Review: 2004 Subaru WRX STi Sedan


300 HP Subaru

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

Subaru discovered performance long before the WRX finally made its way to these shores in 2001. After a brief and unsuccessful foray into Formula One in the late 1980s, using (appropriately for Subaru) a horizontally-opposed 12-cylinder Motori Moderni engine, Subaru found its true performance niche in rallying starting in 1989. Legacys were used at first, but when the Impreza was introduced it became the basis for Subaru's World Rally Championship (WRC) cars. WRC rules require that the competition cars be based on a production model, and so the WRX was born.

The first WRX used a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine with 237 horsepower, somewhat more than the 110 or so horses found under the normal Impreza hood of the day. Further development by Subaru's ``Subaru Technica International'' (STi) performance division led to ever more power, eventually 276 bhp. Word of WRC Subarus and the WRXes got to the U.S. by way of magazines, cable TV, and even video games, but there was no way a mid-1990s WRX was going to get past American emissions laws. Besides, if I remember correctly, because of the engine configuration, all were right-hand drive.

When the Impreza was redesigned for the 2002 model year, a U.S.-spec WRX was part of the lineup, and it was immensely popular. With 227 horsepower, it corresponded to the regular model of the previous generation. When asked about a U.S.-spec STi, Subaru officials just smiled and said ``no comment.'' But performance was selling Subarus, and the WRX's success was breeding competition.

So the STi is now here, as an early 2004 model. The American version is a little different from others. We get a bigger engine, 2.5 liters to 2.0, with 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque. The STi shares new bodywork with other '04 Imprezas, but has its own touches, most obviously a huge twin-plane wing and lurid hot pink ``STi'' stickers strategically located on the body and seats. You won't hide in this one.

I recently had to opportunity to spend a long weekend with an STi, followed by a week with a regular 2004 WRX. (Other than styling, the WRX is little changed for `04.) Unfair comparison? Well, the STi is a tough act to follow. Think chili peppers - the Impreza 2.5 RS is an Anaheim, mild but interesting. The WRX is a jalapeno - plenty hot for most people. The STi is a habanero - blazing 11-on-a-scale-of-10 pure heat for the totally hardcore. The WRX still offers a great suite of performance and practicality features. The STi just builds on them. How hot do you like your salsa?

APPEARANCE: The 2004 WRX STi lends its functional, rally- inspired looks to all of the other sedans and wagons in the Impreza lineup. The basic shape is little changed, a compact car with notable fender blisters. But the front is more rounded, with a reshaped grille and fascia for lower aerodynamic drag. That, and triangular headlights with a rounded inboard end, give all new Imprezas more character. The functional ram-air scoop in the hood of the regular WRX is larger this year, but the STi feeds its appetite with an even larger one. Where the normal WRX has foglamps flanking its lower intake, the STi has brake ducts with hot pink ``STi'' logos that should be popular on the aftermarket, and a more pronounced chin spoiler with side winglets. New taillights, which echo the shape of the headlights, highlight the rear. But they will probably be overlooked on the STi as they are underneath a huge rally-spec wing. The STi also sits a touch lower than other WRXes, and sports 17-inch BBS alloy wheels with ultra low-profile tires.

COMFORT: Welcome to the racer's office, almost. The STi's interior is designed for serious driving, without distractions. Floor mats and the audio system are deleted. This saves weight...and the many and varied mechanical noises from the engine and drivetrain are more interesting than the radio anyway. Although the instrument panel is the same as that of the plain WRX in style, the instruments are unique, with red LED indicator needles. An STi steering wheel and shift knob are special, too. Comfort is not forgotten. The well-bolstered sport seats look great, with blue ``ecsaine'' artificial suede center sections. They also are extremely comfortable, and provide support in hard driving. As in other Imprezas, the rear seat will hold two or three people, and the trunk is functionally large. Near-supercar performance meets everyday function...must be a Subaru.

SAFETY: Subaru's rigid ``Ring-Shaped Reinforcement Frame'' not only works as a safety cage around the passenger compartment, it ensures a rigid chassis structure. The WRX STi has all of the safety equipment expected and required today, and also competition- caliber handling and braking abilities.

ROADABILITY: The STi takes advantage of its rigid chassis structure with a four-wheel independent strut-type suspension that is similar in design to those of the Impreza and WRX, but it uses more rigid inverted struts for better control in serious driving and aluminum front control arms for less unsprung weight. It is calibrated a little stiffer than the normal WRX, but that suits its mission in life perfectly. Quicker steering helps when playing hard, and extra-large vented brake rotors with Brembo calipers (4-piston at the front, 2-piston at the rear) ensure competition-spec stopping ability. Power is of no use if it doesn't get to the ground, and the STi's ``Driver Control Center Differential'' (DCCD) all-wheel drive system is the most performance-oriented AWD Subaru has ever offered. In automatic mode - the best choice for most situations - it varies the front/rear power split very quickly for optimum traction and cornering behavior. Manual over-ride is possible, but is best used by expert drivers in specialized conditions. (How do you say ``homologation special for SCCA Pro Rallying?'') Both front and rear differentials are limited-slip, to better handle side-to-side traction differences.

PERFORMANCE: The STi feels like a regular WRX, only more so. Not surprising, considering that the power difference between the WRX and the STi is about that between the 2.5 RS and the WRX. In normal driving, under 4500 rpm or so and with light throttle, the STi doesn't feel all that powerful. It's healthy, to be sure, but it can easily be driven in traffic like any other Subaru. It's not high-strung at all. But the first time you really get your right foot in it, there is absolutely no doubt that there really is 300 horsepower at the other end of the electronic throttle linkage. Acceleration happens, and quickly. Variable valve timing and a high-boost intercooled turbo help the STi's 2.5-liter boxer four make 300 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 300 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm, while internal strengthening keeps it healthy and, remarkably, quieter than the regular WRX engine in some ways. A six-speed manual gearbox is the only transmission.

CONCLUSIONS: A Subaru that can keep up with the quickest cars made? Yes, indeed. It's called the WRX STi.

SPECIFICATIONS 2004 Subaru Impreza WRX STi

Base Price $ 30,995 Price As Tested $ 31,545 Engine Type dual overhead cam turbocharged and intercooled horizontally-opposed four-cylinder with variable valve timing Engine Size 2.5 liters / 150 cu. in. Horsepower 300 @ 6000 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 300 @ 4000 rpm Transmission 6-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 100.0 in. / 173.8 in. Curb Weight 3263 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 10.9 Fuel Capacity 15.9 gal. Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline Tires P225/45 WR17 Bridgestone Potenza RE070 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc Suspension, front/rear independent inverted MacPherson strut / independent inverted MacPherson strut Drivetrain front engine, full-time driver- controllable all-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18 / 24 / 18 0 to 60 mph 4.8 sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES Destination charge $ 550

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