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Scooby STI (auto!) tested

2011-01-20 14:39

READY FOR TAKE-OFF: The oversized rear wing is a South African market nice-to have; in the UK have to make do without it.

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Subaru
Engine 2.5l flat-four turbo
Power 221kW @ 6 200r/min
Torque 350Nm @ 3 000r/min
Transmission Five-speed auto
Zero To Hundred 6 seconds
Top Speed 250km/h
Fuel Consumption 14.2l/100km
Weight 1 525kg
Boot Size 420l
Tyres 245/40R18
Front Suspension McPherson strut
Rear Suspension Double-wishbone
Warranty 3 year/100 000km
Price R489 900

Lance Branquinho

Subaru’s range of high-performance Impreza models has never shied from controversy.

After gravitating to hero status among 'alternative' performance car enthusiasts during the late 1990's the company’s headline WRX STI nameplate has seen some rather ‘interesting’ styling and configuration changes during the last few years.

The first sign of Subaru meddling, unnecessarily, with the Impreza WRX STI’s "banzai-car-with-a-boot’" styling was the bug-eyed second-generation version released back in 2002. Traditional customers, and Subaru’s WRX STI clientele are among the most loyal, baulked at this abomination.

To its credit the company swiftly made a styling change after only a year with designer Peter Stevens (he also refined the McLaren F1 road car’s final styling) managing to fix the STI’s buggy hideousness.


A few years later, in 2008, Subaru’s design bureau managed, inexplicably, to get a hatchback version of the STI approved by the board of directors. This five-door WRX STI was seen as pure heresy by most and the car – despite its dynamic excellence – was replaced by a sedan body in 2010.

Many assumed the return to sedan configuration would (finally) steer the STI brand clear of controversy. Well, not quite. This latest incarnation of Subaru’s WRX STI is the most controversial yet.

Why is the 2010 model year car such an affront to its illustrious STI heritage? Well, settle into its superbly crafted Recaro bucket driver’s seat and as you orientate your favourite pair of driving shoes in the footwell you’ll notice there are only two pedals instead of three. Indeed, after nearly two decades of indecently rapid Imprezas, the latest STI is the first available on the local market with an auto transmission.

Before your delete your STI screensaver and replace it with the Lancer Evo X, consider two issues. First, the six-speed manual transmission has not been replaced; it continues alongside the option of a five-speed self-shifter - the auto retailing at R10 000 less. Second, perhaps an automatic STI is not quite as wrong in execution as it sounds in principle. If all the AMG's and most modern M5's (not to mention most Porsches and all Ferraris) make do with only two pedals, perhaps heel-and-toe double-declutching is something that belongs to the vestiges of 20th century performance motoring?


Judged purely from its (rather) ornate styling details, it is impossible to tell the two new STI models – auto and manual – apart. The automatic car retains all the six-speed’s characteristically elaborate street-racer styling paraphernalia.

A generously dimensioned bonnet scoop (routing airflow directly over the intercooler), noticeably fleshed-out front bumper (housing additional lights) and of course the ironing board-sized rear wing (at 250mm clear of the boot, right in your rearward field of view) are all visual highlights. Elegant it most definitely is not, but then again, an STI has never been a subtle car.

The STI nameplate’s heritage has always been as a road-going homologation act to support Subaru’s rallying aspirations, something which has become a bit of an issue with this latest super-scooby. Unfortunately the company’s motorsport activities have all but ceased (this is the first four-door STI since Subaru’s disengagement from WRC), which is the reason you can’t order the new STI in its classic electric blue surfacing with gold alloy wheels any more.

Although one can no longer justify an STI’s styling excess with thinly veiled fibs of the "that wing needs to be that big so that Solberg can catch Loeb" variety, I still think its styling is wholly unique and therefore entirely acceptable.

BETTER?: It may look the same, yet the STI cabin’s infotainment system has been hugely improved by satellite controls which do not have a mind of their own – unlike its predecessor…


Inside, the peculiar Subaru design philosophy is present in all its incongruity: an underwhelming design aesthetic assembled at levels of peerless quality.

The flat-slabbed fascia, outdated display illumination (especially those STI-themed dials with their 1980's Oriental red hue) and lack of leather cladding or contrasting trim bits will always appear embarrassingly stark and mismacthed to drivers more familiar with German performance sedans.

Despite the plain design (and even plainer materials), the sum of parts that constitute an STI's cabin architecture are very well put together. Every Subaru test cars I have driven possessed a similarly hard-wearing cabin construction, where no clips or bits work themselves loose even with robust use.

Pretty? No. Tough? Yes.

Beyond its lack of style (and solidity of assembly) the STI’s return to a sedan configuration improves the accommodation issues that have afflicted really fast Imprezas ever since the estate bodyshell was discontinued. Although a boot gives the STI a remnant of practicality, being able to accommodate 420 litres of luggage (a vast 185 more than the STI hatch) it is still not what one would class as family practical.

Loadability is truncated - one can barely stow a bag of shopping and case of beer before the fifth door struggles to shut - which hardly endows the STI with the level of practicality expected of a sedan.

Is this a big issue, though? The STI’s billing is as a performance sedan. Beyond the madcap styling, and limited practicality as a family conveyance for five, is this new STI, in automatic guise, quintessentially pointless due to a perceived reduction in performance - or not?


It's worth nothing that the auto transmission does curtail peak torque delivery to only 350Nm, as opposed to the six-speed STI’s 407Nm.

How acute is the 57Nm reduction in available rotational force? Welll, with the SI-Drive control dial on the centre console (adjusting the throttle response sharpness) turned to 'Sport-Sharp', acceleration arrives with the suddenness of an avalanche when properly provoked. Very little, in fact, happens before the tachometer needle edges past 3400rpm.

Although the engine is tremendously laggy, alarmingly so by contemporary standards where sequential and dual turbocharging systems have become essentially seamless in operation, its 2.5-litre capacity ensures there is enough torque available off-boost to navigate traffic without much hassle.

When the WRX’s turbo does spool up to peak speed,it’s accompanied by meaningful forced induction which translates to serious performance car-baiting urge. Subaru fans will be heartened to know that the burbling boxer beat, which sounds like an industrial blender idling under the burden of a overload of custard, remains as unrefined as ever.

How much does the five-speed auto stymie the STI’s ambitious 221kW, though?

Well, if you're one of those pedantic types who like to show off and compare stored acceleration times recorded on a smart phone at a braai, then sure, the five-speed auto is slower than its (more expensive) six-speed manual sibling. Supposing you're particularly skilful and dexterous, with outstanding hand-eye-left-leg co-ordination, the six-speed STI will post a 0-100km/h run of 5.8 seconds. The STI auto? It runs 0-100km/h in six seconds dead - a negligible difference at best. Keep in mind the reduced strain on transmission components - there’s no clutch for the teenage drivers in your family to launch to destruction, for instance.

There is an issue beyond performance figures, one of those conveniently silenced truths concerning all STI's, that warrants mention in mitigation of the new STI self-shifter’s appeal. The simple truth is that shift-feel (and quality) has never been a character trait of Subaru’s manual H-gate transmissions. Sure, Subaru’s manual transmissions have always been solid, but they’re also rubbery and slow shifting. The auto, in most driving conditions, is superior and I didn't miss the rubbery interaction of a six-speeder's H-gate.

FIVE-FORWARD: It may look very out of place but the five-speed auto has downshift throttle blipping and makes the daily commute painless. It is hardly slower than a manual STI either …

When the impetus comes, and it will (at the call of that burbling boxer four’s exhaust note), to get a move on there is a paddle shift override function to interact with.

I am not going to lie: the STI’s automatic transmission is not comparable to most contemporary dual-clutch systems. It's an old-school planetary geared set-up and although quick enough, don’t expect those near ‘pre-cognitive’ shifts one has become accustomed to courtesy of the VW group’s DSG.

A crucial point when evaluating the STI auto is to decide what kind of STI driver you are. To my mind there have always been two – near diametrically opposite – STI buyers: those who have a petulant boost addiction, and those who find this fabled nameplate’s cornering poise its most credible feature. If you find yourself grouped with the latter, the auto enables one to keep both hands on wheel during ‘enthusiastic’ driving (enhanced control) and remember: it is impossible to spin-lock an automatic performance car downshifting for a tight second-gear corner - which should save you a whole lot of ego bruising at track days.

Beyond the automatic transmission slightly inhibiting the STI’s outright pace (counter-balanced by a more harmonious all-round driving experience) it has the additional task of acting as a replacement for Subaru’s much vaunted Driver Controlled Centre Differential  (DCCD). The DCCD system enables one to adjust the front/rear torque bias to posture a more rearward biased ‘pointy’ turn-in characteristic or slightly safer even-split centre-differential lock-up for spirited driving on treacherous, low traction surfaces such as gravel.

With the STI auto doing without DCCD, the five-speed transmission is burdened by torque distribution duties in addition to shifting ratios. Set to run at a default 45/55 front/rear split, torque distribution pendulums as the transmission’s electronic control module sees fit. STI purists will justifiably question whether a car that foregoes adjustable differential control should not be carrying the plainer WRX badge instead. The proof though, is in the driving...

BUSINESS END: Those quad tailpipes sing their signature flat-four boxer tune. Plug into the soundtrack and you’ll see a real world consumption figure of 14.2l/100km as opposed to the claimed 10.5l/100km…


One area where the auto STI is not overshadowed by the manual is chassis set-up.

With wheels independently suspended at each corner (sophisticated double wishbones at the rear), the Subaru chassis has become a near perfect blend of grip and suspension travel.

The new STI’s suspension has been upgraded from its hatchback predecessor.

Called the Spec C damper option, this 2010 model year upgrade increases front spring rebound resistance by 15% and a rather substantial 53% at the rear, meaning that those rear wheels are properly disciplined and faithfully keep tracking your intended line at speed during cornering.

Anti-roll bars are thicker all round and the new STI auto rides 5mm lower than the hatchback STI. Sporting a new wheel design (that shaves 2kg per corner rolling slightly wider 245/40 tyres, add to the level of feedback and control exploitable by the driver.

Ride quality, for something wearing low-profile rubber on 18" wheels (and capable of significant speeds) is simply otherworldly.

If you have a two-year-old in the baby seat he (or she) will only be kept awake on an extended journey by the exhaust note. Road surface imperfections are too well absorbed to even be noticeable.

Whereas the WRX sedan I tested a year ago exhibited quite a lot of bodyroll, as lateral forces transferred from one side of the car to the other during all-wheel grip balanced high-speed cornering, the STI’s suspension has been expertly calibrated to banish the unsettling bodyroll afflicting the hatchback STI when turning it into a narrow radius corner at speed.

The steering is still a touch on the light side (as with all Imprezas) despite the presence of a steering damper to reduce kickback on broken surfaces. Push the STI to the edge of its mechanical grip (fully seduced by the boxer growl and accompanying 221kW power peak) and terminal understeer is the last thing you’ll experience before ploughing into some roadside scenery and having to phone your insurance broker.

With the firmer suspension and wider tyres grip limits are frightfully high though and as a package, the new four-door STI is courageously faithful to the Impreza legacy of unparalleled A-to-B cross country ability. The increase in tyre size does make it tramline occasionally over very badly rutted tar roads.

On wet (or dirt) roads the all-wheel drive system allows one to deploy full power at the apex tipping point with more confidence than anything else with four wheels. Get into the routine of braking earlier than you’d usually do, turn-in at a point a few metres ahead of your racer's intuition and the all-wheel drive traction is worth its reputation; enabling silly average speeds over treacherous road conditions. 

The manual-shifting STI’s only trump card (dynamically) is its multi-setting VDC, which features an intermediate setting for inexperienced drivers; whereas the auto STI’s stability intervention system is either fully active or completely disengaged, plain and simple.

Admittedly, it takes a day or two to get used to the idea of paddle-shifting an STI (instead of man-handling it up and down the gate with your left-hand). The benefits (two hands on the wheel, all of the time) and classic STI appeal (raucous pace, unflappable poise on all road surfaces, in all conditions) are sure to endear the auto to even the most hardcore enthusiasts.


I spent little under a week with the STI automatic and no, I was not haunted by Colin McRae’s ghost and the sky did not fall during this test period either.

Naturally the idea of an automatic STI may appear diametrically opposed to the demands of each and every layer of driver involvement promised by the hallowed Oriental performance acronym, but there is no denying it is an awful lot more relaxing to drive in traffic – where a car such as this, truthfully, will turn most of its mileage.

If you are confronted by the responsibilities of a burgeoning family, convincing your partner of the practical virtues of owning something STI-badged is plainly a lot easier when it is of the dual pedal variety and a trouble-free urban commuter. Yes, you'll struggle to go much further than 300km on a 60l tank of fuel, and yes, it perpetually attracts attention, but the driving dynamics have greatly benefited from its subtle 2010 suspension upgrade.

It may be an incontinent truth, but the world is moving away from the manual transmission. You cannot even buy a Ferrari with a chromed H-gate any longer. As mentioned in the start of this piece, other notable performance nameplates (especially of the four-door variety) have prioritised dual-pedal driving convenience; think AMG, M-division and Porsche’s Panamera range.

Subaru then, is entirely justified in offering its Impreza STI in automatic form. To my mind this is the first step to what should surely be the start of a development timetable apexing with a proper dual-clutch version of the Impreza STI - and some car that will surely be…


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