The Subaru Impreza WRX STi has developed a rabid, almost cultlike following in recent years because it has sports-car performance and handling in an unassuming, compact sedan body, and it doesn’t cost a fortune.

On a tight track or a twisty road, the WRX STi performs as well as or better than many sports cars that cost up to twice as much.

Subaru’s redesigned 2008 WRX STi, which hits showrooms in January, is sure to cheer the faithful and court the skeptics. Simply put, this 305-horsepower, all-wheel-drive hatchback is a marvelous piece of work. It is loaded with enough techno gadgets to satisfy serious driving enthusiasts, and its base price of $34,995 is more than reasonable for the level of performance it offers.

The STi is the top WRX. The regular Impreza WRX, with a 224-horsepower engine, begins at $24,350.

The WRX STi was introduced last month at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The rumor mill has been hot with speculation about the newest iteration of Subaru’s pocket rocket, but the real thing is sure to salve even the most rabid WRX fans.

The first thing to note is the 2.5-liter, 305-horsepower engine, a horizontally opposed four-cylinder whose basic layout, called a boxer, is similar to that of an air-cooled Volkswagen or Porsche. The flat four helps lower the car’s center of gravity, and that aids handling.

The STi’s engine is intercooled and turbocharged. It produces its maximum torque, or pulling power, at 4,000 rpm, which is one reason why it feels so strong as it accelerates through the gears. Subaru says the engine also meets California’s most stringent emissions standards.

A switch on the console enables the driver to choose different levels of throttle sensitivity and turbo output. In Sport Sharp, the car leaps at the slightest prod, and that instant response was fun.

A handy feature holds the car in place momentarily after you release the brakes while you’re stopped on a hill. This gives you time to release the clutch without the car rolling backward. It may seem like a small thing, but this feature improves the driving experience daily.

The WRX has always been a great-handling car because of its all-wheel drive, and the new STi appears to be a marked advancement. In standard mode, 59 percent of the power is delivered to the front wheels. The Driver Control Center Differential, which is exclusive to the STi, enables the driver to adjust the front-rear balance of the car with a switch on the center console. Auto-plus sends more power to the rear wheels, while auto-minus sends more to the front.

The adjustable center differential also works in concert with the car’s vehicle stability and traction-control systems.

Dive into a turn and hit the accelerator pedal, and the fat, 18-inch tires grip the road tightly. The STi squirts out of a corner like a watermelon seed that is pinched between your fingers.

The steering is very communicative, and that enhances road feel and driver confidence.

In the past, the WRX STi’s styling has always been a bit gaudy. The new car still has a huge air scoop in the middle of the hood to feed cool air to the intercooler, and the front fascia is dominated by large air intakes. The hatchback’s profile is not unlike that of an egg.

The wide tires demand large fender flares, and the rear haunches give the car a very muscular stance. The front fender extensions look as if they would enhance aerodynamic downforce on the front end.

A small spoiler hangs off the back of the rear hatch. The STi stands out in a crowd because of its visceral look, but I found its look quickly grew on me. The rear three-quarter view remains its most appealing.

A driver’s car must have good seats and a comfortable cabin. The STi scores highly in each category. The front seats do a great job of supporting the driver during enthusiastic driving. The steering wheel falls nicely to hand, and the six-speed gearshift has a tight, smooth linkage.

The gauges are large and simple. Red night lighting is relatively easy on the eyes, and it’s a welcome change from the blue night lighting that seems to be so popular these days.

With the WRX STi, you don’t have to sacrifice room for four and everyday practicality to get performance on par with a serious sports car.

Price The base price of a WRX STi with the BBS wheel package is $37,640. I drove an early production model that did not have a price sticker.

Warranty The standard warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles, while the powertrain warranty is for five years or 60,000 miles.

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