Ever since the first batch of 400 WRX STI Version Vs landed in Australia in 1999, each new model has had to justify itself.
This article first published in MOTOR, April 2008.
The MY99 STI moved the goalposts for affordable sports cars, delivering supercar performance for a fraction of their cost. But in 2008, the freshly hatch-backed STI means a great deal more to the Impreza family.
Distanced further from all other variants, including the WRX, the STI must take the fight to premium European hot hatches, as well as its Japanese competition. But in attempting to broaden the MY08 model’s appeal, has Subaru reformed its street fighter without turning it metrosexual?
Well, you’d hardly dare call the STI’s look effeminate. The flared guards, wider tracks, 18-inch wheels and aggressive stance shout intent. The STI shares only its roof, bonnet and front doors with the standard WRX in order to sculpt a zero-lift aerodynamic design, but also to clearly stamp it as the hero car of Subaru’s range.
The rear wing is less outrageous, but still prominent and neatly balances out the STI’s fat hindquarters while accentuating the car’s combative squat. Parked up, it looks fast in Lightning Red, and that’s no small victory for a car burdened with the bleak Impreza as a canvas.
That’s something Volkswagen’s Golf R32 doesn’t have to contend with. The R32 models its attractive figure on the already-shapely Golf. A few splashes of chrome, some shiny 18-inch alloys and subtle skirting and piping amount to one of the most handsome hot hatches around, especially in Deep Blue.
But you’d be excused for looking straight past the final member of our trio – the Audi S3. It’s hard to believe this is the same car as the Imola Yellow screamer we had for Bang For Your Bucks last year, now wearing a fresh lick of Dolphin Grey paint.
Even a trained eye could easily mistake the understated S3 for a garden variety A3, which is a bit of a problem given its $20K premium. Aluminium mirrors, 18s and two red badges are among the few hints to its firepower. If you prefer low-key dinner parties and only ever wear black, here’s your car.
The STI is certainly no sleeper, but its aural impact pales in comparison to past Rexs. The quad exhaust system leering out of its rear diffuser looks promising, but sadly, the STI sounds too refined. Can that really be a valid criticism?
Well you can decide, but there’s bugger-all of the guttural, hard-edged thrum that Subaru boxers are inherently capable of. The R32, on the other end, has one of the raspiest exhaust blares you can buy from off showroom floor.
With the windows down, it’s surprisingly loud and gives the lie to the often-spun line (are you listening, Subaru?) that hushed exhaust notes are the victims of noise regs. As the R32 proves, time spent on the acoustics can make a car’s character.
The S3’s note sits somewhere in between: refined and purposeful, underscored by the turbo’s unflustered whistle as the revs increase. You don’t need big revs on board to get the S3’s 2.0-litre turbo engine pulling, though. All 330Nm are hauling within a fat 2500-5000rpm band, with a peak power of 188kW arriving at six grand.
And like the Golf GTI engine on which it’s based, the S3’s power delivery is every bit as good from the seat as its numbers suggest. This direct-injection four-potter will happily pull from as low as 2000rpm with minimal lag, and then surging hard through the mid-range right to the 7000rpm cut-out.
Fuel economy is admirable, too, consuming just 11.1L/100km on our test loop, compared to the R32’s 14.0L/100km and STI’s 14.6.
While the R32 V6’s biggest drawcard is clearly is fruity exhaust note, the reality is it’s more about noise than numbers. Despite packing 184kW (just four down on the S3) and a similar torque figure to the Audi, the R32 is the slowest in a straight line.
The naturally aspirated V6 lacks its turbo rival’s considerable top-end rush, though that said, the test R32 never felt as free-revving as our hard-driven, wellrun- in R32 long-termer did. But the V6 is the most tractable, linear engine here and has enough squirt for the R32 to keep the S3 honest through a set of corners – but we’ll get to that later.
Either way, the STI is hands-down the fastest thing here in a straight line, clocking 0-100km/h in 5.6 seconds and the standing quarter in 13.7; over half a second faster than the second-placed S3 and a full second ahead of the leisurely R32.
Both Germans seem to bog down slightly after the initial scramble away from launch (and may benefit from a slightly looser surface than Oran Park’s main straight), but the STI blazes out of the starting blocks like it’s being hit with a tazer. The fastest Subey remains one of the most savage launchers that we’ve come across, surging forward cleanly, and with greater ferocity, than the old car.
The MY08 STI’s 2.5-litre turbo delivers the biggest bang of the threesome, with a class-leading 221kW at 6000rpm and 407Nm at a lofty 4000rpm. And that torque’s rev peak says it all about the STI’s bottom-end. There’s, er, not much of it.
Below 2500rpm, you’re wasting your time if you’re trying to haul in the other two with your right foot flat, though in light-throttle work around town, the new STI’s effortless tractability is vastly superior to its predecessor. Remain committed above 3000rpm, however, and you’ll make very rapid progress.
The STI can be frustrating if you’re snaking through tight corners and you’re caught in the wrong gear – waiting and waiting for the turbo to spool up before surging headlong into the 7000rpm rev limiter – but in the right ratio, surfing 3000-7000rpm, it’s ballistic.
Slotting through the STI’s six cogs, you’ll notice that it retains Subaru’s familiar mechanical-feeling gearshift. It’s precise and robust enough to do the job, but compared to the super-lubed slickness of the VW/Audi pair, it feels a bit notchy.
The S3 and the R32 share the same six-speed gearbox, right down to the ratios and even final drive. They both slot through each gear change with the beautifully light action that every VW Group manual seems to do so well.
But while light-and-easy is nice for changing gears, it’s not so hot for proper steering feel, and it’s this affliction that ails both the S3 and STI. We’ve spoken at length before about Audi’s fetish for vacant steering that transmits little genuine communication to the driver.
The S3 is markedly better than previous models, but it’s still nothing on the meaty conversation delivered by an RS4.
The soft-steering STI also falls down here, with dribbles of feel off-centre, improving as you wind on more lock or add more throttle, and conversely, sharp kickback when you hit a decent mid-corner rut.
It’s hydraulic steering is also noticeably lighter and markedly quicker than the electro-hydraulic S3 and R32’s shared set-up.
This makes it all the more surprising, then, that VW can get the steering so right, when the S3 falls short with the same hardware. Building on the Golf GTI’s excellence, the R32’s steering is solidly weighted and reasonably feelsome. Its aggressively contoured wheel is also the best of the lot. The Subaru’s is simple, but tactile and attractive, while the flat-bottomed S3’s (shared with the TT) looks neat, but it’s squared-off design can be off-putting.
There’s nothing indifferent about the way the S3 hustles through corners, however. Although it’s a natural understeerer, it won’t send you into a drain when you approach the limit of front adhesion.
Patience and prudent throttle modulation drive you around a bend fastest, as will setting the car up properly on turn-in by trail-braking and using the S3’s moderate adjustability. But ultimately, it doesn’t have the same lateral grip as the STI and R32, even though it wears the same tyres as the latter.
That’s because it sits the flattest of the three under hard cornering and seems to be more reliant on the tyre’s adhesive grip than the chassis’ actual poise.
In contrast, the R32 rolls over a lot more, allowing its weight to sit squarely on the outside wheels. You’ll even hear the front tyre rub against the inside guard if you encounter a decent bump when the suspension is loaded up.
It feels better balanced than the S3, but also seems more planted on the road and feels more obviously four-wheel driven, where the S3 seems to drive more from the front and constantly threatens to wash wide if you’re too little keen on the throttle.
The R32 isn’t transmitting as much torque through its wheels, but due it’s more fluid chassis and better balance, the Golf corners every bit as quickly as the S3.
Stretch the STI’s legs and it’ll show both cars a clean pair of heels, but you only start to appreciate the mighty Subaru when you’re driving the absolute clacker out of it. Of the three, it has to be the driver’s choice, as the deeper you delve, the more reward you’ll get.
If you don’t treat it mean and venture beyond it’s remarkable stability, you won’t appreciate just how good the new-generation Impreza’s chassis and drivetrain combination really is.
Charge at any medium- to low-speed corner and be sure to brake liberally as you slew the STI at the apex. When it almost – but not quite – looks like it’s going to glance said apex, nail the loud pedal and feel the diff punt drive to the rear.
The nose tightens just enough and the STI hurtles you out of the bend. The new active diff seems far happier to thrust drive to the rear than previous STI’s, even with the Driver Controlled Centre Differential (DCCD) in auto mode.
Because of this, the STI will flatter an average driver, where the S3 requires smoothness and judicious inputs to get the best out if it. The STI can just be driven hard and the active diff will make you feel fast by adjusting drive to suit.
But don’t be fooled – if you throw caution to the wind and mash the throttle before it’s sane to do so, you’ll still get bags of understeer as you head for an earlier-than intended corner exit. The R32 can also be driven with verve, but it simply doesn’t have the power of the other two to straighten up and haul you out as hard.
Bringing the speed back down is just as vital, and all cars have great brakes. The S3 and R32’s over-servoed stoppers can be a little frustrating, though, grabbing unnecessarily when you’re trying to heel-and-toe at anything less than 10-tenths.
The STI’s pedal placement is best, as are its big disc brakes with four-piston Brembo front callipers. Ride comfort is also a consideration, and the Golf exhibits the best of the three, being firm but compliant. The Audi’s is firmer, and its body control is excellent with four people on board.
The Subaru’s ride is the harshest of, admittedly, a solid group, but it’s noticeably more supple than previous STIs. For seating comfort, the STI Spec R wins with fabulously supportive Recaro front seats, and a superb rear pew. But beware: big bastards may find them less than flattering.
The R32’s less-extreme Recaros are also cosseting, but they’re more suitable for a range of body sizes, and its rear bench offers the best visibility. The S3’s back row perches occupants too high, but its front seats are fine. And all three keep the steerer secured in a befittingly purposeful driving position.
But there can only be one winner of this comparo and it isn’t the S3. Priced at $65,500, has a fantastic engine, but at that price, most punters will want a little show to go with their car’s go. It works with its driver to a point, but you’ll find out all there is to know about it in your first decent strap.
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The $56,490 R32 is a great choice if you want an incredibly practical hatch that is also packed with character. It doesn’t have the weaponry of the other two, but it’s heaps of fun and can be pressed much harder than its grown-up demeanour might suggest.
Which leaves the STI. It remains, at $64,990 for our Spec R (which gets lightweight BBS 18s and superior Recaro buckets), a real performance bargain. It’s undoubtedly faster, safer and more grown-up.
But show it some curling bitumen and you’ll agree the new STI is every inch the mischievous rascal we wanted it to be.