The Subaru Impreza STI moniker carries an unenviable weight of expectation. After two days with the latest version we ponder whether it does justice to the name.
Subaru gave us the new car to tool around in for two days as a sneak preview, with the official launch scheduled for June 10th.
Hatchback STI sacrilege
Although the seagull-swallowing sized bonnet scoop and multi-spoke 18-inch mags (gold tinted ones are a no cost option) endow it with plenty of presence, the latest STI still looks odd in hatchback form. It's just not the same without a boot lid adorned by the characteristically outsized rear-wing of previous STis.
The side profile seems out of proportion with the sloping nose overhang, almost at odds with the truncated hatchback profile.
Inside the car is nearly indistinguishable from its lesser WRX cousin. You get two STI badges - wow - one on the centre console, the other on the wheel boss.
The Recaro buckets seats are a welcome addition, providing some stylish design input to the otherwise well assembled, yet typically underwhelming, Impreza cabin.
Between the front seats you'll notice an innocuous little control panel with a turn dial and tab that allegedly controls the highly sophisticated central differential arrangement.
The rest is standard hatchback Impreza, which means great fit and finish but hardly any space - the boot can hardly cope with a single full-sized suitcase.
Unmistakeable flat-four beat
Start it up and the obstinate clutch - a STI rite of passage - engages the very average shifting six-speed manual gearbox. Trundling home I felt distinctly cheated looking at the STI-badged steering wheel in my hands, it felt more like 221 hp under the bonnet instead of 221 kW.
At a traffic light my hand found the little turn dial between the front seats by accident and in sheer frustration I turned it towards me onto the Sport Sharp setting, 'yeah right' I though...
Lights green, clutch out, bury the accelerator, and as tachometer passed 4 000r/min I had what can only be described as an authentic STI moment.
A cacophony of spooling turbo whine and haphazardly burbling flat-four boxer drone propelled me forward. The blend of accelerative ferocity and front/rear differential traction was such a rush it could have been the internal combustion version of freefall parachuting.
The 2.5-litre flat four produces 221 kW at a low 6 000 r/min and 407 Nm at 4 000 r/min. It dislikes sending the revs beyond 6 500r/min, but on-boost between 4 000- and 6 000 r/min it delivers simply manic performance with a uniquely appealing soundtrack.
Although the shift gates are close and the throw mechanically accurate, the six-speed 'box lacks that special, well-oiled cog swapping feel of an Audi RS4 or BMW M car.
There is plenty of technical all-wheel drive jargon with the latest STI. Phrases like SI-DRIVE (Subaru Intelligent Drive) and DCCD (Driver's Control Centre Differential).
After two days of driving in real world conditions - including a night on the N1 in an epic Cape rainstorm - the STI revealed itself to a fearsomely resolved car for cross-country driving in varying road and weather conditions.
The DCCD feature is the stuff of genius, allowing you to vary the locking rate of the central clutch-type limited-slip differential with a switch. You can lock it up in treacherous conditions for amazing grip - although front and rear limited-slip diffs whine and the front wheels scrub alarmingly at low speeds during cornering. Conversely you can select a responsive, turn-in biased set-up for dry road high-speed runs.
Coupled with DCCD, SI-DRIVE can be left in a default consumption-friendly 'Intelligent' mode which blinks a green shift indicator light at you every time you hit 2 800 r/min. Only a turn dial away is the 'Sport Sharp' setting though, which ensures no quibble throttle response and ferocious acceleration.
A finely tuned chassis and perfectly dampened suspension renders huge grip and dynamic handling ability without sadomasochistic ride quality. Steering feedback will never match a rear-wheel drive car, though the overriding sensation concerning the epic levels of grip is of near disbelief. The Brembo-sourced brakes might have a short pedal travel, but they offer massively reassuring deceleration.
Add to this an engine/gearbox combination that soaks up terrifying levels of punishment with martyr-like defiance, and the latest STI tallies up to be a cracking drive.
Drive it at nine-tenths of its performance capability in torrential rain conditions. Slingshot past corner clipping points at full-throttle with nary a spinning wheel. Blast across deteriorating South African back roads at absurdly swift speeds. For the aforementioned performance blend, the STI seems to offer a compelling argument.
Its ability to transform huge amounts of power into acceleration despite road-surface conditions is almost perplexing.
Two days and two nights later...
So, after 48 hours with the latest STI we can't tell you everything. Considering the styling you can take a look at the images and make up your own mind. Considering packaging, the lack of space is inexcusably awful for a hatchback.
Considering performance though, it's resolutely epic and usable; unleashing insane accelerative verve and handling poise on demand with no apparent mechanical fragility whatsoever.
Two days is akin to a flirtatious weekend away, and we know how those affairs usually pan out. With the STI though, I can hardly wait to rekindle the relationship over an extended test period.
The initial acquaintance points to a car worthy of the STI moniker. I imagine Burns and McRae would have approved. There is scant praise higher.
Price: R489 000