If you ever needed convincing the old “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” thing has legs, then you should have been around in late 1998 when Subaru finally confirmed that a batch of its two-door STis were on the water and due in Aussie showrooms about February ’99.
This review was first published in MOTOR magazine's March 2005 issue.
Phones in dealerships melted down and before you could say ‘pink badges’ the whole shipment of 400 were snapped up. See, despite never having seen an STi before, local petrol-heads had been watching WRC events on the teev and knew only too well the significance of the Subaru Tecnica international moniker.
Two types of people fronted up for the STi; the dyed-in-the-wool WRX fancier who wanted the ultimate factory weapon, and; the much-harder-to-admire speculators who knew that 400 cars was well below market demand and were punting on plenty of disappointed wannabes after round one.
In fact, within weeks of the first deliveries being made, the classifieds were dotted with ads for zero-klik STis, often with as much as $10,000 on top of the new sticker. But the speculators weren’t as smart as they thought: Just a few months later, Subaru did what it had promised not to and landed another 400 STis here.
After years of watching the Japanese market, with the luxury of a steady supply of high-octane PULP, devour the STi, Subaru finally decided that by 1999, we too were pumping the right stuff. Considering Australia was the first country outside Japan to get the basic WRX, this made sense and was not before time.
To us, anyway. While the basic WRX was still enjoying a reputation for being the maddest thing on wheels, the STi made some significant improvements to the successful formula.
For a start, the two-door bodyshell was our first glimpse of it, although really, you had to look closely because the roofline was pretty much identical and the STi still looked more like a sedan than a coupe. (You had to be careful with those big, long doors, too, and they needed a wide parking bay to be opened fully and not clobber the car next door).
Gold, 16-inch alloys were the other big visual clue. The car’s lower control arms were cast in aluminium and there was a big underbonnet brace between the shock towers to tie it all together a bit more firmly. You also got stiffer spring and damper rates which made for a pretty awful ride; something that is a feature of STis to this day.
ABS was thrown in and the brakes themselves were made bigger to counter arguments that the stock version was a bit under-braked. You also got STi-specific front seats, a Momo airbag tiller, passenger’s airbag, semi-climate-control air-con, power windows and mirrors and that contentious security system that was designed to stop car-jacking.
Under that alloy lid, the STi treatment was pretty much full-house for the time. Drawing on STi’s experience in building winning WRC cars, the hottest Rex got a bigger turbocharger than its standard sibling along with stronger valves and pistons to keep it together, along with specific manifolding.
Camshaft profiles were altered from the standard car and there was even a water-spray for the intercooler which was mounted above the engine towards the rear of the engine bay. The factory claimed the Japanese-government-maximum of 206kW, but that was on J-spec, 100-octane fuel.
Run it on our 95-RON local swill and it was more likely to produce about 200kW. Still, that's a shedload of grunt and more than Subaru claims for the current-model STi (195kW). Peak torque was 353Nm and that was a big hike over the standard Rex’s 290Nm (and 160kW).
A short-throw gearshift crowned a five-speeder with ratios allegedly chosen especially for Aussie conditions. And, to be honest, you never really missed the lack of a sixth cog since everything else about the driving experience was pretty manic to begin with, so why not let it rev.
Just as the stock WRX was regarded as one of the all-time great nutter cars, the STi is seen as the ultimate factory version of that. It went harder and cornered harder than its standard brudder, and it had a bit more grip than a stocker (tyres) and felt a bit racier (the front seats) and it had a bit more street cred (pink badges).
But it also had the same foibles. Foibles like a clutch that acted as a fuse when you got too lairy with your launches, a crap ride quality and an interior that was clearly based on a budget, Japanese domestic-market car.
The body was still a bit creaky and tinny and although the bonnet didn’t flap about like the current car’s does, the whole plot could start to feel pretty loose over time. Oh, and while it still looked like a sedan, the two-door layout meant that it was just as awkward for rear-seaters to enter and leave as a coupe.
Perhaps a little ironically, STis don’t seem to have been fiddled with as extensively as their more common brethren. Then again, why tinker with arguably the most collectible version? And besides, if all you wanted was the toughest Rex this side of Mt Fuji, all you needed was a stocker and a chequebook.
There’s a whole industry out there devoted to making Rexes haul like utter bastards, and stuff like a cold-air box, big-bore exhaust, maybe a piggy-back computer and a mild fiddle of the boost pressure will have you flying quick smart. Unfortunately, much more than that and you start to raise the issue of longer-term reliability.
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The WRX motor is strong, no doubt about it, but whether it hangs together for you or not largely comes down to keeping it relatively stock and driving it carefully. And remember that some of these early STis (two and four-doors) went bang on the Aussie fuel.
The other thing to watch for is that the STi you’re looking at hasn’t been raced or rallied. Since the STi was the version that was ultimately homologated for all forms of motorsport, it wouldn’t be out of the question to find the odd ex-racer out there in Second-Hand-Land.
Holes in the floor under the carpet are dead giveaways that a roll-cage has been fitted. And shadows on the paint suggest previous decals and panels that don’t line-up properly are probably the result of a twisted, tortured landscape below. Be careful.
1999 Subaru WRX STi specs:
Body: two-door coupe drive all-wheel
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, 16-valve flat four
Power: 206kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 353Nm @ 4000rpm
Transmission: five-speed manual
Fuel: 60-litres PULP
Price as new: $60,000 (February 1998)