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While the WRX delivers inviting, balanced driving performance it's also relatively refined and easy to live with on a daily basis. All-wheel drive built-in from the start long ago made it a favorite where the road is white a good portion of the year, and the performance aspects are making it popular in climes where all-wheel drive is unneeded.
The widebody treatment has made the WRX look more substantial and threatening but it added less than 30 pounds so straight-line performance is essentially unchanged: Only added traction from the wider tires may require a change to your start-line launch technique. It can be driven moderately with ease and really comes on steam as the rev counter nears 3000. With 265 hp and 244 lb-ft of torque the 2.5-liter engine is plenty potent, and the all-wheel drive allows you to fully exploit it; a front-wheel drive Mazdaspeed 3 has more power and notably more torque but can't use it all until third gear.
Subaru engines are all horizontally opposed; as in a Porsche or original Volkswagen Beetle the cylinders lay flat 180 degrees apart rather than the conventional four cylinders lined up in a row. This makes the engine low, compact and light, all aids to vehicle dynamics. It also means a slightly lumpy idle sound, little power right off idle (you need to slip the clutch a little), a droning exhaust around 1500 rpm you'll notice only ion creeping traffic, and it's hard to sometimes imagine a $35,000 car still sounds a bit like a 40-year-old Bug.
The WRX uses a five-speed manual transmission exclusively. It has nicely spaced gear ratios and a short-throw shifter, but it's a gear short of much of the competition and the shifter is a bit rubbery causing us to not get a gear we wanted occasionally; fortunately we never got the wrong gear either. Subaru's performance division offers plenty of shifting upgrades that would add precision and effort for crisper, more precise gearchanges. A Hill-Holder feature keeps the car from rolling backward when the brake pedal is released to engage the gas on incline starts.
Suspension was already dialed in nicely on the WRX, with nicely weighted, accurate steering crisply pointing the car, good grip, and compliant ride quality that lets you know the road surface but doesn't beat it into you; it's a relatively easy car in which to approach its limits and aids driver confidence. For 2011 there are very minor changes to the tuning, but wider wheels and tires carefully chosen to not add weight to rotating mass, ensure even more grip. All WRX and STI come with three-season tires and even all-wheel drive won't overcome their uselessness them in the snow.
Although grip is commendable what makes the WRX such a nice driver is balance. The weight is better split front/rear than most cars in this class, but the steering, brakes, handling and engine are ideally mated to the others. It's never a case where there's too much power for the brakes or steering, or so much grip it feels underpowered. And the mechanical noises it makes…turbocharger whistle, gear whine and so on all add to the fun or fade into the background when you're just cruising from A to B.
On another level is the STI. Think of this as a purpose-built, class-spec rally car with air conditioning and a radio but lacking a roll-cage and five-point seatbelts the government says you can't have in a street car.
Although the same size engine has slightly lower compression and only one-half-psi (14.7 vs 14.2) more peak turbocharger boost pressure than the WRX it employs more sophisticated components to add 40 hp and 46 lb-ft of torque. Combine that with a six-speed manual that has shorter gearing than the WRX, and the 165-pound heavier STI is substantially quicker. Imagine first gear, three second gears in a row, and a couple for cruising along the highway or pushing top speed. (Although the STI sedan is 11 pounds heavier than the hatch, top speed is higher because of less aero drag. With few opportunities for 150+mph in North America, we'll stick with the lighter hatch.)
An STI is a quick car. Perhaps not as fast from 125 mph like a big V8 muscle car or V12 GT car but for the twist-and-punch of a mountain pass, autocross course, off-highway rally or urban commute it's plenty potent. And the STI's six-speed manual shifter felt much more accurate than the WRX's five-speed. Again, upgrades are available.
Beneath the STI are few parts shared with the WRX: transmission, all-wheel drive, suspension arms and antiroll bars, brakes, and even the wheel bolt pattern are upgraded. The springs in the 2011 are stiffer even than those of the 2010 special edition but still deliver the compliance needed for bashing along dirt roads or surviving commutes. Likewise the 18-inch wheels are new, and lighter than the previous versions. But it's a pair of relatively inexpensive rod-end bushings in the front suspension that pay the biggest dividends because they keep the front wheels more stable, translating to easier shock and spring tuning and less steering correction mid-corner.
Like the WRX the STI is also fairly easy to drive quickly. At its handling limits, the STI has a slight inclination to understeer, or to keep going in a straighter line. Yet that tendency is less than in the typical front-drive car, and the all-wheel-drive system allows the driver to get the front end to tuck into a curve by adding a little (not a lot) more gas. The STI stays planted under rough, abrupt or heavy-handed inputs on its controls but get the speed and steering angle right and you can keep it there while powering out of the bend. Whether braking hard into a curve, or panic-braking with a sudden twist of the steering to avoid an accident, the anti-skid electronics work to keep the car's weight balanced and the tires on that fine line between maximum grip and slide. The STI's multi-setting stability control helps take care of the beginner at a club track day without strangling the pace, and it allows exceptionally skilled drivers to turn all the electronic aids off.
On both paved and unpaved closed courses, we found we could overdrive corners in a big way and easily maintain control (if not the briskest pace). Enter a corner a bit too fast and the worse thing to come of it is a poor entry to the next corner. But if you know the course, the STI's controls let you adjust for it. The center differential that apportions output front and rear has a choice of automatic modes ideal for most drivers and most conditions…those where you don't know what weather, road, or traffic have in store for you. The manual setting allows you to vary the amount of front/rear lock and displays it as bar-graph in the instrument panel. Fewer bars equal less lock, for good turn in but understeer if you apply too much power in the corner; more bars for more lock and the front wheels go where you point them and with this acceleration you want to make sure they're pointed where you want to go.
SI-Drive is the other console control that sets accelerator response. Push down for Intelligent to maximize economy and make the smoothest drive (like rain or snow) because the pedal has to travel more to get the same power output.. Sport is the happy medium for response and drivability, or rotate the knob to Sport# (sharp) for the quickest reaction to your right foot. This is best reserved for open roads or tracks where you'll ask for lots of power at any given moment. Regardless of how you get going, the big Brembo brakes, with ventilated iron discs that stand up to off-pavement abuse, merely shave off speed or stop immediately with equal aplomb. The antilock system is also very good, probably a direct result of Subaru's rally experience finding traction where little exists.
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