Model: Subaru Impreza WRX STi
Engine: 2.5l turbocharged four-cylinder boxer petrol
Performance: 155 mph, 0-60 mph in 4.8 seconds, 27.4 mpg;
Worth considering: Audi 3.2 V6 Quattro, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, VW Golf R32 4Motion
A few weeks ago, I described how the humble Impreza 1.5R offers a surprisingly agreeable slow-motion version of the Subaru all-wheel drive experience. This week, our testers get the chance to press the fast-forward button by trying out the Impreza in its muscular, rally-inspired, 300bhp WRX STi form.
And the STi really does have a fast-forward button – a knob that controls the car's "SI-Drive" (Intelligent Drive) system: two clicks clockwise puts the STI into "Super-Sharp" mode, which provides what Subaru calls "the ultimate in throttle response". They're not joking, either, although the STi reacts so snappily to right-foot action anyway that you wonder whether this extra complication is really necessary.
The same applies to the STi's Driver's Control Centre Differential, which lets you tweak the distribution of torque between front and rear wheels. I'm sure that's very handy on track days, but the Impreza is already supremely grippy and well-balanced on normal roads.
Now, you may have got the impression from all this that the STi is a loud, buzzy, point-and-squirt device with an on-off switch for an accelerator pedal, a car that thrills when you're in the mood, but is tiresome company the rest of the time.
That's what I thought it would be like, too – only it isn't. Of course, the STi is responsive and sure-footed when you want to drive quickly, but the rest of the time it behaves in a remarkably grown-up way. Motorway cruising, for example, is a comparatively relaxed business because, with so much power on tap, the STi can pull long gearing in top, while ride comfort is surprisingly good. Thank the Impreza's low centre of gravity, the result of its boxer engine layout, for that, as it means Subaru hasn't had to resort to rock-hard springs in order to check roll under cornering.
I'm not sure that hard-core Impreza fans will necessarily appreciate the way this latest STi sometimes shows its softer side – but it makes this highly accomplished car more interesting for everyone else.
Mike Munday, 57
Fleet sales manager, Bournemouth
Usual cars: Renault Laguna, Mercedes SLK 320, TVR 390SE
The STi's bulbous front and rear wings mix well with the new overall shape. When you turn the key you get, not the usual boxer engine throb, but a smooth, quiet, even beat. I'd convinced myself that this was a point-and-squirt type of car, but there's plenty of torque from low revs, no need to shift down two gears for action and no dramatic turbo lag. It has contour-hugging seats, firm but compliant suspension, and a refined four-wheel drive system. This could be a daily drive, equally competent on all roads, as sixth gear is quite tall. The 300bhp comes into its own on twisty A-roads and the chassis maintains its composure even in extremis.
Daryl Misselbrook, 35
Usual Cars: SEAT Toledo, Renault Modus
Sylvester Stallone is an action movie icon with a massive following among filmgoers – except me. I never liked the Impreza either; like Rambo it seemed over the top, completely lacking in subtlety. As I approached the STi, my thoughts turned to Eighties comebacks – the car is generic Japanese from 20 years ago. But driving the car was a revelation – it was refined, responsive, and composed. Lacking a turbo whiplash, this powerful family hatchback, which has sublime acceleration and handling, made me feel very safe. Stallone is full of unnecessary bulges and strength. So is the Impreza – a bit like your grandpa armed with an Uzi – and I loved it.
James Little, 51
Talent agent, Poole
Usual car: Audi A3
Viewed from the side, it seems like a regular family hatchback. But seen from the front, with its two gaping air vents in the grille and on the bonnet, and from the rear, with its slightly gawky badge, the car's credentials are confirmed. Inside, the fittings are plasticky and the audio system is poor. But the money is under the bonnet. This car is a monster. Allegedly, it does 0-60 in less than five seconds, and, though I didn't test that, the acceleration is incredible. Dawdling along in sixth, the engine's doing little more than idling, and yet touch the pedal and you're almost instantly at 70mph. It's a very thrilling ride, with easily as much oomph as upper-end BMWs and Audis, though admittedly without the finesse.
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