Decades before Volvo became all cushy and gentrified, the company's rally racing image was unassailable. More recently, however, Subaru has managed to take over that role with its Impreza-based WRX and WRX STI models.
The 2011 editions of these street-smart warriors that arrive later this summer should inspire greater interest in a brand that has recently experienced significant across-the-board sales growth, despite a difficult period for the automotive sector.
More to the point, the WRX and its superathlete WRX STI relation look more like rally champions than ever before.
Both models share an aggressive front fascia, blacked-out grille and contoured fenders that readily set them apart from their 2010 counterparts. The rear fenders have also been accentuated, but not quite to the same degree. In fact the only way to tell the two apart is by a rear wing -- make that a shelf -- that's much more prominent on the STI.
Commenting on the decision to restore the hot rod STI sedan after a brief hiatus -- for the first time, the STI is available in hatchback and sedan models -- a Subaru executive said that it will "expand the appeal of this iconic performance model to a wider range of driving enthusiasts." Clearly, the previous big-winged four-door was favored by many STI loyalists who won't have to look elsewhere (i.e. in the competing Mitsubishi Evolution's direction) for their fix.
Another STI sedan bonus is the extra-deep trunk that the automaker claims will hold three full sets of golf clubs -- apparently the new yardstick for measuring cargo capacity -- whereas the hatch can accommodate just two.
The STI has revised standard suspension tuning for 2011 that was first introduced with the 2010 Special Edition. The ride height has been slightly lowered and the front and rear stabilizer bars and springs beefed up. In addition, the standard 18-inch wheel package is now lighter by 17.6 pounds and the optional BBS-brand wheels trim even more fat.
Returning virtually unchanged are the engines. The WRX runs with a 265-horsepower turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder, while the STI ups the power to 305. Still, WRX fuel economy is rated at a respectable 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.
The horizontally opposed "Boxer" style engine has one bank of two cylinders firing at 180 degrees to the other bank of two cylinders. Imagine two boxers going at in the ring -- which is how the Boxer name came about -- and you can visualize how it all works. The engine is laid down flat, which helps to lower the center of gravity, which aids cornering and braking. All Subaru engines are built this way.
Anyone considering one of these hot Subies needs proficiency operating a manual transmission. The WRX is only available with a five-speed gearbox, while the STI comes with a six-speed. By contrast, the competing Lancer Evolution uses a fast-shifting automated manual.
Buying any Subaru means that you automatically get an all-wheel-drive system that, under normal operation, splits the torque equally between the front and rear wheels. The STI's SI-Drive adds a console-mounted rotary knob with three driver-selectable settings: Intelligent, for normal/stop-and-go traffic conditions; Sport, which provides quicker throttle response; and Sport Sharp, for the quickest reaction to accelerator inputs from your right foot. This might be particularly useful for rallying, autocrossing and other competitive events.
Also along those lines is an STI-exclusive traction-control system with both full-on and partial settings, depending on the level of control desired by the driver. There's also the Brembo-brand brake upgrade with four-wheel "Super Sport" anti-lock program that can control the braking at each wheel, which is particularly helpful during hard stopping.
It kind of makes you want to do a little affordable rally racing doesn't it? There's no pricing yet, but the 2011 WRX will likely range between $26,000 (sedan) and $28,500 (hatchback), while the STI will likely command about a $7,500 premium.