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Rocket science
Subaru's WRX STi proves itself the all-rounder to beat

Trick transmission and suspension puts it well out front


NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.—DUM dum DUM dum ...

The theme from Jaws kept running through my head as I drove along the Pacific Coast Highway through this toney little seaside town.

The gaping maw of an air scoop on the hood bobbed and flexed with every disturbance in the pavement, as my Great White threaded its way through lesser traffic as if it were a pack of minnows.

It's a strange and intoxicating feeling knowing you're the baddest thing out there. If sharks had brains bigger than a pea, they might get this sense, too (they're too busy eating).

But if you're driving a Subaru Impreza WRX STi, you are the shark.

Even if you're Subaru World Rally Blue, not white.

It's been quite a ride for the Impreza — from a solid, dull, slow, overengineered and hence overpriced subcompact family car to three-time World Rally Championship winner to the WRX, a genuine worldwide performance icon.

The STi version is the ultimate variation. (STi stands for Subaru Tecnica International and, yes, the "i" is upper case when you spell it out, lower case when you abbrev. it, which is to Subaru what M and AMG are to BMW and Mercedes-Benz, respectively.)

There have been STis in other markets before; none met our emissions standards. When Subaru finally got around to North America, they pulled off that rarest of coups — ours is actually more powerful than the Japanese or European versions.

So while RoW (Rest of World) has to struggle along with a sick little 2.0-litre turbo generating a measly 265 horsepower (or 276, depending on whose numbers you believe), we get a unique-to-North America (for the moment), 2.5-litre turbo with a stonking 300 ponies at a modest 6000 rpm, and a matching and massive 300 lb-ft of torque at an also-modest 4000 rpm.

Subaru Canada's technical maven Richard Marsan maintains that this isn't just a blown twin-cam version of the 2.5-litre flat-four offered in other Subes, but an all-new motor — there are no interchangeable parts.

Among the high-tech goodies are variable valve timing, electronic throttle control (drive-by-wire), liquid sodium-filled exhaust valves (to aid cooling), high-boost turbo and a gigantic intercooler with a manual water spray system that can allow extra bursts of output on demand.

The urge is fed through a Subaru-built six-speed manual transmission, the extra ratio meaning that torque is much more accessible when accelerating.

The weight of the clutch pedal and the aggressiveness of its engagement are no more onerous than is necessary to handle the amount of torque involved because they are not a problem.

The rally-bred drivetrain features a Driver-Controlled Centre Differential (DCCD) with variable front-to-rear torque split, plus a cam-type limited-slip differential (LSD) up front, and a more conventional mechanical LSD at the rear.

I could use up all my space talking about the centre diff alone; suffice it to say that it can direct anywhere from 50 to 65 per cent of the torque to the rear wheels — the former for normal driving, cornering or braking, the latter for hard acceleration. It will never front-bias the torque, but maintains rear-biased handling the way God in Her wisdom intended.

Since even fairly capable drivers probably wouldn't have a clue what split is appropriate for any given circumstance, an automatic function is provided.

And one input to the control module is the position of the parking brake lever — go for a handbrake turn (do not attempt without first finding out what this means, and then practising in a very big parking lot) and the diff unlocks to allow the rear wheels to come around.

Coolness personified.

The suspension is significantly reworked, strengthened throughout and lightened with the introduction of forged aluminum front suspension control arms.

The STi is lower than the regular WRX, and the power steering has a considerably quicker ratio: 15.2:1 versus 16.5:1.

Huge Brembo ventilated discs at each corner have Electronic Brake Force Distribution (to apportion brake force front-to-rear prior to ABS activation), and what Subaru calls "Super Sport" ABS; like BMW's Cornering Brake Control, a lateral-G sensor determines whether the car is braking in a corner and directs more braking force to the outer rear wheel, which has more traction to apply it.

Asymmetric 225/45ZR17 Bridgestone Potenza RE070 tires are mounted on BBS alloy rims.

Exterior styling tweaks centred on getting rid of the goofy bug-eyed look of the last-generation Impreza and on improving aerodynamics for the World Rally Championship cars, which must use the stock body shell. The massive trunk lid spoiler — well, you just have to live with it. At least it's functional.

Inside, a new gauge pack with three circular dials — tachometer front and centre — gives a handsome yet businesslike look. Moulded sports seats with "Escaine" upholstery, a small-diameter leather-covered steering wheel and aluminum pedals provide a suitably sporty environment.

An advertised 0-to-96 km/h (60 mph) sprint time of 4.8 seconds suggests that you're in for Big Time Fun in this car. And that's no lie.

The surprise is that the entire driving experience is so smooth, so flexible, so completely relaxed. You can potter down to the sushi takeout, or pump up the tires for a track day at Shannonville, and the car is deliriously happy performing both duties. Still, at no time are you unaware of the car's performance potential.

There's a slight weirdness to the steering response: not much on initial wheel movement, then the car turns in. Not abruptly, exactly, but you had better be ready.

The car is extremely sensitive to throttle control in a corner. Lift off, even at very mild lateral g and you'll discern the nose tucking in. Just the way a performance-oriented driver would want, although newbies might find it a bit twitchy.

The gearbox is terrific, rivalling those of the Mazda Miata and Honda S2000, with throws short and light. The only problem is one shared by many six-speeds: For every correct ratio there are five wrong ones, and you have to be very careful not to catch third from fourth when you're looking for fifth on a banzai acceleration run.

A gazillion rpm, even for a fraction of a second, does the valve stems no good whatsoever, and the momentum is such the rev limiter won't help much, either.

I found myself wishing for a paddle-type shifter like they use on the WRC cars, or at least a dash-mounted sequential lever. Subaru says there are no plans at the moment.

The grip is so good with the four-wheel drive that a drag-strip launch requires more brutalizing than you'd really want to use too often. Best to hold it at about 3600 rpm, get off the clutch quickly (but not side-step it) and bury the loud pedal.

On the infield road course Subaru laid on for us at the Irwindale Speedway in southern California, I may have scored my best laps with the DCCD in manual mode, with maximum rear bias.

Or not, since track officials weren't timing us, which was the safest thing to do. Either way, it was subjectively hard to tell much difference between manual and automatic modes.

But I did push the intercooler spray button once in a while. Imagine the effect of doing that at a stoplight, the mist drifting out from under your hood, the poor slob next to you not having a clue what you had under there.

The ride quality is surprisingly civilized, given the car's cornering potential. That's another beauty of four-wheel drive — you can get grip from intelligence, not just stiff suspension.

For my tastes, and for track use, I could have used even more lateral support in the seats. At least Canada gets sport seats; the Americans get a much less restrictive design, presumably to accommodate their lard-assed customer base.

The WRX comes in two flavours: what is now the base WRX and STi. The latter lists at $46,995.

The difference is $12,000 and at least 73 hp. I say "at least'' because the base WRX never felt quite like 227 hp to me.

You get one more gear in the STi transmission — six versus five — and the trick Driver-Controlled Centre Differential. The base WRX does not get the lightened, strengthened inverted-strut suspension; BBS wheels; Brembo brakes; the added visual impact of that trunk lid spoiler; or the unique sports seats and interior trim.

Let's not forget the manual intercooler spray in the STi, which is a nearly-no-compromise performance car with a genuine world championship motorsport heritage.

And you get the downcast-eyed, forelock-tugging, toe-scuffing, boot-licking respect of your knowledgeable car-freak colleagues.

I'd pay 10 grand for that alone.

If that sounds like a lot for a Subaru, well, it is.

But for one of the finest all-round performance cars in the world, a car that potential customers say they are looking at in comparison with such as the BMW M3 and Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG — comparisons which are by no means far-fetched — it looks like a screaming bargain.

Better hurry. Only 320 STis are coming to North America each month, with maybe 50 a month to Canada, and most dealers already have some cash deposits.

They come in white (why?), black (okay) and silver (not bad). But make mine Subaru World Rally Blue, please, with those lovely gold wheels.

DUM dum DUM dum ...
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