Santa Claus came a little early than expected for Escape on Wheels this year. Of course, being the grown up kids that we are, we were perfectly ok in receiving our present before Dec 25th. Our surprise stayed with us for 2-weeks-and-a-half, which is enough to satisfy our boyish petrolhead attitude just in time for the holidays. 2 weeks with a brand-new Subaru WRX STi in winter are every enthusiast’s wish. Usually, fresh snow and a rally car, go so well together as much as peanut butter and chocolate.
Speaking of personal satisfaction, this test was one of the highlights of 2017, and that’s a simple reason for it. Rally cars for the road, have always been the ultimate dream cars for people like us. Forget about Ferrari, Porsche and Lambo for a moment: it has always been the Imprezas, Deltas, Celicas, Lancer EVOs and so on, that represented the attainable dream for many enthusiasts. 20-25 years ago, with some savings and a little fortune, young workers could have made their dream of enjoying a proper, world-class performance car a solid reality and a prestigious one too. What’s more satisfying than knowing that your daily driver has won World Rally Championships and it is the state of the art of four-wheel-technology? It has always been exciting in knowing to have a car that it is practical for daily use and able to give 400+ bhp supercars migraines on curvy roads. Yes kids, there was a time where actual dream cars had the shape of your mom’s daily driver and the punch of a proper heavyweight champion. However…I am afraid that this magical era is coming to an end.
The only production “pocket rocket” with rally history is the Subaru WRX STi. It is the last of that breed that hails from that glorious era of rally-cars-with-a-license-plate. Driving it now, in late 2017 is a refreshing breath of proper old school motoring: I am glad marketing departments stayed out of it and gave us a car that has no silly start-and-stop, automatic downshift throttle blips and a million of useless badges all around, just trying to convince you’ve just bough something different. It is a car that doesn’t need much convincing from the moment you see one. Even if it is still equipped with the old EJ257 boxer 4 cylinder engine with single turbocharger (a glorious unit used for the first time in the 2004 STi) the new STi is a proper driver’s car and not an easy one too.
The common narrative today has “used” us to celebrity-boys driving around in some pretty shiny and great machinery, which above all things, are dead easy to drive up to their limit. Surely, instantaneous speeds is much more easily attainable now that it was even 10 years ago, thanks to the extensive use of elecronics which has made the speed game a lot more easier for everyone. Nothing against all of this: progress in any field should always be supported or encouraged. However, allow me to play the part of a prematurely old owl by saying that modern cars push you beyond your driving limits, without you noticing. Mind you, with no controls, modern-day cars are difficult to drive, due to their high outputs and lightning quick response and not well suited for most of their clientele. Those street-legal rally cars have always been in a league of their own, pretty much like Japanese crotch-rocket motorcycles. The Subaru STi, even to this day actually requires some skill and careful attention: that’s why it is so appealing to old school guys like us. As much as it is easy to go fast and have tremendous amounts of fun, it is easier for the inexperienced driver to misjudge a corner and end up in the trees. It is a big, heavy car and that comes evident especially under hard braking, where you can feel the mass of the car going forward and the tail becoming light. What’s great about the modern STi is that you need to learn to drive it. It is not a straight-out-of-the-box and easy to use fast car: it demands your full attention: no music blasting through the (absolutlely excellent) Harmann Kardon system, just drive it.
Frankly, a rally car is indeed one of the many faces of happiness and Subaru has been a great figure in shaping this positive feeling. Although our generation has always seen the Lancia Delta Integrale as King, it was with McRae’s Imprezas and Makkinen Lancers that we grew up as kids. The sights of that blue and yellow Subaru jumping sideways is still well planted in our memories and it has inspired us to become petrolheads. We didn’t try to get emotional, but going into the snowy fields of Asiago, felt a bit like trying to win the Swedish rally and racing through the forests of Finland. With temperatures averaging between -12 and -8 and a Subaru ready to go we had an epic journey through the frozen mountains ahead of us.
Setting off for a winter test at 5 in the morning in the mountains is quite special. Everything’s more quiet and calm and with the snow and ice covering the road and the trees and the led-lights illuminating the narrow surroundings make you feel like you’re doing a special night stage. Passing through the towns with the rumble of the boxer, when everything’s asleep is surreal. Leaving from the Val di Sella we progressed towards an old and narrow military road, known as the Monterovere Way. Once used by the Austrian army during WWI, it has now become our portal to unparalleled fun. With the skiing plants on the Altopiano still closed and with the first rays of sun rising, we felt we had just found a private playground to let loose our hooliganism.
The active differential controls, which allow you to have multiple setups, is a reminder that you’re in a proper 4×4 sports car. No silly funny-name-modes here, just clean controls for the throttle response and the differentials. With the E Diff set in automatic mode, you can either decide to leave the computer deciding all for you or have a preference for having more power sent at the rear or at the front wheels. Of course in manual mode you can decide either to split the power to your own preferences. Traction is always excellent and with the controls disengaged you can exploit the STi’s wonderful and predictable playfulness. Under every condition, it performs flawlessly, by changing direction rapidly and rocketing you out of every corner. Once you find your pace, it is a very rewarding car to drive: rev it past 3.500 rpm and exploit all the boost coming from the 300 hp boxer, and a massive grin will appear on your face. There’s a slight understeer at the entrance of every corner but you can neutralize it by either some left-foot brake or turning towards the apex still on the brakes. The satisfaction of heel and toeing and having with no throttle blips is just what an enthusiast needs. With the sun rising and the tarmac becoming less slippery you can drive with more anger and fulfilling your desire for becoming the McRae you always wanted to be. The STi is a car engineered for driving and not for marketing purposes: this translates into proper fun. Yes, it is an old car and it suffers from massive turbo-lag and not much development from the previous generation but as long as we can enjoy a car that you need to work on your driving skills to get the most out of it, well, we’ll be fine.
With our journey stretching through the Dolomites and reaching Cortina up north, we had the chance to meet up with a couple of heroes up on the great Passo Giau. Thanks to the well-known gang of Powerslidelover, a character who has made drifting his prized machines his lifestyle, we met up with his Lancer EVO VII and a friend’s brand new Focus RS. Needless to say that the little group represented an evolution of what we like. The refined old school nature of the STi was sitting right in the middle between rawness and moder-day refinement. If these two represented what we always loved about these cars in the past, the Focus is indeed the new hero, the one that is bound to carry on the legacy of this excellent breed of fine automobiles. Although we all wish to see the RS in the WRC soon, it is undeniable that we all agree that it is the future for these “pocket rockets”.
With the uncertain future of the STi ahead of us, we cannot forget about all the great battles of the past, where Imprezas and Lancers were fighting both on rally stages and on B roads, creating a healthy competition that we’ll be going to miss. With the signature rumble of the boxer engine and the ability to pull off great four-wheel-slides in the snow, we’re all glad that Subaru WRX STi has always remained true to itself, never loosing that performance-focused nature that made it shine as much as its rivals in history. Enthusiasts now may say many things, but it is true that at least once they desired it, maybe owned one, or just needed one as their only car. Whatever the future will bring us, it will always remain an enthusiast’s car and one that has produced many fond memories for everyone. Long live the WRX STi, the last of the wilds.