First drive: Subaru WRX STI

It's not exactly ideal weather for testing performance cars at the moment (not on the public roads at any rate) but if we'd been asked to choose one to spend the last week in, the new Subaru WRX STI would not have been far down the list.

Subaru made its name in Europe by bolting turbocharged four-cylinder engines into four-wheel drive cars, and the latest version follows the same recipe.
Except, this time round, the model has lost a name and gained a boot. It's curious that the brand has decided to dispense with the Impreza moniker after investing nearly two decades in it, but the re-introduction of the saloon profile is likely to please the Subaru fans who scoffed at the car's hatchback-only predecessor.

Even with the extended rear haunches the WRX is instantly recognisable as it features much the same front-end look as the hatchback Impreza. Blistered arches and aggressive bumpers are the flavour of the day, although the car we drove lacked the rear spoiler it needs to really finish off the butch styling.

The inside is much as we remember it, too. Interiors have never been Subaru's strong suit and the WRX's cabin, for all its nuclear-sub red-alert spotlights and glowing STI badges, looks a little too much like a spruced-up van - largely due to the upright dash, hollow build quality and hard plastics.

Of course, nobody ever bought anything badged WRX for the interior ambience; people snapped up the things for the rally-bred appeal of what's going underneath. The new car's suspension has been significantly reworked, and is now based on the Japanese 'Spec C' setup.

This means the WRX benefits from a lower ride height and wider tyres, as well as greater body rigidity. The latter is particularly impressive. On a smooth road the car feels like a roll cage balanced on gyroscopes. But in a good way. That feeling of poise is an improvement on the previous STI, and the latest version is at least as quick across country roads thanks to the same 296bhp 2.5-litre flat-four engine.

Lusty, turbocharged propulsion remains the car's raison d'etre, and a new exhaust system exemplifies the off-key burble of Subaru's Boxer. The WRX isn't the smoothest car to drive flat out - the six-speed manual gearchanges come with a shotgun like recoil between bouts of acceleration - but the pace is accompanied by an intoxicating technological whine from beneath the bonnet.

The steering still lacks the hefty feedback it deserves, but there's enough cast-iron grip to keep you on the road well beyond the legal limit - even in the current conditions. This has been achieved without destroying the ride quality either, which manages to remain reasonably pliant despite its inherent stiffness.

That comparative comfort is a prime indicator (if one were needed) that while the new WRX STI's saloon shape might recall former stablemates, the car is certainly not a return to the brutal WRC-derived machines of the past. It is an improvement on the car it replaces though, offering better practicality and slightly greater capabilities. It's a shame then that Subaru has lumbered the car with such a steep price tag. The Mitsubishi Evo X and five-door VW Golf R both offer similar four-wheel drive grunt for less.

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