Review and road test of the Subaru Impreza WRX Sti (2002 - 2007)
RALLYING TO THE CAUSE
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The letter STi hold a special sort of appeal for many Subaru Impreza enthusiasts. Think of Subaru Technica International as the go faster wing of Subaru much as M is to BMW, AMG is to Mercedes or, more accurately, Ralliart is to Mitsubishi. STi badged Imprezas command serious respect and the officially imported UK cars are always in big demand as specialist used cars. There are plenty of early imports around, but we'll concentrate here on the post 2002 models rather than the legions of grey import cars that made their way to these shores in the late nineties.
4 DOOR SALOON 2.0, 2.0 TURBO [WRX STI, STI TYPE-UK])
It's fair to say that October 2000 was a significant month for Impreza owners. Out went the much-loved 'original' shape car and in came the revised 'bug-eyed' edition. The reception was frosty to say the least and the last of the old Imprezas is still worth a good deal more on the used market than the first of the bug-eye cars. Subaru realised that the styling wasn't to the taste of hardcore fans and moved quickly with the launch of the Impreza UK300 which offered compound headlamps, bigger spoilers and the option of a Prodrive WR kit that boosted power to 245bhp. The UK300 was an instant hit and Subaru UK subsequently introduced the Impreza STi at the 2001 Frankfurt show. Debuting in British showrooms in January 2002, the STi, a car that was launched with 261bhp and the option of a standard car or one with bigger Prodrive-designed spoilers, grille and front bumper. Both were badged 'Type-UK' to differentiate them from parallel imported models.
The 2002 Paris motor show saw the release of the facelifted Impreza with much of the credit going to Prodrive and the designer of the McLaren F1, Peter Stevens. With revised front wings, shapelier headlights, a more aggressive bumper and front grille, a resculpted bonnet and revised rear light clusters it was a far more cohesive design than its predecessor and sales soon picked up again, especially as its key rival, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VII, had just been toned down from its Evo VI heyday. Almost immediately Prodrive announced a performance pack for the STi offering a full 300bhp.
A 2003 facelift saw the controversial bug-eye headlamps replaced and a raft of other changes brought in. Then, towards the end of 2004 a 300bhp STi Type-UK model was introduced to top the range.
The 2006 model year facelift brought dramatic changes to the look of the car. The tri-sectioned grille with central 'nostril' raised some eyebrows as did the stretched headlamps that wrap around into the car's front wings. More important, however, was the dropping of the old faithful 2.0-litre turbo engine in favour of a 2.5-litre turbo unit. A 277bhp STI model followed some months later and then came the interesting STI spec D with its more 'discreet' styling and STI underpinnings beneath. An all new Impreza arrived in Autumn 2007, eventually replacing this model with a new STi derivative.
What You Get
Introduced at the 2001 Frankfurt Show, the STi is powered by a 265bhp 2.0-litre flat four engine, but don't be fooled into thinking that it's merely a case of plugging in a more aggressive engine management chip or a bucket-sized turbocharger. Nearly 80% of the STi's all-alloy powerplant is unique. Two versions are offered for the UK market - the standard STi and the special edition STi Prodrive Style. Differences to the regular WRX include special gold-coloured spoked alloy wheels, colour-keyed sill spoilers and an interior featuring blue suede-effect seats with STi logos and red stitching for the steering wheel, gear knob and handbrake lever. Also inside - and sure to please enthusiasts - is a switch to spray the intercooler with water. Another device allows the driver to preset a warning buzzer and light to guard against over-revving the engine. On opening the bonnet, the engine compartment greets owners with a dramatic mixture of colours and detailing. The intake manifold, for example, is painted in red and the enlarged aluminium intercooler emblazoned with 'STi' lettering. In addition, the STi Prodrive Style features a massive high-riding boot spoiler, newly designed sill spoilers and a deeper, squarer front bumper. The grille and badging resemble the WRC rally car. Interior enhancements over the standard STI include dark blue-coloured instruments with red needles. Four colours were available: WR Blue Mica, Blue Black Mica, Premium Silver Metallic and Pure White, the latter two being available to special order only.
The facelifted car followed the same theme with revised suspension and a few engine tweaks. Don't be fooled into thinking that the power increase over the WRX has been achieved by merely plugging in a more aggressive engine management chip or a bucket-sized turbocharger. Nearly 80% of the STi's all-alloy powerplant is unique. The piston head was reshaped to form tougher semi-closed-deck cylinder blocks. Screw-in conrods and forged pistons combine with shimless valve lifters, sodium-filled exhaust valves and hollow valve intakes. Every moving part is either stronger, lighter or both. This reduces inertia and gives the engine a manic free-revving feel that's missing from the standard WRX. A larger intercooler and air intake help keep things from meltdown, and a water spray has been fitted to the intercooler that is operated by the driver via a dash-mounted button. Serious stuff.
What to Look For
There's quite a bit to bear in mind here given the Impreza WRX STi is still fairly new to the used arena. First and foremost, make sure your STi is exactly what it says on the tin. There have been tales of unscrupulous vendors passing cosmetically modified WRX models as STi versions at big mark-ups. The same goes for cars with and without the Prodrive engine upgrades. Inspect the car carefully and it's advisable to undertake background checks to ensure it hasn't been stolen/recovered or crashed. A service history is essential and watch for non-standard parts, resprays, kerbed alloys, spongy brakes and worn clutches. Parts are expensive, so tread carefully. The fact that the Impreza regularly comes at or near the pinnacle of the J D Power surveys is testament to its almost metronomic reliability. Jump from an Audi S3 into an Impreza WRX STi and your first impression would be that the Impreza would be lucky to last all the way to the bottom of your drive, but the Subaru trounces the Audi in terms of actual reliability. The cheap fascia plastics and the exposed wiring in the boot may look like corner cutting, but the bits that matter have had millions of yen of development budget thrown at them.
(2002 WRX STi approx.) Subaru parts have a deserved reputation for being expensive. A clutch assembly is around £240. Front brake pads are around £80, and a new alternator is over £400 new. A headlamp unit is £260 while a cam belt is just over £100. Even a humble fuel filter is £33.
On the Road
STi owners will certainly have enough performance to be able to blow most other road users into the undergrowth with a rest to sixty figure of 5.2 seconds and a top speed of 148mph on the cards. These figures err on the conservative side, and give no hint as to the sheer otherworldliness of the Impreza's cornering abilities. The facelift model will run on to a top speed of 151mph. The power delivery is frustratingly 'toppy' insofar as there's very little action below 4,500rpm. Unless you really grit your teeth and have no sympathy for the clutch, you'll get beaten off the line by far humbler fare. Like the seminal Impreza P1 before it, the WRX STi is a car that only really makes sense when being driven like an absolute banshee. To set the mood, Subaru ought to perhaps supply the car with a looping CD of Motorhead's Ace of Spades at full volume in the excellent audio system.
The STi can also be fitted with a 305 PS performance pack giving a 155 mph top speed and 0-60 mph time of only 4.6 seconds. Developed by Banbury-based Prodrive, the power boost ups the available oomph from 265 PS (261.5 bhp) to 305 PS (300 bhp) at the same 6,000 rpm but torque rises from the standard STi's 253 lb ft to 299 lb ft, also at the same 4,000 rpm. The result is not only startling high-rev performance but also more low and mid-speed flexibility. In other words, the car becomes swifter at any speed and in any gear.
Cult cars usually come with considerable caveats. This one is different. The Impreza WRX STi is a car that can be used to commute to work, to blast across a continent or to take to a favourite racetrack at the weekend and have the time of your life. Few cars offer such versatility, practicality, reliability and sheer fun. Whichever version you buy, you'll be guaranteed a car that has deeper reserves of capability than you could ever have imagined. If you want to find out why such an aura has built up around the Impreza, the STi offers all the answers. Just go. You'll see.
Subaru Impreza WRX Sti (2002 - 2007) review by ANDY ENRIGHT