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2005 Subaru WRX STi Review

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2005 Subaru WRX STi

Not long ago, Subaru was best known as the maker of small all-wheel drive wagons and sedans. They weren't very quick, but they filled people's needs, particularly in parts of the country where snow wasn't just a pretty picture on a Christmas card. Then came the Outback, a small-wagon-meets-SUV hybrid that ignited the crossover craze. With rugged truck-like styling and extra ground clearance all wrapped around a comfortable and capable car chassis, Subaru had a winner. The Outback concept has since been much copied, and has propelled Subaru from being what people in the Snow Belt had in garage beside the 4x4 to a national phenomenon.

And then came the WRX.

Thanks to magazines, the Internet, and even video games, the Subaru WRX was a legend before it hit American shores in model year 2002. It was a road-legal version of Subaru's World Rally Championship winner, an Impreza on steroids with 227 turbocharged horsepower. Suddenly, Subaru went from being the car your relatives in New Hampshire drove to the car your motorhead teenage son wanted.

Then came the STi. ``STi'' is an acronym for Subaru Technica International, the company's performance department. And performance was the name of the game with the WRX STi, introduced partway through 2003 as a 2004 model. It got a new and larger engine, with a different block and variable valve timing, some serious suspension upgrades, and a larger hood scoop and huge twin-plane rear wing. With 300 horsepower, it was to the regular WRX as the WRX was to the standard Impreza.

I last drove an STi just after it came out, over two years ago. In a back-to-back comparison with a regular WRX, it didn't seem terribly different in power output until 4500 rpm or so, when it took off like a rocket. The suspension was much stiffer. For its second year, Subaru has given the STi a number of suspension and steering changes to improve its already excellent handling abilities. The external looks are unchanged, but a new underbody cover is said to improve extreme high-speed stability. The interior is new, much better-appointed, and more upscale. Although nothing was said about engine changes, this one had a very strong midrange as well as the top-end rush, and the newly-available short-throw shift linkage is a major improvement over the standard linkage to the six-speed gearbox. At heart, the WRX STi is a thinly-disguised race car, with stiff, almost track-spec suspension, enormous power and brakes to match, and truly awesome acceleration, stopping, and cornering abilities. But it's also a Subaru, roomy enough for four and docile enough to go for groceries, if a bit stiff doing so. Supercar performance meets Subaru practicality.

APPEARANCE: No stealth factor here. WRXes may have surprised people when they first appeared, but their chunky blister-fendered profile is all too well-known to the authorities by now. The STi's huge hood scoop and monster rear wing are both functional, but make it stand out even more than the standard WRX. It looks fast, and that's no idle boast. The covering underneath the front of the car is not a skid plate, it is a functional aerodynamic cowling. The ``STi'' logo is prominently displayed in hot pink on the front fenders and the trunk lid.

COMFORT: Like all Impreza-based Soobies, the STi gets a redesigned instrument panel this year. It looks more upscale then the previous iteration, and the well-shaded, red-backlit gauges are easy to see at all times, with the tach getting center position. The front seats are new, and feature EcsaineĻ suede-like cloth for a grippy surface that comes in handy when the road gets interesting. Positioning of the tilt-adjustable steering wheel, pedals, and shift lever is very good. The leather-covered wheel rim is thick, for a good grip, the metal-and-rubber pedals are arranged for easy heel-and-toe operation, and the shift knob is placed well. This is a driver's car, but passengers have as much room and comfort as in any other Impreza sedan, and there is a good-sized trunk.

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. An interesting feature is driver-adjustable headlight aiming. Beam height can be adjusted by a roller switch on the dash, to raise the lights for better distance visibility at night and to lower them for courtesy to oncoming drivers.

RIDE AND HANDLING: The STi is wonderfully quiet and comfortable - for a race car. Soundproofing adds weight, which reduces performance, and so in the STi, soundproofing is most noticeable by its lack. Engine, drivetrain, and road noises are all quite audible, keeping the driver well-informed. Although compliant enough to keep the tires on the road over the usual bumps and chuckholes of what passes for pavement in my part of the world - which is not all that different from the surface of many rally stages - the suspension, independent struts all around, is stiff, very stiff. The tires, 225/45 WR17 Bridgestone Potenzas, are the same width as last year, but the BBS alloy wheels are half an inch wider at eight inches, to allow the tires to seat better on the rims, for a better contact patch. The suspension setup, optimized for cornering, and the upgraded, extremely sensitive and quick steering conspire to keep the driver busy driving - this is not a car for the inattentive. The STi uses the highest-performance version of Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, which includes the ``Driver-Controlled Center Differential'' (DCCD). Fore-and-aft torque split is normally 35 percent / 65 percent front to rear, and can be varied automatically or, as in rally cars, manually via the DCCD. Unless you have competition experience, the DCCD computer in auto mode probably does a better job, and it's been improved this year. Front and rear limited-slip differentials take care of side-to-side traction. All-wheel drive and four large, sticky contact patches ensure that cornering performance is astounding. So is braking, by Brembo, with and four-piston front and twin-piston rear calipers grabbing large vented discs.

PERFORMANCE: 3,300 lbs, 300 horsepower, 300 lb-ft of torque. High-boost intercooled turbocharging at its finest. Meet the Subaru rocket sled. Acceleration is ferocious, with a 0-60 time under five seconds, onetime supercar territory. The American-spec engine, at 2.5 liters, is larger that that used in other parts of the world, and is also different from that used in the regular WRX. Four valves per cylinder with variable valve timing, and plenty of boost at 14.5 psi result in high power output and remarkable civility. I spent far more time in commute traffic than on uncrowded fun roads (welcome to the real world...) and the STi was no more difficult to drive than any other stick-shift car. The optional short-throw shift linkage for the six-speed gearbox is highly recommended, as it markedly improves shifting. Turbo lag is not a problem at engine speeds over 2500 rpm, and from there to just past the 6000 rpm power peak power is instantaneous. With the hefty midrange torque available, there is no need to get acquainted with the electronic rev-limiter. Fuel consumption is reasonable with light throttle; keep the boost up and you'll pay at the pump. Just add it to the entertainment budget.

CONCLUSIONS: WRX STi: Supercar performance with room for four. Must be a Subaru WRX STi.

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