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Subaru WRX STI

Can the latest model keep this pedigree stable on track?

Price: £32,995
Top speed: 158 mph
0-62 mph: 5.2 seconds
Consumption: 26.9mpg
CO2 emissions: 243 g/km

Few automotive pedigrees are as pure as Subaru's. Every Subaru on sale in the UK, whether large or small has the same highly distinctive mechanical layout, which is quite unlike anything used by any other manufacturer. The whole set-up is based on the company's pure “symmetrical” four-wheel drive layout and the cars are all powered by boxer engines; these two main elements combine to give Subarus superb traction and a low centre of gravity which help provide good on-road behaviour.

The benefit of using this extremely capable and versatile drivetrain is that it can be repackaged in many different ways to meet the needs of several different types of buyers. Traditionally there have been two main groups to which Subarus have appealed in the UK, at least by reputation; sportier types who liked the quick and loud motor-sport inspired hot versions of the old, small Impreza saloon, and farmers looking for a car suited to muddy rural conditions, who went for something like a Forester, which in past incarnations was a sort of jacked-up estate car that could give a good account of itself both as a driving machine and as a semi-serious off-roader.

Subaru's drivetrain is as good as ever, but in recent years, the company seems to have lost its previously sure touch in packaging it to appeal to buyers. The Forester, which had successfully straddled the boundary between estates and serious off-roaders, was reinvented as a mainstream SUV, just in time to miss out on the emerging market in crossover models. At about the same time, the Impreza, which had relied on the sheep-in-wolf's-clothing combination of a small upright conservative saloon body and sporty mechanicals for its appeal, was turned into a rather bland looking hatchback; even the sportiest WRX STI version was considered a bit soft. The latest Legacy was positioned as a “mainstream” car that would compete with models such as the Mazda 6 and Toyota Avensis, an approach that underplayed its engineering edge, and which was undermined by the limited range on offer. The new car was offered only as an estate; if you chose the brilliant Subaru boxer diesel engine, you had to have it with a manual gearbox, but if you opted for the petrol alternative, that was only available with an automatic. At least the beefed up Outback version goes some way towards occupying the crossover territory previously occupied by the Forester.

Overall, then, Subaru's current range combines great engineering with some slightly confused model positioning. Now, though, things are changing with the new WRX STI (there doesn't seem to be an Impreza badge), which is returning to its roots with a new saloon body-shell. Personally, I rather liked the hatchback Impreza, including that top-of-the-range, too-soft for some WRX STI, but I was very much in the minority, so I can see why Subaru has returned to the previously popular saloon format (the hatchback is still available). I wonder, though, whether the market is still there; tastes are moving on all the time, and the Prodrive-assisted Subaru World Rally Championship team that gave Imprezas competition-cred was disbanded at the end of the 2008 season.

So what's the latest WRX STI like? Its looks are undeniably racy, although changing fashion is presumably responsible for the fact that it doesn't have a rear boot spoiler but instead sports what looks, at least, like a diffuser below the rear bumper. The rest of the package is pretty much the same as the hatch WRX STI; the same very strong, smooth and even thrilling boxer engine, the same control labelled “C Diff” which has nothing to do with hospital-acquired infections but alters the balance of the centre differential, and the same sure-footed cornering behaviour. It's always difficult to make comparisons at such distance, but I thought the saloon's ride was, nevertheless, noticeably harder than that of the hatch I tested a couple of years ago – although that goes against some of the intended effects of the new so-called “spec. C” suspension set-up, a pity given that one of the advantages of the Subaru drivetrain's low centre of gravity is that it should be possible to control roll without firming things up too much. The interior of the WRX STI saloon appears to be much the same as that of the hatch – hard-wearing, functional and slightly dreary, although it is given quite a lift by the sporty Recaro front seats.

And if the WRX STI isn't wild enough for you, there is now the option of the even more extreme Cosworth variant which has almost 400 horsepower at its disposal (the WRX STI makes do with 300) and can accelerate to 60 in 3.7 seconds, although that is available only in small numbers at a price of about £50,000.