Originally created with the goal of winning the World Rally Championship, the Subaru WRX has been a popular enthusiast choice since its 1992 launch. A turbocharged version of the Subaru Impreza, the WRC 555 took second in its 1993 WRC debut with Finn Ari Vatanen piloting on home soil. In 1995, Colin McRae hot-shoed the Prodrive-built 555 to his first WRC drivers’ championship. McRae was instrumental in helping Subaru secure three straight constructor titles from 1995 to 1997, and his rivalry with Mitsubishi factory driver Tommi Mäkinen is the stuff of legend.
The road-going version, the first STI, came in 1992 as the WRX STi version 1, followed by several more revisions, including stripped-down “RA” versions for amateur rally enthusiasts, all the way up to 2000 before the redesigned second-gen “bug-eye” STi was launched. The 1998 WRX STi 22B is still regarded by many as the high water mark for the platform despite only 424 models being produced. As of last year, it became legal to import the 22B into Canada. Finding one, however, could take a lifetime.
The WRX and STI were still largely foreign entities until the early 2000s, but had no trouble earning legendary status even though they were only sold in Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Europe. It wasn’t until 2001 that the bug-eyed WRX was finally brought over to the U.S. as a 2002 model year; two years after the WRX platform had been redesigned.
The first USDM STi model appeared two years later, followed closely by the third-gen STi in 2005. North Americans were falling in love with the car even though it came with a 2.5L motor that couldn’t match the 2.0L screamer the rest of the world was used to. Still, the car sold well as the legend continued to grow.
Subaru has openly said its WRC successes are responsible for increased sales of the Impreza WRX. So, when it announced it was pulling out of the sport entirely at the end of the 2008 season, things started to get interesting. Not only did the company’s motorsports focus shift away from rally entirely, but it did so just as Subaru introduced a new version of its flagship performance car in 2008. This too, signalled a new direction for the platform.
The third generation WRX STI brought with it two body styles, and a new motorsports mandate. Having conquered the WRC, the focus shifted to dominating road courses and endurance races. In particular, the 24 Hours of Nürburgring is right in STI’s crosshairs.
The WRX STI got longer, taller and more powerful thanks to a new two-litre turbocharged Boxer four making 304 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque. In addition to the traditional sedan, the five-door STI hatchback makes it first appearance thanks, in part, to the lobbying and development efforts of Petter Solberg, who drove for the Subaru World Rally Team (SWRT) from 2000 to 2008. Solberg became the first Norwegian to win the driver’s championship in 2003 (his first and only).
STI, of course, is short for Subaru Tecnica International, and the Nürburgring Nordschliefe has been an important proving ground for Subaru since the early ’90s, so entering a WRX STI into the 24-hour race in 2008 was more an evolution than a revolution. Entering the hatchback, however, may have been. The STI hatch was campaigned in the VLN endurance series from 2008 to 2010 with good results, but nothing big time.
Tommi Mäkinen’s amazing seven-minute, 55-second lap in April 2010 driving a 2011MY four-door sedan is still the fastest ever for a production STI – check it out at www.youtu.be/2To_5XjIaMk – and just might be the bigger coup. It certainly helped tip the scales for STI, as it was the redesigned widebody four-door WRX STI that won the SP 3T class in 2011 and 2012. The team placed second in the 2013 24-hour race, and was not happy with the result.
The team returned to the ring this past June to compete in the 42nd running of the race with its new racecar. After qualifying first in SP 3T, things were looking good for the race. Lady luck, however, threw in a flat tire and five-minute penalty for passing under a caution that could not be recovered from, and the team took the checkered flag fourth in class after running hard for more than 3,500 km on the most demanding of race courses anywhere.
The 2013 model I drove last summer was a blast, and it manhandled everything I could throw at it – backroads covered in dirt and gravel, twisty and undulating cottage roads, major highways and even the hard-packed clay racing surface of the Brighton Speedway. (Check out our video here: www.prnmag.com/2013wrxstivideo). I was so impressed by it that I skipped right over the 2014 model, which is practically identical, and waited patiently for the 2015s to come out.
My chance to drive the 2015 WRX STI finally came during a Subaru Canada club event at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park earlier this year. It wasn’t a full day of flat-out, white-knuckled lapping, but it was a great opportunity to get some seat time, feel out the changes and preview the new DDT.
First is the steering. Wow! What an improvement! The hydraulic-assisted rack boasts an improved ratio (now 13:1 from 15:1), which translates into crisp, direct and responsive direction changes with excellent feedback. The play in the wheel is gone, and even the slightest feedback is felt through the smaller, meatier flat-bottom sport steering wheel. Dare I say it is better than the M3 or M4? Yes I do, and yes it is.
The suspension and chassis have been stiffened too. Everything from the crossmembers, stabilizer bars, bushings and the addition of stiffening plates have had a big impact on performance. Front and rear spring rates are up by 22 and six percent respectively, which has improved the suspension’s lateral stiffness by 14% in the front and 38% in the rear. Roll stiffness is up 24%, and this is still just the suspension.
The chassis itself is significantly stronger thanks to increased use of high-strength steels. Torsional rigidity and bending rigidity are both up approximately 40% and 30% respectively, and the new engine also sits lower and further back for better balance. Combined with a 24 mm longer wheelbase and active torque vectoring, the car handles like its on magnets. It is flatter through corners, to the tune of 16% less body roll, and boasts 0.97 Gs of road-holding ability.
The fact the car now only comes in one body style might have something to do with it. No, it has everything to do with it. Not having a hatchback meant that engineering and development efforts didn’t have to be split down the middle.
For 2015, the 2.5L FA-series engine has only minor changes. Namely a remapped ECU, new intercooler tank and a sound creator that pumps intake noise into the cabin during middle to high engine speed and acceleration. That ECU has been retuned for enhanced accelerator responsiveness and more precise control over boost pressure and other variables that affect the power band. As a result, SI-Drive delivers greatly improved throttle response in all three modes (I, S and S#).
The multi-mode VDC system has three levels – on, traction mode (cancels VDS and TCS only) and off (VDS, TCS and torque vectoring are fully off) – to take advantage of the 290 lb-ft of torque vis a vis the STI’s symmetrical AWD system. Three differentials, including a Helical-type front LSD, rear Torsen LSD and a driver-controlled centre diff for ultimate control, are exclusive to the STI AWD system.
Depending on the trim, the 2015 STI weighs between 1,527 kg and 1,564 kg. Available trims include the base, sport and sport tech. Any of them can run from 0-100 km/h under five seconds. There is no launch control function, however, it launches like a rocket when the revs are up above 6,000 rpm and TCS off. And from the eight-way adjustable heated leather/Alcantara seats, you can really feel that oomph! The Brembo high-performance brakes with 326 mm front and 316 mm rear ventilated discs, and four-piston front and two-piston rear calipers are rock-solid for road and light track use, but will require some upgrades in the form of pads, lines and fluid to fully exploit the new chassis.
Likewise, the cockpit has been elevated to a level that rivals the German and Japanese alternatives out there, and yet remains functional for driving fast. Thinner A-pillars provide better visibility, while rich-looking appointments and details abound, including soft-touch materials for the dashboard, door trim and centre console armrest, have upped the refinement factor. A new multi-information display with 4.3-inch LCD screen provides a multitude of vehicle system functions, including a standard rear camera display, digital boost gauge, audio, Bluetooth and climate control settings as well as a VDC screen showing traction control operation.
The 2015 WRX STI includes a long list of standard features. Dual-zone automatic climate control, dual-mode heated front seats, heated exterior mirrors and a windshield wiper de-icer are only the beginning. The new six-speaker AM/FM/CD standard audio system integrates Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming, iPod control capability, iTunes Tagging, SiriusXM Satellite Radio (subscription required), USB port and a 3.5 mm auxiliary audio input jack. Numerous compartments located in and around the centre console hold phones, USB drives and MP3 players.
While all of its changes have made the 2015 WRX STI a real road course killer, it’s equally at home on regular roads where it will spend the majority of its time. My only complaint is the head unit. It is not user-friendly, hard to adjust and just seeing the screen is next to impossible if the sun is anywhere but directly in front of the car. Is it a deal breaker? Not at all, but it is a sore thumb on an otherwise fantastic package.
The original STi was an all-out rally car built more for the street. Those capabilities still exist, but this latest version is much easier and more comfy to drive. Its more aggressive look isn’t for show either – it has the bite to back up its bark – and I can’t wait to get back behind the wheel of this thing because, of all the STI’s I’ve driven over the years (almost all of the North American generations), it is absolutely the best one yet.
Without further ado, watch our companion video of the 2015 Subaru WRX STI from the Subaru Club Event online at www.prnmag.com/2015wrxstivideo.
2015 Subaru WRX STI
Base Price: $37,995
Engine: 2.5L 4-cyl. Boxer
Horsepower / Torque: 305 hp / 290 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed close-ratio manual
Fuel Economy Ratings (city / hwy.): 12.3 / 8.6 L/100 km
Warranty (mos / km): 36 /60,000