The latest WRX STI continues the race-bred line of high-strung cars

The new Subaru WRX STI’s looks are distinguished by sharper headlights in front and a slightly over-the-top spoiler at the rear. -- ST PHOTO: TOH YONG CHUAN
The new Subaru WRX STI’s looks are distinguished by sharper headlights in front and a slightly over-the-top spoiler at the rear. -- ST PHOTO: TOH YONG CHUAN
The new Subaru WRX STI’s looks are distinguished by sharper headlights in front and a slightly over-the-top spoiler at the rear. -- ST PHOTO: TOH YONG CHUAN
The new Subaru WRX STI’s looks are distinguished by sharper headlights in front and a slightly over-the-top spoiler at the rear. -- ST PHOTO: TOH YONG CHUAN

Still as hot, the latest WRX STI continues the race-bred line of high-strung cars

There was an off-beat but memorable sci-fi television drama called Weird Science in the 1990s about two socially awkward teenagers who created their dream girl on a computer.

The virtual girl called Lisa miraculously came to life as a genie watching over the trouble-prone pair.

Subaru's motor sports division STI also started tuning WRXs in the 1990s, and the results were equally mad cap. It is as if Subaru engineers threw their wishlist into a cauldron and a long line of race-ready, tyre-burning, adrenaline- inducing WRX STIs were born, just like that.

Weird Science ended its run in 1998 after five seasons.

In contrast, the STI-tuned WRXs have had more success.

The latest model, to be officially launched in Singapore next week, continues Subaru's proud traditional of building a line of race-ready, street-legal cars.

The new car is longer than its predecessor by the width of a thumb (4,595mm versus 4,580mm) and a teeny-weeny bit taller (1,475mm versus 1,470mm).

It sits lower on the tarmac with a ground clearance of 135mm, compared to the previous car's 150mm; and weighs just 1kg more than its predecessor, at 1,516kg.

Looks-wise, it is still not going to win any beauty contest. It retains the distinctive "squat" look, like a feline waiting to pounce.

The front end has been redesigned with sharper headlights. The gigantic air intake scoop is carried over.

At the rear, it sports the characteristic, slightly over-the-top WRX spoiler.

The prettiest bit at the rear is the diffuser, which houses a pair of twin mufflers. But the diffuser is not there just for looks. It reduces drag caused by air flowing beneath the car.

There is no change to the engine. The familiar 2.5-litre flat-four, high-output turbocharged unit continues to power the new car, with the distinctive off-beat note of a boxer engine.

Inside the cabin, the cockpit is somewhat spartan, although there are frills such as keyless entry and ignition, dual-zone air-conditioning, Bluetooth pairing of mobile phones, steering-wheel- mounted controls for the audio system and cruise control.

The carbon-fibre trims, suede-clad seats with red stitching, and fiery red instrument lighting leave no doubt that the car is from a race-bred line.

The lack of frills will be easily forgiven once the car is on the move.

The steering feel is light but the response is sharp. The ride is mildly harsh from its stiff suspension set-up, but not downright uncomfortable.

There are three drive modes - a "sports" mode for involved driving, a "sports sharp" mode with lightning- quick throttle response which is best suited for track days, and a lazy "intelligent" mode if you just want a leisurely drive home after a 12-hour work day.

Given its precise short-throw, six-speed stick shift, gear changes are quick and crisp.

While the car has an all-wheel-drive set-up, drivers can manually vary the torque between the axles by adjusting the centre differential via a discreet lever on the centre console.

While there is a seemingly endless supply of torque, the sixth gear is redundant for daily drive, given the 90kmh speed limit of our expressways.

The high-revving engine encourages drivers to speed, and it takes loads of willpower to resist the abundance of horsepower.

Brembo brakes - two pistons at the rear and four in front - provide enormous stopping power. If only they came in matching STI red.

My only grouse (a very small one) is the clutch pedal is heavy and the "legwork" takes some getting used to. But this is the shortcoming of the driver, not the car.

Overall, there is nothing to dislike about the car, an unpretentious model bred for racing, and it does not try to be something that it is not.

And in a Weird Science way, the car is better value for money, performance- wise, than a Toyota Corolla.

The power-to-weight ratio of the WRX STI is roughly 198bhp per tonne. At about $207,400, the driver pays about $104,800 per 100bhp per tonne for the car.

The Corolla Altis - at $125,888, 121bhp and 1,265kg - works out to be higher, at $131,600 per 100bhp per tonne.

The Volkswagen Jetta Sport 1.4 TSI turns in similar numbers. With its current price tag at $151,300, the "real price" is about $133,900 for the 160bhp, 1,411kg car.

In other words, the Jetta is comparable price-performance-wise to the Corolla Altis, and the WRX STI wins the race by a fat margin.

Critics may say that the formula is flawed: Torque should be used, or brand value should be weighed, for instance.

But the essence of the formula lies in its simplicity. It removes the clutter and measures just one variable, arguably the most critical one: how much you pay for the raw power of a car.

Put simply, the boy-racers who bought previous generations of the WRX STI got it right all along. It is an outright performance car, at a fraction of the relative price of other performance cars.

And they know it without even looking at the math. No wonder they, and the WRX STI, are often ahead of the field.

tohyc@sph.com.sg