TRADITION and history are words firmly entrenched in the vocabulary of the WRX driver. It is there too for those who prefer the meatier punch of the WRX STI, along with power, performance and notice-me looks.
The WRX STI has been causing Australian pulses to race for close on two decades with its snazzy exterior, excellent all-wheel-drive traction and meaningful grunt making keeping a legion of faithful supporters.
Until now, a considerable price tag has meant that only a fortunate few could sample those delights, but at $10,000 cheaper the new model is suddenly a real prospect for some of those who worshipped from afar.
Unlike the newly-released WRX with its state-of-the art direct-injection turbocharged engine, the STI sticks with the same 2.5-litre unit that has kept its reputation intact for the past seven years. There have been a few tweaks of course, as the cheaper and now faster STI aims to stay ahead of the nipping pack.
We found the interior of the STI just a tad underwhelming.
Such is the pull of the STI that you expect the styling to reflect its sporting heritage but the designers have stopped short of a true wow factor. The red back-lit instrumentation is modern and funky although sometimes a bit difficult to read, but the cabin layout on the whole is adept and easy to navigate.
The leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel is chunky and nice in the hand, with steering wheel controls easy to operate. Although we are fans of Recaro bucket seats, these admittedly are comfortable and offer beneficial side support.
We liked the soft leather and contrasting red stitch detail, as well as the cleverly placed STI logo.
Materials are of a classier variety with the use of more soft-touch plastics and the console itself is well put together with nary a rattle to be heard even on harsher secondary roads. Leg and headroom, helped by a wheelbase that is 25mm longer and a cabin that is 15mm wider, are more than acceptable for a car of this size, with adults in the back seat not totally dependent on the generosity of the driver and front passenger for their comfort.
There is useful storage in the door bin but the front cup holders are oddly shaped forcing you to carefully consider the size of your coffee cup or drink bottle. The cargo area, which at 460L mirrors that of the WRX, is generous although the small opening and lack of depth makes loading bulkier items tricky.
On the road
The WRX STI retains the same 2.5-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder unit that did duty in its predecessor, with exactly the same torque and power figures too. The only real changes have come courtesy of a refined gearbox and electronics to ensure a more responsive ride, yet the STI still manages to hold the attention with a truly energetic drive.
There is still heaps of turbo lag and you have to work quickly through the gears to ensure it stays in the most productive and efficient torque and power band, but the ride itself is rewarding - not of the bursting out of your skin variety but certainly part of the heart thumping look-at-me brigade.
Subaru's Intelligent Drive System allows you to vary the sharpness of the throttle response through three modes - intelligent, sport and sport sharp - while the STI also boasts torque vectoring across the front which allows for a sharper turn-in.
The hydraulic power steering offers a good level of feedback and responds easily to changes and grip through the corners, even when you are being silly, is exceptional. The superior traction control offered by the all-wheel drive system, excellent brakes and a sharper gear box also help to enhance the experience.
The WRX STI is great on the highway with an enjoyable thrust of power that has you constantly looking out for marked police cars and the engine not at speed is still music to the ears for the driver.
It has good manners around town too, with easy up and down-shifts in the lower gears making for less frustration in heavy traffic. You can feel the bumps as you'd expect from a sports suspension and while they are hardly noticeable at speed, the kids hated the feel around town.
What do you get?
While the price of the WRX STI has been lowered by some $10,000, Subaru has certainly not scrimped on the inclusions, adding up to $7000 in new value. The entry-level model offers dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, LED lights, Bluetooth with audio streaming, an eight-speaker Harmon Kardon sound system with a 15.5cm touch-screen, sat-nav and keyless entry with push-button start. For $5000 more, the premium model will net you bespoke BBS 18-inch wheels, leather seats, electric adjustment for the driver's seat, heated mirrors and front seats and electric sunroof.
As in the WRX, safety is five-star and includes seven airbags, traction control and anti-lock brakes with EBD and brake assist. Stability control can be operated in standard mode or racetrack mode or can be turned off altogether.
The WRX STI no longer has just the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo (from $59,490) to contend with. European rivals like the Volkswagen Golf R (from $51,990) and Audi S3 Sportback (from $59,990) are also getting a big look-in.
Official figures stand at 10.4 litres/100km. The best we managed was more than two litres dearer. The car is only calibrated for 98 octane which can prove costly. Subaru offers a three years unlimited kilometre warranty but no capped-price servicing.
While the power it manages to generate may have the STI faithful hooked, overall the car is still a workable option if said enthusiast also happens to have a family and kids that have to be transported around. We would have liked to see some parking sensors and perhaps even the option of an auto gearbox.
The STI faces stiff competition from European rivals that have upped their game with buyers being wowed by on-trend interiors, innovative new engines and cutting-edge design. But the STI obviously has a lot going for it too - and more than just memories. Those drivers that are STI traditionalists at heart will find much to love about this new edition - the price being just one great advantage.
Model: Subaru WRX STI.
Details: All-wheel drive performance sedan.
Engine: 2.5-litre turbocharged horizontally opposed boxer engine generating maximum power of 221kW @ 6000rpm and peak torque of 407Nm @ 4000rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Consumption: 10.4 litres/100km.
Bottom line plus on-roads: WRX STI $49,990; WRX STI Premium $54,990.
What matters most
What we liked: Fun drive with much-improved dynamics, value for money.
What we'd like to see: Sharper interior, less turbo lag.
Warranty and servicing: Three-year unlimited warranty. Servicing is six months or 12,500km.