Review: 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STI

2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STI – Click above for high-res image gallery

I remember the last red Subaru I drove. I was in high school, and the car was my dad's – a new '88 GL wagon with an automatic and push-button 4WD on the shifter. I dug that Scooby. It wasn't powerful but it was fun -- especially when it snowed. Somehow I managed to avoid bouncing it off a lamppost while sliding it around corners. This had much more to do with luck than skill, as I was in high school and clearly an idiot. But I digress -- after all, this isn't about my dad's old GL. It is, however, about a red Subaru – the new Impreza WRX STI, to be specific. If this thing was around back during my neighborhood rally-pretender salad days, I'd probably just be getting my license back right about now.

All photos Copyright ©2008 Alex Núñez / Weblogs, Inc.

When Subaru unveiled the all-new Impreza and WRX last April, Scoobyphiles bared their teeth at the sight of the car's new, pedestrian looks. Until then, the WRX's appearance could have been described many ways, but milquetoast wasn't one of them. This matter is corrected with the STI, whose visual punch feels like it's delivered with brass knuckles. Where the base Impreza WRX barely warrants a second glance, the pugnacious STI causes its fair share of wrenched neck muscles as other drivers, particularly young guys in imports (big surprise there, right?) gawk at the bright red hatch. One afternoon, a Jetta GLI barreled into a turnoff where I had parked to squeeze off a few pictures. Out jumped a kid who was so consumed by the car that he wouldn't have noticed if Scarlett Johansen strolled by in her birthday suit. Another night at the supermarket checkout counter, I overheard the guy in the next lane excitedly tell his girlfriend, "Check this out... Outside? There's an '08 STI!" Not bad for a car whose general shape we were all bitching about several months ago.

It's surprising what a few bulges here, some vents there, and trick-looking wheels do for the Impreza. It's still no beauty -- not by a long shot -- but man, it is butch, and purposefully so. You see, the Subaru people apparently didn't get the memo that fake vents are now de rigeur, as everything you see is actually functional. The scoops below the bumpers really are for brake cooling. The front fender vents actually dissipate engine heat. And of course, the giant hood scoop gulps air into the 305-horsepower 2.5L boxer's top-mounted intercooler. In the STI, the relationship between form and function is no sham marriage.

You have to concede that the twin dual-tip exhaust outlets are superfluous (there's just the one muffler, after all), but they really do look pretty wicked, and the diffuser they peek under is also functional. Our tester's swollen fenders sheltered the optional 18-inch BBS wheels whose spoke pattern gives a clear view of the big, STI-branded Brembos (13-inches front, 12.6-inches rear) tasked with stopping the madness. A set of Dunlop SP Winter Sports was on duty during the car's visit with us. Other visual details that differentiate the STI from lesser Imprezas include secondary emblems on the fenders, a chickenwire grille pattern, the larger roof wing, and the deletion of brightwork from the front and rear fascias. It doesn't sound like a lot, but it all makes a difference -- particularly the bling-free rump.

Open the door and you'll find a cockpit that's better than the last-gen Impreza's, but whose materials betray the STI's econocar genealogy. Subaru uses different plastic colors and finishes to decent effect, with silver-ish "wings" that merge into the door panels and additional contrast trim where the center stack merges with the console. The three-spoke wheel boasts integrated radio/cruise controls and an overstyled center cap. Twist the ignition key and the instrument cluster lights up like Christmas, with a big tach sitting front and center just in case you forgot the STI is a performance car. That's also home to the indicators for the SI-DRIVE and DCCD modes, which we'll get to shortly. The STI logo glows red from within the tach and (when the headlamps are on) on the trim ahead of the shifter boot. You'll also find STI markings embroidered on each of the car's front seats. Trimmed in leather with contrast stitching and Alcantara inserts on the main panels, they look pretty good, are comfortable, and have substantial bolsters. That said, they aren't nearly as supportive as the Recaros available in the old car, and they finish second to the seats in the new Mitsubishi Evo, as well.

The boxer engine awakens with its signature grumble and is completely docile at lower revs; boring, even. In neighborhood put-put duty, you'd never guess that there's small block V8-level horsepower in the engine bay. How it behaves when you put a boot to it depends on where you set the SI-DRIVE, and this is where the STI starts to get really interesting. Fans of gadgetry will immediately notice the silver dial mounted aft of the shifter. It's paired with the controls for the adjustable differential, and you won't find either in the standard WRX.

SI-DRIVE has three modes: Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp. On the first afternoon I had the the car, my commute home was in monsoon-like conditions. I selected the Intelligent mode, which actually dials back peak power by 20%, peak torque by 10%, and tranquilizes the throttle response. A dash indicator confirmed my choice, and off I went. This mode should also give you better fuel economy, but seriously, if you buy an STI, it's not because you're trying to do a Prius imitation. Intelligent mode was fine for use in biblical rain conditions, and 240 horses or so is nothing to sneeze at (it's still more than the base WRX offers), but this is not what the STI is about. I never used it again.

Sport is the standard operating mode, and the difference between it and Intelligent is tangible. Make the switch on the fly and you feel it from your spot behind the wheel. The power restrictions are lifted, and its delivery is nice and smooth. Great, right? Well, it's fine. But the STI lives up to its rep when you twist the SI-DRIVE to the right and engage Sport Sharp. Once you confirm that the little green "S#" is staring back at you from the instrument cluster, you wonder why you (and Subaru, for that matter) ever bothered messing with the other two settings at all. Full power and torque availability is complemented by instantaneous throttle response. Worried about that aforementioned lack of jump at low revs? Not a problem. Low revs don't hang around for long anymore.

Punch the throttle and Pandora's Box opens underhood. The tach needle runs for the redline -- pay attention now, because first gear is history, and you'll get acquainted with the rev limiter if you don't shift. Snick that ideally-placed shifter into 2nd and let the rush continue. The Boxer's engine noise is complemented by an audible rush from the turbo as you storm forward. At this point, you're probably cackling like the Joker and gleefully rowing through the gears. It's involving and rewarding, and you silently thank Subaru for giving the car the three-pedal treatment instead of a manumatic deal. The hundredths of a second a fancy-paddle tranny would save you mean nothing to the dude in the Mustang you surprised four lights ago.

The STI is an obedient little bulldog, responding to steering inputs quickly and generally acting unflappable. Twists and elevation changes are simply gobbled up, and you find yourself thinking that maybe those WRC guys have the best jobs ever. The car is as nimble as it is quick, and you need to be aware of what you're doing, because chances are you're doing it a lot faster than your local PD would like. This is where the Brembos earn their keep. They're like the physical manifestation of rational thought. "Too fast," you think. Not any more. If you're trying to find reasons to justify the STI's price differential over the WRX, start with that middle pedal before you even open the hood.

The in-car techno fun doesn't end with SI-DRIVE. The DCCD (Driver Controlled Center Differential) returns, and it lets you choose from three automatic modes in addition to allowing manual torque-split adjustment. The default Auto mode adjusts the front/rear torque assignment as needed. Auto (-) Active Sport is rear-biased and opens the center differential, while Auto (+) tightens the differential up. If you choose to manually configure the differential, you're able to max the power distribution out at 50:50 front/rear. Similarly, the VDC can be left on, shut off completely, or put into a sport-oriented Traction mode. Overall, this is some good stuff. Want launch wheelspin? Just dial it in. Between SI-DRIVE, DCCD, and the different VDC settings, you can mold the STI to suit both the road conditions and your personal tastes. The combination of button-pushes, dial turns and toggles you enter before getting underway determines the nature of the beast you'll be driving. That said, it's not as if you need to tinker much to make it fun. Leaving the VDC and DCCD in their default modes and putting the SI-DRIVE in Sport Sharp did the trick for me 99% of the time. The best part, though, is that this is all very accessible; you don't need to be a wrench turner to tap into the variety of electronically-controlled vehicle setup options.

Part of the plan with the 2008 Impreza was to offer more room, more comfort and a better overall ride than the outgoing car, thus broadening its appeal. These elements carry through to the 2008 STI, and after driving it back-to-back with a brand new 2007 (thanks to my friend Dan for bringing his along), the degree to which the new car has been upgraded is evident. Dan rode shotgun with me while our mutual friend Chris piloted the '07 car on the way to our photo shoot. "My car's going to feel like a dishwasher compared to this when you get in and drive it," he told me after a few minutes in the '08. To be fair, if dishwashers were as fun as the last-gen STI, we'd all be rolling in Whirlpools, but I understand his point. The 2007 WRX STI has much more of an edge to it than the new car. It's noisy, less polished and tighter inside. That's not to say it's in any way bad. It accelerates with a sense of urgency (no SI-DRIVE here -- it's all or nothing), stops as well as just about anything, and can hustle around the bends with the best of them. It's a great car, and the seat-of-the-pants impression you get is that it feels faster than the new STI.

In truth, it's probably a wash, and I'd rather own the new one. Yes, it's a little boomy inside thanks to the hatchback bodystyle, but overall the credit-hours it's earned at finishing school work in its favor. It's decidedly more refined than its predecessor. Bottom line: the 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STI is loaded with usable tech, goes like absolute stink and is eager to throw down, but it's less punishing to its occupants while it goes about that business. Equal parts rally car and practical, user-friendly daily driver, the 2008 Subaru WRX STI appeals to your inner Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. If you like to drive, that's a win-win situation.

All photos Copyright ©2008 Alex Núñez / Weblogs, Inc.
Special thanks to Dan C. for letting his '07 STI come out for a playdate.

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