There are three performance modes and six driver-selectable differential locking settings for the center differential. On the road we drove mostly with Sport selected on the SI-Drive controller, the stability system on, and the diff in the middle, default mode. But as we headed out for some track time at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, all we needed to dial up the right attitude was to pull the differential toggle toward the minus side for more neutral behavior on dry surfaces, click the stability control system once for its low-intervention traction mode, and twist the SI-Drive controller to order up Sport Sharp (S#) mode, which sharpens throttle response and helps the turbo spool up quicker.
There, the STI showed its reason for being, and in its stock setup (except for racing pads, to hold up to a long day at the track), it demonstrated everything we'd loved about this package in the past—either gently neutralizing understeer under power or turning it into glorious, neutral slides; and minimizing its weight transfer, dive, and squat for no-surprises maneuverability, phenomenally good body control that's always a bit better than we hoped for. The S# mode makes throttle response more vivid, too, and combined with the very sharp turn-in, the STI felt hard-wired to inputs yet surprisingly forgiving on a demanding course.
Back on the pragmatic side, the STI earns some embarrassingly low fuel economy ratings, of 17 mpg city, 23 highway. While the WRX earns ratings of 19/25 (manual) or 21/28 (CVT), both require premium gasoline. We did, however, manage to average nearly 17 mpg on an extremely spirited dash on hilly, tightly curved back roads, making full use of available revs at times. And if you run in the SI-Drive's Intelligent (I) setting, the STI’s throttle is calibrated to be more aggressive at and just after tip-in versus the last-generation model—engineers found they could do it without affecting fuel economy, they said.
We're actually not at all envious of those who have to redo performance-car icons like the Subaru WRX STI. Do you move forward with the pace of the market, betting against a potential backlash but drawing new enthusiasts? Or do you hold to a tried-and-true formula, rallying new enthusiasts around a winning reputation?
And all the while, the hordes of vocal fanboys and existing owners who are pushing that latter outcome might or might not be those who would be actually buying a next-generation model. The STI is a powerful performance car—just a performance car that hasn't changed (or matured) much, for better or worse, while the market has changed quite a bit.
The 2004 Subaru Impreza STI made 300 hp and 300 lb-ft, had a six-speed manual transmission and driver-controlled center differential, had a curb weight under 3,300 pounds, could get to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds, and got 18/24 mpg. The new model makes 305 hp and 290 lb-ft, and while that torque is more accessible, the car weighs at least a hundred pounds more and has an official 0-60 time of 5.1 seconds (admittedly, a conservative figure).
While the performance-car landscape has been shifting, it feels like the STI has been held back, with Subaru uncertain of which way to go.
The answer to loyal Subaru enthusiasts is probably going to be that, yes, the STI, as it has all along, offers a well-coordinated series of upgrades to bring a distinct step up in performance.
But others—even this editor, who would consider himself a Subaru fan—it's not as straightforward of a decision. Unless you're wowing (or scaring) your passengers with this car's performance capabilities, they're more often than not going to take a look at the homely compact-sedan silhouette on the outside and more so, the hard-plastic door panels and somewhat thrifty interior and say: “This is a $40,000 car? Really?”