Subaru has officially launched its Impreza STI hatchback locally. Is this the hottest hatch of the batch, or an affront to the STI badge?
After our sneak first drive two weeks ago, Subaru's officially launch of the flagship Impreza provided us with an opportunity to get reacquainted with the STI hatchback - and yes, we are still getting used to mentioning 'Impreza', 'STI' and 'hatchback' in the same sentence.
Zwartkops raceway provided a controlled environment for some measured hooliganism, and more importantly for us, provided a Reef altitude driving experience to contrast with our initial first drive in Cape Town.
As we alluded to in our initial driving impression, the new STI will always irk some Scooby purists by virtue of its truncated hatchback styling.
Yes, it lacks the practicality of its illustrious sedan predecessors, yet the accentuated wheel arches, unique STI fettled front spoiler and characteristically brash bonnet scoop imbue it with more than a remnant of STIness.
Although the STI might appear similar to its lesser WRX cousin, it shares only front doors, bonnet and the roof as carry over panels.
Gauged in dimensions the latest STI sees an increase in front track width by 40mm and rear track by 45mm compared to both the previous STI and current WRX.
The associated body Tupperware - a styling trait which endears it infinitely to hooligans everywhere - does its bit to aid stability via airflow management. The bodykit also cools the engine and brakes via the cut-outs and vents behind the wheels - yet, the real deal is not inside, outside or on top, it's underneath.
Featuring a flat under try, which stabilises airflow, the latest STI, despite lacking a boot adorned by the typically massive regulation STI rear spoiler, still renders ace aerodynamic properties.
Interior detailing and design is decidedly underwhelming, although perceived build quality is impressive, and the controls all have a solid feel to them. The Recaro performance seats are a rare feature highlight in the otherwise awfully average cabin.
With its significantly increased track both front and rear, the new STI features MacPherson strut suspension up front and a double-wishbone set-up at the rear.
Featuring wider anti-roll bar attachment points and specifically calibrated damper settings the new car exhibits 7.5% less body roll than its predecessor.
Making the most of these design and suspension geometry changes are 245/40 Dunlop SP600 tyres rolling on 18-inch multi-spoke BBS alloys.
The alloy wheels deserve a quick note, being light forged aluminium items weighing only 3kgs, they are finished in grey. Gold ones are a no cost option though, which should appease loyal STI buyers who could simply not deal with a top dog Scooby running on anything but gold BBS mags.
With a resolved chassis and sophisticated suspension design, especially the employment of double-wishbone rear-suspension, the STI should not be mistaken as merely a warmed over WRX.
Ensuring the latest chassis tweaks are easily taken to the limit is a 2.5-litre, flat-four turbocharged engine slung as low as possible between the front wheels.
Only Porsche and Subaru still use this configuration application in their performance cars, and beyond the weight distribution advantages, the unique, burbling soundtrack is as acoustically engaging as always.
An optional locally developed performance exhaust system - about which Subaru is diplomatically mum concerning specific pricing and additional kilowatts - tweaks the burbling flat-four exhaust note to an even more intoxicating blend of menacing idle and baritone mid-throttle resonance.
The 2.5-litre might dislike stratospheric revolutions, it produces 221kW at 6 000r/min and you can only dial up 6 700r/min before the shift light blinks, turbo lag is negligible and torque delivery is linear, especially from low revolutions.
Largely responsible for the linear power delivery is both inlet and exhaust camshaft dual variable vale timing and lift control (AVCS), ensuring 407Nm of torque being available at 4 000r/min.
Running on 95-Octane RON fuel at 670m above sea level, Subaru have achieved a 4.86 second 0-100km/h run, dispatching the standing kilometre at 24.57 seconds en route to a 255km/h top speed. Quick.
At Zwartkops the car never felt lacking in dynamic verve, even at altitude, especially with the SI-DRIVE (Subaru Intelligent Drive) and DCCD (Driver's Control Centre Differential) settings dialled in with optimal driver orientated bias.
The fabled symmetrical all-wheel drive system, which hardly endears itself to fumbling hooligans and drift-specialists, has really come into its own with DCCD. Essentially it allows the driver to select the amount of locking the centre differential, with its electronically-controlled limited slip differential, applies.
Flip a switch and you can lock it up for treacherously wet roads or some Solberg sugar-cane special stage indulgence on your way back from a North coast vacation. You can configure DCCD to provide a 'pointier' turn-in bias set-up too.
On the track it rendered an uncanny state of dynamic handling balance, and ride quality, considering the performance, is hardly WRC-spec harsh. The double-wishbone rear-suspension ensured confidence inspiring composure at the rear when braking late, whilst the front-end flicks into corners with alacrity and poise - although the typical lack of Subaru steering feel was still evident.
Turn, aim, throttle, fire
The STI's party trick though, is the savageness it tolerates with respect to throttle input. In a car weighing only 1 505kg, 221kW and 407Nm is heady blend. Even more so with SI-DRIVE turned onto the Sport Sharp setting, which employs the most aggressive of three engine and throttle mapping programs available.
In conjunction with mechanical limited-slip differentials front and rear, DCCD reduces wheel spin to a foreign concept in the STI's frame of reference, enabling epic, full-throttle apex clipping acceleration out of slow to medium paced corners.
Once you see an apex or clipping point lined up with the bulbous bonnet scoop the throttle is simply kept fully depressed, whilst the resultant traction out of corners is stupefying.
It's safe too. The notorious turn eight at Zwartkops claimed one STI during the launch, it nastily collided with the pit wall, yet the airbags deployed flawlessly, and the driver walked away without a scratch.
The latest STI has epic grip and ample urge - especially at Reef altitudes thanks to forced induction.
It also features a drivetrain which soaks up epic levels of full-throttle punishment in the truest WRC derived tradition.
Although questionably styled, the latest STI presents itself as nothing less than a worthy incumbent of the STI moniker.
Undoubtedly Peter Solberg's second place in the Acropolis Rally last weekend, in the new STI's WRC debut, should add further credibility to the latest STI being a worthy descendent of the WRC strain of flagship performance vehicles which have gone before it.
There are issues, obviously. Although the performance, especially the all-weather, all-road surface handling, is comparable to cars costing twice as much, the interior detailing and lack of space is lamentable for a car retailing at nearly R500 000.
Much criticism has been vented concerning the laughable lack of load-space in the hatch. In mitigation you do get a 205 size spare wheel, which considering the huge distances travelled, and security situation between stopover points in South Africa, is a worthwhile compromise in our estimation.
Subaru estimates they could move 100 STIs this year, despite apocalyptic market conditions and a fearsome interest rate environment.
To those who doubt the STI's appeal to transcend both its reconfiguration to hatchback form and price premium, they've sold 25 already...