Subaru has launched the long awaited third generation Impreza WRX STI at the Tokyo motor show in Japan.
The legendary WRX performance derivate, which has greatly enhanced the image of Fuji Heavy Industries automobile division, Subaru, since its launch in 1994, is facing its greatest challenge yet.
With a radical departure from sedan configuration to hatchback, legions of loyal Subaru Impreza fans have been waiting to see if the third generation WRX STI would be a worthy recipient of the WRX STI moniker or not.
A key question is whether the buying public can make the paradigm shift around the WRX STI being reclassified as the hottest of all hot-hatches instead of a supercar-slaying hyper-sedan...
The hatchback format might also mean the end of one of the most enduring performance battles of all time, as the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X will now stand alone as the last rally-based sedan hyper-car.
Ensuring the latest WRX STI is as well equipped as possible to meet the outlandishly high expectations the market has set for it. Subaru has not tampered with the traditional symmetrical all-wheel drive, four-cylinder, horizontally opposed drivetrain configuration.
A host of new dynamic driving aids join the huge list of technological acronyms. There is a driver's control centre differential (DCCD), multi-mode vehicle dynamics control (VDC) and Subaru dynamic chassis control concept (Subaru DC).
Smaller and tauter
Obviously the absence of a boot and the typically elaborate WRX boot-spoiler are the most striking features of the new five-door hatchback styling.
Overall the new Impreza WRX STI is 50mm shorter than the old model yet the wheelbase is 95mm longer, ensuring minimal overhangs and an strongly proportioned shape.
Apart from the extended front and rear wings, key visual differences include a mesh front grille and a new, deep bumper design with sporty vertical air vents at either side to help cool the intercooler.
Immediately behind each front wheel is a vertical air outlet for the intercooler, topped by an 'STI' moulding plate.
Specially-designed side skirts neatly blend into the extended wheel arches, while an oversized roof spoiler with high-mounted stop lamp further distances the WRX STI from the mainstream Impreza. In addition, an integrated rear bumper diffuser reduces high-speed lift.
At the rear, four exhaust pipes twinned in pairs at either side of the body not only give a distinctive look but reduce exhaust air-flow resistance by 38 per cent, increasing power and reducing noise.
Colour choices will include Subaru's signature 'WR Blue' and while gold-coloured alloy wheels are available, other designs include high-lustre silver alloys measuring 18x8.5ins with 245/40R tyres.
The new Impreza WRX STI boasts a much plusher interior than before, offering leather/Alcantara-covered sports seats as standard with Recaro seats as an option. Curtain airbags are standard and the audio system has been upgraded.
Although the appearance might be radically different to what has gone before it, the heart of the matter, the fabled all-wheel drive drivetrain has stayed true to the Subaru performance design philosophy.
A turbocharged 2.5-litre, four-cylinder, horizontally opposed engine ensures a low centre of gravity and stability around the front suspension. Delivering 223kW at 6000r/min, and 406Nm at 4000r/min performance is sure to be rapid.
Also new is Subaru's Si-Drive system as fitted to the Legacy 3.0R spec.B. This gives the driver three different engine-response programs at the turn of a switch, with the aptly named 'Super-Sharp' Mode giving the ultimate in throttle response.
The six-speed manual transmission has been revised, with a shorter-throw gear-change and lighter movements, especially from neutral to 1st and 1st to 2nd gear thanks to a revised synchromesh, allowing snap shifts when attempting to ensure maximum acceleration at take-off.
As before, the symmetrical all-wheel drive system features a centre viscous-coupling plus front and rear limited-slip-differentials. This shares grip front to rear and side-to-side, constantly adjusting for maximum road-holding.
All-wheel drive wizardry
The driver's control centre differential (DCCD) has been improved, giving even more choice of handling characteristics. DCCD is operated via a switch in the centre console, allowing the driver to manually select the torque distribution front to rear, reverting to automatic mode every time the ignition is switched off.
In Manual mode, the driver can adjust the front to rear torque distribution through varying degrees to suit different road conditions such as loose gravel or soft snow.
For the new Impreza WRX STI, the DCCD switch also allows the selection of three different types of 'Auto' Mode.
Normal Auto mode is selected when the engine is started and covers most road conditions. Auto+ mode places the emphasis on traction for slippery roads, sharing out the torque more evenly between all four wheels and enhancing straight-line stability. Auto- mode increases agility by enhancing steering response through less torque-split interference.
Like the previous Impreza WRX STI, the new car has inverted front suspension struts which provide a more rigid mounting and less camber-change during hard cornering. Aluminum front suspension lower arms reduce unsprung weight.
The braking system has been developed in conjunction with Italian specialist, Brembo, and features four-pot calipers at the front and twin-pot at the rear - both ventilated discs. The system also includes four-channel, four-sensor ABS with EBD.
A multi-mode vehicle dynamics control can be turned off altogether or set to 'Traction' which delays artificial interference.
With new Impreza being launched in South African next week, the WRX STI is expected to land early next year, and not a moment too soon for local Subaru acolytes.