EXPERT REVIEW

Boston.com's view


If I didn’t know better, the Subaru WRX STI might just be the silliest gas hog of a little car there is. It’s a cocky, pheromone-swilling show-off, with a hood scoop ready to inhale pigeons, a foot-tall rear wing, and all that booming, ear-splitting braaap from the four exhaust tips.

This is a car that acts like a frustrated teenage boy and is priced for a well-paid man in his 30s, albeit a single and slightly nerdy guy who likes a good deal. Because for all its tackiness — and this is after Subaru canceled the gold pimp wheels for 2011 — the man who buys a WRX STI does know better. He’s getting a street-legal race car, and all the gut-wrenching performance of a Porsche 911 for half the price.

What’s with all those wings and scoops and fender bulges? They widen the regular Impreza’s body for improved stability, add downforce at high speed, channel air to the massive intercooler, and cool the huge brakes. In rally competitions, this makes the STI fit to barrel through narrow mountain roads against maniacs in similar cars.

Unlike regular racing, where the crowds pack in grandstands, rally fans stand on the roadside so their favorite drivers spray dirt in their faces. A few people get killed this way, but most times everyone jumps for joy as the screeching Subarus zoom past. If your neighbor brings home an STI, you have every right to bring the kids inside.

Launching the little Subaru from its lumpy, rumbling idle to a ferocious, 7,000-rpm whine is a wild time. While heavier than the race car, the street STI actually makes more power. The 2.5-liter four cylinder engine — its pistons horizontally opposed, or “flat” like on Porsches — makes a screaming 305 horsepower that’s only tapped by tearing the six-speed gearbox to shreds.

Of course, that won’t happen — what metal Subaru left out of the tinny doors they packed into the manual transmission, stiff suspension, and beefy all-wheel-drive system. But forget about easy speed in any gear — you’ve got to wind this thing bonkers to go fast, as peak power and torque occur close to redline.

Ordinarily, the STI feels kind of sluggish. But that’s because the car’s SI-DRIVE system is desperately trying to save fuel by reducing power. That’s “Intelligent” mode. Flip the rotary knob to “Sport” and you’ll get the ride you paid for. Flip it again to “Sport Sharp” and a pack of fire ants run onto the throttle, instantly making the STI frenzied and jumpy when getting on and off the pedal. While not a great idea in traffic, on a clear stretch the surging Subie is unstoppable.

Subaru even lets the driver fiddle with the torque split, with a multitude of settings designed to either push more power to the front or rear. No other car company lets you do that. I didn’t have a safe area to try it out — plus our car wore harder winter tires with far less grip than the standard summer rubber — but STI owners claim they feel the difference when it’s wet or on tight back roads.

I can report that overall grip is astounding, the suspension firm yet surprisingly compliant, and the brakes phenomenal. The steering is quick but not that accurate, and the shifter’s throws are a bit long and a little vague. These aren’t deal breakers by any means. This is a $35,000 sports sedan that’s faster and more exciting than a $50,000 Audi S4.

Inside, Subaru passes on the savings. Picture a TI-83 calculator in a pile of scrap plastic, and you’ve nailed the STI’s interior. Save for the pieces your limbs touch — the leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, the classy aluminum pedals and red-stitched, suede-lined seats — everything is brittle and bone hard. There really is a scientific calculator in the infotainment display, and when you try to adjust the stereo, you get a 1980s graphic equalizer and sound filters so complicated you’ll crash. The headliner is as supple as a U-Haul moving blanket.

What’s ridiculous is how a four-cylinder compact car can only get 17 mpg in the city and a paltry 23 on the highway. In a week — and I’ll admit, I drove it like I was supposed to — I got 16 mpg. Due to their robust, full-time all-wheel-drive systems, Subarus always suffer at the pump, and the hot-blooded STI is the thirstiest. When a Porsche Boxster looks miserly by comparison, something’s very wrong.

The regular WRX, with “only” 265 horsepower, doesn’t include the STI’s fancy hardware and costs $8,500 less. The huge wing is reduced to a small lip on the trunk, and while it’s still fun, the engine’s drone gets tiring on the highway because there’s no sixth gear. Oddly enough, highway mileage improves to 25 mpg.

In either sedan or hatchback form, the STI is admirable because it won’t please everyone, most certainly not the conservative, Forester-driving set in New England. But like any unfettered child, while the STI’s explosive nerves can be annoying to live with, at the right moments, it’s an utterly outstanding piece.

2011 Subaru Impreza WRX STI

THE BASICS
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $34,720 / $36,520.
Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 17 city / 23 highway.
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 16 mpg
Drivetrain: 2.5-liter F-4, six-speed manual transmission, all-wheel-drive.
Body: Four-door, five-passenger sedan.

THE SPECIFICS
Horsepower: 305 @ 6,000 rpm.
Torque: 290 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 rpm
Overall length: 180.3 in.
Wheelbase: 103.3 in.
Height: 57.9 in.
Width: 70.7 in.
Curb weight: 3,384 lbs.

THE GOOD: Incredible performance hardware, fast and very collected, embarrasses expensive European sedans

THE BAD: Incredibly tacky, poor interior and fuel economy

THE BOTTOM LINE: A very raw and capable sports sedan for the few who care about it

ALSO CONSIDER: Mitsubishi Evolution, BMW 335i, Ford Mustang GT

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