December 1, 2007
2008 Subaru WRX STI Test Drive: The Ultimate Hot Hatch
It’s a fact: Flare the fenders wide enough, and you can make any car look way cooler. That design element, often necessitated by engineering (fatter wheels and tires) has been used for decades on manufacturer’s top performance models. And it was the flared fenders, not the audacious rear wing or even the mailbox-size hood scoop, that made the last generation of Subaru’s WRX STI look so menacing. The design of the all-new WRX, from which the 2008 STI you see here is based, was not greeted with universal praise by the press or Subaru’s fiercely loyal fans—too plain and pedestrian looking, they said.
Well that may change when they get an eyeful of the new STI down at their local Subaru dealer. Yes, the STI now comes only as a five-door hatchback, instead of the popular sedan bodystyle. But who cares? In the flesh, those flared fenders transform the WRX from a slightly vanilla wagon into a purpose-built rally raid car.
The fenders are so flared that they incorporate what Subaru calls “side engine heat outlets” (think Ferrari F40 or Dodge Viper) to help cool the turbo-stressed boxer four. The aggressive new look caters to function, not form. The bulged metal houses big 18x8.5-in. wheels with proprietary Dunlop 245/40R18 SP Sport 600 rubber. Couple that with a track that’s wider than the outgoing STI by 1.3 in. up front and 1.5 in. out back (no pun intended), and you’ve got one tough looking hatch.
Besides the muscled-up fenders, Subaru adds a rather tame (at least by previous STI standards) rear spoiler and a BMW M3-style exhaust and diffuser. When combined with the open front fascia and front spoiler, the STI generates zero lift. The hood scoop, despite being smaller than the one on the outgoing model, feeds air to an intercooler that’s 0.2 liters bigger. And the body shell itself is made from stronger steel than the regular WRX.
At a glance, the engine doesn’t look any different from previous iterations, but there are big changes on the inside. The addition of variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust camshafts (AVCS) allows the 2.5-liter turbo to make 305 hp and 290 lb.-ft. of torque—more than both the previous version and the STI arch-rival Mitsubishi Evolution X. Despite gains is power, the engine is more fuel efficient, and peak torque arrives 400 rpm sooner, at 4000. The turbocharger has been changed from 2007, but the boost pressure is the same, at 14.7 psi. This motor is paired solely to a six-speed manual. And as before, the shifter action is precise, if slightly notchy. But romp on the loud pedal, and this Subi scoots. Unlike just about every car that gets a complete redesign these days, the STI is actually lighter than before. And that, combined with the additional power, should make the new car quicker. We’d bet on a 0-60 mph time of around 4.8 seconds.
If you can program a VCR, you might be able to configure the multitude of electronics that determine the driving characteristics of the new STI. This is one tech-heavy machine. Purists might wish for a simpler connection between man and machine. But it’s this technology that helps make the STI devastatingly quick—on both road and track.
It starts with SI-Drive, a throttle-mapping program that is new to the STI, but not to Subaru. The system allows a driver to choose from three modes of throttle response. It works, but we have to wonder why there needs to be any setting but the most aggressive, “Sport Sharp.” The STI is designed as a road-going rally car, after all.
As before, the STI’s all-wheel-drive system has a driver-controlled center differential with six manual settings and an “Auto” function, with the nominal front-to-rear bias of 41:59. This year, an “Auto -“ setting and an “Auto +” setting join the party. Auto - unlocks the center differential and maximizes rear torque bias. Auto +, on the other hand, tightens things up and sends torque forward for stability on loose terrain.
The Vehicle Dynamics Control system has three settings— “Normal,” “Off” and “Traction.” The latter setting disengages the electronic engine torque reduction control system and allows for some real fun. And the car gets Super Sport ABS, which uses inputs from a lateral g-sensor, steering angle sensor, yaw sensor and brake pressure sensor to reduce understeer during hard cornering. In addition, the new system allows for hill start assist so you won’t roll backward when you depress the clutch on a steep slope.
On the track at Laguna Seca Raceway, the STI’s steering delivered a bit less feedback than we would have liked. The initial turn-in was less crisp than we were expecting. Unlike the steering of, say, an Evo, you don’t have so much of that telepathic feel for the road that many enthusiasts and track day junkies crave.
But the dampened feedback does nothing to diminish the STI’s brutal point-to-point capability on the road, where the car’s mission statement becomes clear. As was the case with the previous STI, we’re hard-pressed to think of a car that can be driven through an unpredictable ribbon of road anywhere near as quickly or with as much confidence.
And, of course, part of that confidence comes from the massive brake package. The Brembo brakes are now emblazoned with “STI” emblems, and the dual-piston rear calipers now use larger pistons. Rotors grow from 12.77 in. to 13.0 in. up front, and from 12.3-in. to 12.6-in. at the rear. Pedal feel is dramatically improved from the 2007 car, but the distance separating the gas and brake pedal feels wider. And the brake pedal itself feels higher—much closer to the driver. So pulling off clean heel-toe downshifts requires a significantly longer jab.
The 2008 WRX STI starts at $34,995. If you want the $1800 navigation system, you’ll have to first purchase the optional BBS wheels and fog lights package for $2000. Tack on a $645 delivery charge, regardless of package choice, and a loaded STI nearly touches $40,000. That strikes us as a tad steep. Still, when you consider the array of technology on board this vehicle and how well that tech works to allow just about anyone the ability to navigate a twisty section of blacktop with such speed, precision and poise, the STI makes a pretty strong case for itself. —James Tate