PILOTED by legends such as rally champions Richard Burn and Colin McRae in signature blue livery, the Subaru Impreza WRX was adored by legions of fanboys the world over. Unfortunately, the two great drivers are no longer with us and Subaru has retired from top-level rallying.
But that hasn't stopped the Japanese carmaker from launching an all-new WRX and WRX STI. The Impreza moniker has been dropped as Subaru seeks to distance the WRX from the run-of-the-mill Impreza.
The front end of the new car sports an uncanny similarity to its arch rival back then - the now-defunct Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution - but overall, the shape is much improved and has hints of the Legacy in its DNA. Available only in sedan (four-door) form, the WRX and WRX STI share the exact same chassis, whereas in the past, the STI version usually benefited from a "flared arches" bodyshell to set it apart.
While the visual differences between the WRX and STI are limited to different alloys and a big rear wing on the latter, the cars are quite different underneath.
The WRX gets the "latest" four-cylinder, 2.0-litre turbocharged engine (FA-series) while the STI soldiers on with the "older" EJ turbocharged 2.5-litre horizontally opposed four. The reason given by Subaru's engineering heads is that the older engine is more developed and hence more "practical" for motorsport applications.
Both engines tout direction injection and there is the signature boxer beat to the exhaust note but nothing too blaring. The intention is for the new WRX and STI to move away from the boyracer crowd with performance cars that are not only fast but more refined.
But lest you think the new cars have gone soft and are less focused than before, Subaru brought along the old STI for a back-to-back drive against the new STI during a recent media launch in the Philippines.
At Clark Circuit near Manila, the difference between the old and new cars was marked. Not so much in terms of outright straight-line performance but handling. With limited seat time, what was readily apparent was how much better body control the new WRX/STI had over the old STI and how much better it responded to helm inputs.
The old STI exhibited a fair amount of roll and a tendency to drift away from the apex but the new WRX and STI were much more composed; it was simply a matter of pointing the car where you want it to go.
Ride quality was naturally good on the smooth bitumen of the circuit, but what's noticeable is how quiet and refined the WRX/STI is.
Comparing the CVT-equipped 265 hp WRX versus the old five-speed automatic of the STI (rated at 280 hp), straight line performance was uncannily similar - sans any form of timing equipment. Of note is the distinct lack of turbo lag in the new WRX.
The STI with 300 hp and equipped with a six-speed manual (the only transmission available) obviously felt a touch more exciting to drive but past figures suggest that over 80 per cent of sales will be the CVT-equipped WRX.
In the cabin, differences between the WRX and STI are limited to the different trimming of the well-bolstered front seat and reach bench. A point to note is that only the CVT-equipped WRX will get Subaru's adaptive SI-Drive mode system which allows the driver to select between I (Intelligent), S (Sport) and S# (Sport sharp) for the engine/transmission response.
The STI's control for the SI-Drive mode is on the centre console while the WRX's is on the steering wheel. Furthermore, the STI has an additional roller switch that allows the driver to select the amount of lock for the DCCD Driver's Control Centre Differential. Good news is that whatever variant of the WRX/STI you buy, torque vectoring is standard equipment. It works by applying pressure to the brakes of the inner front wheel, reducing understeer.
With the Mitsubishi Evolution a footnote in the annals of history, the WRX and STI seem to have no direct competitors. Pricewise, cars such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Lexus IS250 will be their closest competition respectively. While it might have trouble shedding its boyracer image vis-a-vis its peers, the initial impression of the WRX/STI seems to indicate that the car has grown up without losing its focus on performance.
Subaru WRX STI
Engine 2,457cc flat-4 turbocharged
Gearbox 6-speed manual transmission
Max power 300 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Max torque 407 Nm @ 4,000 rpm
0-100 kmh 5.2 secs
Top speed 255 kmh
CO2 emissions 242 g/km
Average OMV $31,000
Price $197,600 (with COE)
Distributor Motor Image Enterprises
Tel 6417 0300