DCCD in between. These allow drivers even more choice in settings to suit their driving style and/or road conditions. Auto mode automatically senses wheel slippage and speeds, yaw rates to select the best torque distribution ratio. “Auto +” gives a front bias 50/50 setup whereas “Auto –“ gives a 41/59 rear bias. There’s also a manual mode permitting the driver to fine tune the torque distribution anywhere between 41/59 and 50/50.
This is combined with the multi-mode VDC system, which offers three levels of stability control, traction control and ABS performance. The choices are: on, almost off and off (actually Subaru calls the latter mode “traction” mode, the caveat being that it “minimizes the intrusiveness of VDC” but doesn’t actually turn it 100 per cent off).
FROM THE STREET TO THE TRACK
Most people will be plenty happy with the STI’s default settings – for both street and track use. The fact that ride quality can be customized to the degree it can without installing any additional parts is a big plus for the enthusiast crowd this model caters to. Depending on road conditions, any front end push can be tuned out via the electronics and there’s no torque steer, zero turbo lag and, unless you’re going way too fast into a corner, the STI will firmly plant itself in even the tightest of turns (Moss Corner, or turn five at Mosport, for instance).
The STIs road manners are exceptional and it is quiet and comfortable to drive at any speed. I threw everything I could at it on the 10-turn Mosport ALMS track and it still wanted more. Even braking hard from over 130 mph on the back straight could not shake it. Nor could blasting through the esses and onto the front straight in third. Now, this is supposed to be a hard track to drive, but the STI made it feel easy.
A BETTER DAILY DRIVER THAN THE MITSUBISHI EVO
The STI’s direct competition is the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 10, which I also drove in GSR and MR trims. Both have the same 2.0L turbo four cylinder that develops 290 hp and 300 ft-lbs of torque. The GSR puts it through its close-ratio five-speed manual while the latter one uses a paddle-shifting six-speed twin clutch automatic transmission (TC-SST) that pre-selects the next gear in advance.
The U.S. EPA rates fuel economy for the 2008 STI at 17/23 mpg (city/highway) with the Evo’s numbers not being far off. Besides burning high-test, both STI and Evo have intelligent AWD systems, similar weights, footprints and target markets. Not only that, they also feature 18-inch BBS wheels, Brembo brakes and traction control. But there is one key detail that elevates the STI above the Evo in my humble opinion – the six-speed manual transmission. Though it’s the only offering on the Subaru, it’s smoother, more refined and more practical than either Mitsu one. Although, I do prefer the stiffer, racier clutch on the GSR.
Inside, the Alcantara-covered, leather-bolstered STI buckets are sized for medium to large occupants. The more sculpted Recaros in the GSR could be a bit cramped for people this size. The interiors of both cars are plain and plasticy, however, I found the STI more comfortable and ergonomic overall. Both offer seating for five, but the Evo just can’t match all the cargo space this turbo hatch boasts when the 60/40 rear seats are folded down.
This STI is 22 lbs heavier than the previous four-door sedan model and roughly 175 lbs lighter than the Evo 10.
Abundance of adjustable driving setting Plenty of cargo space Six-speed manual
Soft clutch Traction control can’t be completely turned off Unimpressive (but not unexpected) fuel economy
The 2008 WRX STI is an easy choice for Subaru fans. For a hot hatch that gets you to work on time every day and can double as a formidable weekend time attacker it’s not too shabby either. Cars that fill this dual role well are very rare, but the STI is definitely one of them.