The Subaru Impreza WRX and WRX STI are engaging, appealing cars, and almost unique in the marketplace. They are fast and fun to drive yet practical. Based on the Impreza compact, they are economical to operate (given their performance) and, more than ever, they make excellent cars for commuters who like a little spice in their daily drive.
The WRX models are superb and seem to get better every year. Subaru completely redesigned the WRX for 2008. The power was increased and the suspension was retuned for 2009, and more aggressive body cladding returned. For 2010, WRX gets more aggressive side sills between its wheel wells, while the STI gets black Alcantara upholstery with bright red stitching.
A new 2010 STI Special Edition is aimed at those willing to trade a few amenities for more handling performance. The suspension is adopted from the Japanese market STI spec C, which adds a 1-millimeter thicker rear stabilizer bar, stiffer rear sub-frame bushings plus upgraded springs. The front springs are 16-percent stiffer, while the rear springs have been stiffened by 29 percent.
Despite their racy appearance and serious performance, the WRX is quite refined. The current WRX models are smoother and more comfortable than pre-2008 versions, and easy to live with during the typical commute. Their cabins are roomier than previous versions, with an overall improvement in appointments and finish quality. They're offered with high-grade audio and an optional navigation system.
The WRX and STI have achieved cult status among driving enthusiasts and boy racers, but more than ever that image is too narrow and confining. These cars have decent room in the back seat and good cargo capacity. Their all-wheel-drive system can legitimately be considered a safety and foul-weather advantage, even if, with the powerful, turbocharged engines in the WRX, it's marketed as a performance enhancement, a role it also fills.
These are drivers cars. They aren't available with automatics and leather upholstery is not an option. Yet buyers seeking a smaller car with lots of safety features should like the WRX. All-wheel drive comes standard. All models come with Vehicle Dynamics Control and a sophisticated anti-lock brake system with electronic brake-force distribution. The WRX gets excellent ratings in crash tests.
The WRX is available as a four-door sedan with a conventional trunk, or as a five-door hatchback. The hatch adds nearly 70 percent more cargo capacity.
At about $25,000, the WRX models come well equipped, with nice seats in carbon black checkered accented by red stitching, automatic climate control, a good stereo and more horsepower than all but a couple cars in this size/price class. Both are powered by a 2.5-liter, 265-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder, arranged in Subaru's familiar horizontally opposed, or flat-four, configuration. The WRX offers a bang for the buck that surpasses many more expensive sports sedans.
The STI version is essentially its own car, and available only as a hatchback. STi stands for Subaru Technica International, the high-performance division that made the WRX famous through considerable success in the World Rally Championship. Nearly every major mechanical system is unique to the STI: six-speed manual transmission, special suspension and brakes, unique interior appointments and a high-tech, manually adjustable all-wheel-drive system. Yet the STi's centerpiece is a higher-tech, higher-boost version of the 2.5-liter four, generating 305 horsepower. Its acceleration times match those delivered by exotic sports cars such as the Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
The STi is faster than ever, but it's also quieter, more understated, and easier to drive quickly. On a closed course on Vancouver Island, we found we could overdrive corners in a big way and easily maintain control. The current model reeks refinement when compared to the STi that first went on sale in the United States in 2004. It's grown from an in-your-face, sport-compact icon to something more like a true, brand-building performance flagship. It also starts $10,000 higher than the base WRX. Many buyers will be just as happy with the standard version. We can attest that while driving the WRX we never felt like we were short-changed or missing something by not having the STi.
To be sure, the WRX costs more than your typical front-wheel-drive compact, and the performance and all-wheel-drive come with a mileage penalty. Still, we think the WRX models are a great deal, offering lots of performance for the dollar in a car that's easy to live with every day.
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