By Andy Enright
The Subaru Impreza WRX STi used to be a legend. In its glory days it was the Colin McRae or Richard Burns car, painted bright blue with gold wheels, fitted with an exhaust like a howitzer and beloved by a whole generation of youth who could never imagine anything cooler. But, like many cult items, it had its day. It morphed into something a bit lower key and that car is the one we're taking a look at here. The WRX STi may have toned down the aesthetics but beneath more sober suit was a car that was just as capable as ever. Here's what to look for when buying used.
5dr hatch/4 dr saloon (2.5 petrol [STi Type UK, 330S, Cosworth SC400])
There are two simple mistakes car manufacturers are often tempted into. The first is a big mainstream brand trying to play the niche role. The second is the opposite and is one that Subaru blundered into with its third generation Impreza. Although it must have seemed irresistible to go chasing the big numbers, tilting at the likes of the Ford Focus and the Volkswagen Golf with its hatchback Impreza, the policy fell flat on its face. Subaru always was a niche, engineering-led business and it couldn't match the development budgets ploughed into the big mainstream heavyweights. It showed. The decision backfired on the sporty WRX STi model too, introduced at the start of 2008. The traditional Impreza buyers didn't warm to this new model, many defecting to rival Mitsubishi's Evo X, whilst other realised that more fuel-efficient front-wheel drive hatches offered just as much fun and pace. Sales were glacial, not helped by the strength of the yen, which started to push WRX STi prices upwards. Subaru's abandonment of rallying also cut another strand of buyer involvement. Most examples you'll find will be five-door hatches but for the 2011 model year, a saloon version was added to the range to try and tempt those who still remembered original STi models: it made no difference to sales. So the car was a flop then? In a commercial sense, yes. Subaru now defines itself as an SUV manufacturer, drawing a curtain on the dismal sales of the last generation Impreza. As buyer behaviours changed and customers looked elsewhere for their jollies, the WRX STi looked a bit of a relic. Type UK four and five door models, as well as 330S and the eye-wateringly expensive Cosworth SC 400 models came and went without denting the rise in sales of the front-wheel drive superhatch. What none of this does is explain just how brilliant these Imprezas are to drive on British roads in typical British conditions. It's just a shame they weren't so well attuned to British insurers and British fuel prices.
What You Get
The rather anonymous looks of the standard Impreza hatch have been transformed with the addition of heavily blistered wheel arches, giving the STi a properly macho look. This allows the wheels to be pushed out another 45mm at the front and 40mm at the back, giving the car a pugnacious, foursquare stance. A mesh front grille and a deep bumper design with air vents throwing air at the intercooler also up the ante. Side skirts give the effect of visually lowering the car, while a high-mounted spoiler and quad exhaust pipes will leave those who have just been overtaken in little doubt as to what's just blown by. Colour choices include the iconic WR Blue, while traditionalists will not want to miss out on the optional gold alloys. There has always been a practical side to the Impreza and this STi is no exception with 95mm extra in the wheelbase compared to the old car. This brings a useful increase in interior space that will go down well with family buyers, as will the more compact rear suspension design which facilitates a 170-litre increase in boot space to 538-litres. At least the interior is a big step forward. The tough plastics and staid design of the old car have finally been axed in favour of the superior quality materials and modern layout in this model.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The big issue with the 2.5-litre engine is the ringland problem, where piston ring seatings fail, resulting in a blown engine. Subaru's importers have honoured warranties in most cases, but any modifications to the vehicle's mechanicals or a failure to follow servicing guidelines can result in a refusal to pay for repairs. The problem seems to afflict even very low mileage cars, so watch out for excess smoke on startup, a flat feel in the midrange and a knocking sound under load. Also look for accident damage, uneven tyre wear, tired upholstery and flabby dampers.
(approx based on a 2012 WRX STi ) Subaru parts have a deserved reputation for being expensive. A clutch assembly is around £200. Front brake pads are around £80, and a new alternator is over £400 new. A headlamp is £240 while a cam belt is just over £100. Even a humble fuel filter is £33.
On the Road
Although the Japanese market models continued with a 2.0-litre unit, Europe got the heavier 2.5-litre powerplant good for 295bhp nestling well back in the engine bay of the WRX STi. Couple this with a very clever four wheel drive system and the car will jet off the line as if clouted up the rear by a wrecking ball. Sixty mph comes and goes in just 4.8 seconds on the way to a top speed of just over 155mph. Subaru's Si-Drive system gives the driver three different throttle response maps at the turn of a switch, with Super Sharp the weapon of choice for aggressive driving. The throw on the six-speed gearbox has been shortened for a more direct feel and the Driver's Control Centre Differential has now got even more driver options. This box of tricks allows the driver to select the torque distribution from front to rear, reverting to an auto mode when the ignition is switched off. The steering of the WRX STi feels meaty and aggressive and the electronics assist rather than intrude on the driving experience at the limit. Around 300bhp seemed to be the sweet spot in terms of driving fluency with this car. Anything much more seemed to turn the WRX STi into a bit of a point and squirter, as you always seemed to be jumping back onto the brakes rather than merely carrying speed. The SC 400 Cosworth model was particularly frustrating in this regard. On a race circuit it was a behemoth for a lap or two, but on the road it never seemed quite as well resolved as the spec sheet initially suggested. Rumours afterwards that Cosworth was never particularly committed to the project seemed to have more than an ounce of substance.
The Subaru WRX STi is a car that ought to have been brilliant and on its day it still is. All too often though, it feels like an idea whose time had passed. What went wrong? Aside from the reliability issues that nagged at the 2.5-litre engine, the dropping of the iconic Impreza name, and the major focus on a dumpy hatchback body rather than the purposeful saloon shape, there are other factors to take into account. VED taxation drove buyers to increasingly quick and economical diesel cars, while the credit crunch reduced the amount of disposable income to spend on a toy like the STi and also meant that when money was being spent, it was harboured in 'safe' prestige badges with strong residual values. Buyers became accustomed to high concept interior design and the demonisation of speed positioned even this lower-key STi as something vaguely antisocial. Subaru wisely moved on. As a used proposition it's not an easy recommendation. If we were spending our own money, we'd probably come to the conclusion that something like a Renaultsport Megane 250 or a BMW 330d would be a more attractive financial proposition and not a great deal slower in real world driving. Prices will continue to fall and it won't be too long before we scan the classifieds and realise that the Subaru WRX STi looks like a bit of a bargain. For used buyers, this story has a while to run yet.