First Drive: 2004 Subaru WRX STi
The Beauty of Intercooling and Turbocharging
By Karl Brauer
Date posted: 05-01-2003
Once upon a time (about 1994) Subaru decided that it would base its future on an obscure technology called all-wheel drive. At the time, there were only a few non-utility vehicles (trucks, SUVs and minivans) that tried to power all four wheels in one manner or another. Sure, Audi, BMW and even Plymouth (remember the Laser?) had jumped into the all-wheel-drive thing with one or more of their cars, but not a single Cadillac, Lexus, Infiniti, Volvo or Volkswagen model offered all-wheel drive during the 1994 model year — at least not in the U.S.
Fast-forward one decade, to present day, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a brand that doesn't offer at least one all-wheel-drive car (Hello? Saab? Anyone home?). But in a world bursting with car-based SUVs and crossover vehicles, a rugged-looking Paul Hogan touting "The beauty of all-wheel drive" doesn't exactly jump off the TV screen and send you running to the nearest Subaru dealer. These days you can't swing a deposed Middle Eastern dictator's statue without hitting an all-wheel-drive car, and Subaru knows it.
So the company has come up with a new philosophy, a new spokesman and a new tagline. The tagline simply states, "Driven by what's inside" and it, along with cycling sensation Lance Armstrong, will be featured in a string of advertisements meant to trumpet the brand's new philosophy. But what exactly does that philosophy mean for the Subarus headed our way? We saw the first glimpse of it in the 2002 Impreza WRX, and it will continue with the 2004 WRX STi and 2004 Forester, before eventually spreading to much of the company's lineup. The focus is increased performance; and an intercooled, turbocharged boxer engine will be the centerpiece of this new direction. It would appear Subaru's new selling point has shifted from the number of driven wheels under the car to the number of horses under the hood.
In the STi's case, that number is 300, along with 300 pound-feet of torque. But if you're wondering, this is the most powerful Subaru product ever sold in North America, and as you've likely already guessed, the STi's inspiration and technology are direct descendents of Subaru's World Rally Championship (WRC) efforts over the last 13 years. This company has seen its share of success in WRC, including three straight Manufacturer's Championships in the mid-1990s. The folks at Subaru are anxious to regain their dominant position in WRC, and as Product PR Manager Rob Moran told us during the STi's introduction, "The better the road car, the better the rally car." (Warning: Soapbox Moment Ahead — WRC isn't hugely popular in the U.S., and the STi's background may mean little to the typical American who is happy watching cars go left all day. However, this author finds it quite compelling that there is at least one race series out there still heavily based on cars you can actually buy!)
After spending several hours behind the wheel of the new STi, we can tell you that if Subaru is ever going to win another championship based on a road car, this will be the vehicle that does it. And while it's easy to focus on the big numbers and assume the STi is simply a cranked-up WRX, the company made every effort to call out the substantial differences between Subaru's existing performance king and the fast-approaching STi. Beyond the new chassis and hydroformed front subframe, the STi uses inverted struts at all four corners to resist bending during heavy cornering loads, as well as aluminum control arms to reduce unsprung weight. The steering ratio on the STi is quicker than on the WRX (15.2 to 1 versus 16.5 to 1), the car rides 0.4 inch lower, and all STis feature Brembo brake components and 12.7-inch front rotors (12.3 inches for the rear brakes). The system also employs four-piston calipers and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) to allow independent braking of each rear wheel based on traction and weight transfer. This new chassis rides on 17-by-7.5-inch BBS aluminum-alloy wheels, but perhaps the most impressive part of this Impreza is the super-sticky 225/45 ZR Bridgestone Potenza tires.
While the dimensions of those tires may not sound huge by today's standards, trust us when we tell you that the STi's combination of all-wheel drive, advanced brake technology and race-ready tires allowed us to perform amazing feats around the California Speedway infield. Those 300 horses peak at 6,000 rpm, but the 300 lb-ft of torque comes in at an easily accessible 4,000 rpm. Did we mention the six-speed manual transmission with double cone synchronizers on first and third gear, plus a triple cone synchronizer for second gear? The STi's transmission was, by far, the easiest to shift ever encountered by this author. Of course you should always rev match when downshifting a performance car…but it's nice to know that if you don't, the transmission won't grind or shudder in protest.
Once we figured out how progressive the tire's breakaway threshold was, and how effectively the all-wheel-drive system managed the engine's torque, we found ourselves trail-braking into corners just to create a bit of oversteer before gassing it through the apex — sort of like how a rally car might be driven. The center differential directs 35 percent of engine power to the front wheels and 65 percent to the rear when in Automatic mode, but a Driver Controlled Center Differential (DCCD) feature (not found on the European-sold STi models) allows drivers to vary that amount by turning a small "wheel" located on the center console.
Subaru quotes acceleration figures of 4.8 seconds from zero to 60 mph and 13.4 seconds in the quarter-mile. Our internal accelerometers won't argue with those numbers, or a likely top speed in excess of 150 mph (the speedometer goes to 160). Our quibbles with the car's performance are few, but they include a brake pedal that felt just a bit squishy when reaching the bottom of its travel (though still very easy to use when rotating the car) and a harsh ride quality that only the most dedicated of performance car drivers will put up with on a daily basis. That last bit is OK because it perfectly matches the profile of likely STi buyers.
Buyers who stop to scrutinize the interior design of their STi will quickly realize it's still an Impreza at heart. The foamlike headliner, along with the plastic center console and steering wheel hub, won't score points with the premium shoppers who could get into a BMW or Audi for the same dough ($30,000). But some of the car's interior features — like the large, centrally located tachometer with adjustable rpm warning buzzer, the heavily bolstered seats and the fat three-spoke steering wheel — are the exact items an STi buyer will notice and be expecting. This same buyer won't care that the dual plane spoiler blocks rear visibility and he won't even mind the loud drone coming from those flypaperlike Bridgestone performance tires. Heck, if the noise bothers him that much, he can simply turn up the STi's thumping sound system, right? Actually, he can't because the STi doesn't come with a factory audio system (a dealer-installed unit will be available). The audio head unit, along with the rear-seat armrest and the floor mats, was tossed in favor of weight-saving measures (though, conveniently, yanking those items probably helped keep the car's price down, too. Hmm…).
Subaru faithful have been waiting a long time for a car like the STi. The WRC crowd, or anyone who spent some quality time in Europe or Japan, knew that Subaru could construct a viable performance car 10 years ago. The WRX was the company's first foray into providing Americans with a serious road car, and it succeeded beyond expectations (to all of you who bought one, and contributed to the notion of an American STi, let me be the first to say, "Thanks!"). Now Subaru is ready to strike out in a new direction. It knows that all-wheel drive, by itself, isn't reason enough to visit your local dealer. And performance car fans who have been oblivious to Subaru products better pay attention this time. Those who don't are in for a rude awakening the first time they encounter a WRX STi and assume, "Oh, it's just a Subaru with a big wing."