So this is it - we're done. It came, it went
and now, if Subaru is to be believed, the WRX STI will never again return to the UK in this format. Once the 150
are gone, that's the fast Subaru saloon story closed in this country. Well, unless there's an Encore Edition too, but that raises unfortunate connotations with crummy Escorts, so probably not.
The passing of the Subaru Impreza Turbo - even if it's no longer known as that - is a significant milestone for the performance car, and not a good one. It's difficult to overestimate the impact of Subaru's winged wonder both at its launch and also for the lasting effect on a generation - perhaps two generations - of car enthusiasts. It's as important to boys and girls of a certain age as the first hot hatches and the 60s British sports cars, and for very good reason.
A quarter of a century ago, the Impreza Turbo redefined affordable performance. As hot hatches approached their humiliating nadir - see Golf GTI Mk3, launched in 1992 - the Subaru arrived offering four-door practicality and more than 200hp, plus the security and performance advantages of 4WD, for £20k. It simply hadn't been done before, in much the same way as the front-wheel drive hot hatch thing didn't really exist before the Golf GTI - the Impreza created its genre, an achievement very few cars can legitimately claim. It's a genre, ironically enough, that's now dominated by the Golf R, but we'll return to that point.
The Impreza's rise during the 90s was astronomic, with the WRC success, modifying culture and Gran Turismo exposure snowballing into recognition of it as perhaps the definitive affordable performance car. It was such a perfect fit for the time, like The Prodigy on four wheels: innovative, bold, perhaps a bit offensive to some. New rivals emerged, the Impreza evolved and the 20th century became the 21st, but that formidable combination of speed, value and dynamism remained compellingly attractive.
A new Impreza v. Evo twin test seemed to appear every month, with tiny tweaks that aimed to give any advantage - however small - to one side. Loyalties were as fierce as City v. United and England v. Australia - you picked your side and backed it throughout, be that in the magazine comparison, the Gran Turismo duel or a real-life purchase. It was tribal.
That the Subaru Impreza is now leaving us really does mark the end of an era, a time of 'win on Sunday, sell on Monday', of video games introducing us to entirely new cars and of Japan's proper arrival in Europe's fast car market. That's all done now, and the Impreza was a huge part of it; the STI's departure from the UK is arguably more notable than the Evo's exit a few years back, too, thanks to those early years when the Evo was import-only and, being blunt, because Brits won in Subarus and not Mitsubishis.
So what has been done with the car to mark this momentous occasion? Very little, in fact, which can be taken two ways: the first is to bemoan the lack of a true valedictory special, with 400hp and RS3-humbling performance; the second is to take this Final Edition as a representative reminder of what will disappear, with all the good and the bad that that entails.
300hp, 300lb ft and about £30k have been familiar Subaru flagship numbers for a while now, and while its rivals have since caught up with what once seemed like an outlandish output, there remains nothing like a WRX STI powertrain. Indeed there's nothing quite like the whole WRX STI driving experience, which makes its departure more galling.
There is turbo lag, sure, but then there's also that brilliant rush of acceleration when the boost comes at about 3,500rpm. There's a reward for being in the right gear - easily done with short ratios and a precise shift - that's unfamiliar to anyone used to extremely linear turbocharged cars. Sometimes that's annoying, but then nobody ever complains about lag in cars they like, do they? With that noise, the super sharp throttle response and high rev energy, the Subaru's engine is a memorable one. And again, how many memorable performance car engines are available now?
There's no getting away from the fact that Subaru rides pretty toughly at everyday speeds. The springing is fierce and the damping matches it; with frantic steering on top it can feel a little restless, truth be told. The pay off, of course, is that on the kind of road you see here the STI still feels fantastic: it can deal with whatever the roads throws at it, never flustered or losing an ounce of its composure. Relax your inputs and the steering makes more sense, too. Unlike so many new cars the Subaru needs learning to get the best from, ergo the experience is more rewarding and more satisfying.
That extends to the four-wheel drive system as well. In all honesty it would be pushing it to say that the effects of the electronic centre-diff can really be appreciated on the road; the Final Edition feels much as it always has against contemporary fast hatches, in that it relies on the driver as much as anything else to access its best side. Power too early and you'll likely get scrappy understeer; too late and there won't be any boost. Sometimes there will be a bit of fight over bumpy surfaces from the front wheels, sometimes a tad more oversteer than you expect. On the odd occasion, however, your braking will be spot on to keep the nose locked onto the apex, your throttle input will anticipate the boost perfectly and the lock is just enough to be straightened out on the power. It doesn't happen all the time, but it's fantastic when it does. Once more, it's an experience that isn't found anywhere else - more's the pity.
So while 300hp doesn't sound like a lot in 2018, there's an argument to say that it just sort of suits in a car of the Subaru's size, with this gearing, of this weight and with this much grip. In the same way that Caterham maintains about 160hp is a Seven sweet spot, and everybody agrees that the E39 is probably the best M5, there are certain mechanical combinations that just sort of work. A day in the Peaks with the Impreza will convince you that it's among them.
There's more, too. The centre-of-gravity benefits of a boxer engine may be up for debate, but having such a low bonnet - and with the A-pillars repositioned in the 2014 facelift - means forward visibility is great. The car can be placed with confidence that a Focus RS driver could only dream of. Moreover the Subaru is a nice size, and slender too; by the stats it's narrower than a regular A3 saloon, leave alone an RS3, meaning B-roads can be attacked rather than just overcome. The brakes are strong, every pedal has a faithful response and the seats clasp you well, even if they don't look like they ought to. The WRX STI might be inescapably Japanese - the language is on the filler cap, after all - but it feels as home here in rural Derbyshire as the four-legged cardigans that wander around the hills. The Impreza's suitability for a British country road, at any time and in any weather, has always been integral to its appeal, and is as enjoyable now as it's ever been.
The game has moved on though, without doubt. In the same way we thought we could live without broadband, catch-up TV and Five Guys, rivals to the Subaru have introduced features we didn't know we really wanted until they arrived. The Golf R's formidable array of talents is impossible to ignore, as is the staggering progress made by front-wheel drive since even the first 300hp Imprezas arrived. People no longer have to put with an average interior for sub-six to 60, nor mid-20s MPG for 160mph. While there's an argument to say some rivals struggle for personality against the STI, nobody can deny their abundance of talents. And while we all like to buy cars based on character and charm, the real-world implications of all-round ability can't be ignored.
Perhaps the largest problem faced by the STI in its current format is simply that the genre peaked, both in terms of buyer popularity and product desirability, a very long time ago. Even as an advocate of the current car, there's no escaping the fact that a 22B is a wilder, naughtier, feistier Impreza. The same could be said for the P1 too, as well as various JDM imports - the STI comes to the end not in the form of its life and not with the last version being the very best, which leaves an inevitable dent in its reputation.
Nevertheless, that the Final Edition can still offer up proper entertainment (in the right scenario, granted) is a testament to just how right the basic Impreza formula remains. It's a reminder of what's been gained in the past few years but also what we stand to lose as cars become yet more homogenous, refined, user friendly and capable. With that engine, that look and that four-wheel drive system, the WRX STI is a totally unmistakeable and unique motoring entity. As those qualities continue to ebb away in modern cars, they deserve to be celebrated all the more strongly here. Farewell properly then Subaru, and thanks for the memories - it's been brilliant fun.
SPECIFICATION - SUBARU WRX STI FINAL EDITION
Engine: 2,457cc flat-4 turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 300@4,200rpm
0-62mph: 5.2 sec
Top speed: 158mph
MPG: 25.9mpg (NEDC combined)
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