MAKING ANYTHING work for you for three decades is never going to be easy (ask Mrs M). And the motor industry is no different. Oh sure, you could crank out four-wheeled cannonfodder for the same period of time without much trouble, but to actually stay right at the front of the development and engineering curve for that length of time is a major win. And even with the financial squeeze of recent times, youíd have to say thatís more or less what Subaruís skunkworks arm, Subaru Tecnica International (STi to you and me) has managed.
Thanks to multiple WRC victories, a handful of world championships and even record-breaking runs, we tend to think of STi as the birthplace of Subaruís competition aspirations. Actually, it wasnít and the first time a worksbacked Suby turned a wheel in timed anger was, in fact, right here in Australia when the factory entered a Leone (remember them?) in the 1972 Southern Cross Rally. But Subaru could see the sense in having a dedicated race shop which could be used to spin off exciting, profitable road cars for the masses, so in 1988, STi was established.
This concept, in itself, was not exactly rocket science; Subaru would have been watching the activities of other performance divisions including AMG and BMWís M (and maybe even HSV) and could see that a stand alone operation was a beaut way to build a brand image and some street cred. These days, anybody with any hope of separating punters from a little bit more of their hard-earned money has a performance arm, but back in 1988 it was still a big leap for a conservative Japanese operation.
Which is not to say the other major Japanese factories hadnít worked out the same for themselves, and by the time STi hit the headlines, Toyota had been operating its TRD outfit since 1976, Mitsubishi established Ralliart in 1983 and Nismo had been a force in motorsport since its establishment in 1984. But even though it was a while coming, itís probably the STi franchise that has had the best cut-through in Australia.
Thatís largely because Subaru has been good enough to give we antipodeans a fair suck of the sauce bottle. While the best and brightest models from the other Japanese carmakers often didnít make it down here (you donít think Peter Williamsonís class-winning 1981 Bathurst Celica was the fastest thing across the mountain with the Corona engine from Aussie-spec Celicas, do you?) Subaru has tried its best to give us lot and not just a small taste of a rich crop. No, we havenít been privy to all of STiís hits, but by the same token, there isnít a rev-head kid who doesnít know what a WRX STi represents.
So for us at MOTOR, the idea of celebrating three decades of tear-arse Subies was a no-brainer. And the trio weíve picked out to sample are absolutely representative of the type of lateral thinking that is a central part of the magic of any performance car. Oh, and we got to drive them.
This is genesis for forest-fighting, go-fast Subarus
JUST AS a Walkinshaw VL will always be the seminal HSV and that crazy, 6.8-litre 300 SEL racecar is revered as the first AMG, so too does the Legacy RS RA represent a line in the sand. As STiís first full model, the RA is the grand-daddy of them all.
While the Legacy (and Liberty out here) RS was a cult hit back in the day, the real wonder was reserved for the RA model. But the way the model came about is a bit left field. See, while STi was founded to create halo cars for the Subaru brand and to homologate cars that could win rallies at the highest level, the RA was kind of a celebration of a publicity stunt conducted by STi in the very early days.
Back in 1989, STi took four specially prepared Legacies and, with the FIA watching, ran them on an oval track in Arizona for 18 long days, racking up 100,000km in the process and topping out at almost 225km/h. In the process, the cars set a new world speed endurance record and STi was on the map. And this car, the RA (which stands for Record Attempt) was the productionbased fruit of all that.
But donít go thinking itís an RS with an STi decal. Oh no. As well as putting the Legacy on a diet with less sound-deadening, thinner glass and a sunroof-delete deal, the RA also got a much tougher engine and driveline. That started with forged pistons, hand-ported cylinder heads, stronger rods and a full balance of all the reciprocating bits. Power was the same claimed 161kW (or 162, depending on who you talk to) and, combined with a 1290kg kerb weight, the RA was a proper statement back in 1990 when it hit showrooms.
STi continued to fiddle with the concept for the next few years adding, among other things, a close-ratio five-speed gearbox. However, the aim always was to keep the RA a lowvolume model. Which is why it only built 100 cars in 1990, 286 in í91, 217 in í92 and just í93 in 1993. And this white car is one of that last batch.
Once a rampaging, high-tech special, the RA these days seems a bit milder. Then again, the visual approach taken by STi back in the day was pretty subtle. But the truth is that itís more of a cruiser these days than a red-hot poker. But, lord, does it take me back. That skinny Momo wheels is absolutely gorgeous and the way the whole interior looks, feels and smells propels me straight back to the late í80s.
The balanced bottom end makes itself felt right from the off, too, and thereís a lot less of that Subaru thrumminess through the gears than I recall. It gets along, too, and while thereís no doubt itíll spin hard, itís also torquey and flexible enough to be short-shifted and still provide enough clarity of shunt to be effective. The close-ratio íbox has a straight-cut first and second, the former of which, in particular, makes a racket and tends to try to trip you up if you start shifting back to first before the car has stopped.
Thereís a real fluidity to the way the RA gets down the road that I donít recall in bread-andbutter Liberties and, despite some pretty munted dampers on this car, the RA feels light on its feet and a pretty vice-free platform. Okay, the performance probably wouldnít trouble a modern Ford Fiesta ST but, just like a Walkinshaw or Red Sow, thatís hardly the point any more. So why havenít you seen more of them? Because theyíre a dead-set Tassie Tiger. Thereís reckoned to be two doing the rounds as rally cars and one road car. This one.
TIME was running out. Subaru was keen to introduce its new Impreza Group A car to the WRC, but not until the outgoing Legacy secured a win. Fittingly, its young Scottish charger, Colin McRae, delivered the goods. Victory in New Zealand allowed the Legacy to bow out on top and the Impreza to make its planned debut in Finland, where it secured a fine second place.
COLIN McRaeís star had been in the ascendency for some time. His flamboyant, on-the-limit driving had frustrated his bosses and delighted fans, but it all came together when victory on the 1995 Rally GB secured his and Subaruís first world motorsport title. Despite many more victories, it would be McRaeís only title, finishing second in 1996, 1997 and 2001.
Souped-up two door is far more than the sum of its limited-edition parts
The ultimate STi - a Performance watermark so high that modem Subarus are still yet to surpass it
THEY had me at Ď22Bí. Seriously, as a bloke who road-tested the very first WRXs and then STis in the day, the thought of coming face to face with an honest-to-god 22B was giving me the metaphorical dribbles.
While the 22B was a proper kitchen-sink effort, it wasnít built to satisfy any arcane homologation requirements. Nope, it was a celebration car Ė making note of the fact that, in 1998, Subaru had just won three world championships on the trot.
To mark that occasion, STi took a two-door Rex and grafted on big, fat boxed guards front and rear. With some carefully considered offset on the 17-inch alloys, it stretched the front track by 60mm and the rear by 100mm. To say this thing looks tough is an understatement and, particularly from the rear, itís all muscle and a warning to others.
The 2.0-litre engine was hogged out to 2.2 (hence 22B), but thereís a lot more to it than that. In fact, the block itself is different with a closed-deck design for rigidity. With more careful matching of port sizes, camshafts, compression ratio and turbocharger, the EJ22 makes the same nominal (and under reported) 206kW, yet it manages an 8000rpm redline.
Although similar in spec to a Version 4 STi including the active centre-diff, the 22 also featured a seam-welded bodyshell as proof of how serious STi was. Chuck in an adjustable rear wing, a water spray for the top-mount intercooler and pull a bunch of weight out of it with a ban on sound deadening (and even deleting the spotlights) and you had a 22B.
Take it as read that this grey import drives like a new 22B. But even that doesnít convey how remarkable this thing really is. Before youíre even out of the car park, itís obvious that despite the stiff body, the 22B isnít going to rattle your brains. In fact, the ride is crazy good and, again, makes us question the current STiís concretemattress impersonation. But the steering is equally friendly and the whole show is ballerina-light on its toes, but never feels nervous. Like the Type R, the 22B is a stark reminder of just how devastating excess weight is to dynamics and balance.
Then thereís the engine. Now, I know modern turbocharged engines are good, but Iíll put it out there and say that none of them are any better than this one, and most of them arenít as good. The mid-range is enormous, the low kerb mass and short gearing disguises any lag (if, indeed, there is any) and thereís a fabulous exhaust note that is a million miles removed from the chaff-cutter persona of a normal Rex with a drainpipe zorst. The pedal placement is perfect, the Momo is a scalpel and only a slight buzz from the gearshift tells you the car has done any kilometres at all.
When Subaru announced the 22B in 1998, the 424 cars slated for production sold out in 12 hours. Despite a sticker of $132,000 in Australia, four or five cars did actually make it here while 400 were for Japan and the rest went to the UK. Two of which wound up in the hands of none other than Colin McRae and his co-driver Nicky Grist as a thank you. Nice.
THE late-1990s and early-2000s was a golden period for Subaru. Between 1994-2004 it was by far the WRCís most successful manufacturer with 43 wins, three manufacturersí titles and three driversí titles for McRae (í95), Richard Burns (í01) and Petter Solberg (í03). Indeed, Subaru only recorded four WRC wins outside this period, pulling out of the sport at the end of 2008.
THIS IS NOT a comparison test, no car wins. But after a day spent in throwback interiors with their distinctive hard plastics, thin A-pillars and a certain smell, one ponders the current situation of Subaru Tecnica International and perhaps the next 30 years for the brand.
Itís fair to say that STiís best years are either behind it or ahead of it. The current WRX STi drives like it did 10 years ago while the turbocharged four-cylinder, all-wheel drive performance segment it helped popularise, is dominated by the Euros. And a car like the Ford Focus RS, itself having just entered retirement from old age, makes an STi feel very old school, analogue and antiquated indeed. A proper turbocharged STi BRZ, despite all the excuses for why it hasnít happened, remains in our books a missed opportunity.
STi is still very active in motorsport, producing a popular production rally car but also in an official capacity in circuit racing like in Super GT and at the Nurburgring 24 Hour. Of course, it retains a factory presence in the Australian Rally Championship with Molly Taylor, who won the 2016 title in her production-spec rally car. But on the global stage, Subaruís motorsport campaign continues in the long shadow of its World Rally Championship success.
While economic natural selection in a sluggish Japan killed the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, it appears STi is picking itself back up and readying to give smug Euros like the Mercedes-AMG A45, Audi RS3 and VW Golf R a very bloody nose indeed.
Subaruís VIZIV Concept, unveiled at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show, represents the beginning of probably a long teaser period for the next WRX STI, due around 2020. Details are scarce, but Subaru says it has all-wheel drive and a boxer engine Ė presumably four cylinders and turbocharged. Subaru has also said the WRX and STi cannot continue as petrol-only propositions, so on the basis of the VIZIV retaining a petrol engine, expect the next STi to sport a hybrid drivetrain.
Honda catapulted the Civic Type R to the top of the hot hatch pecking order in one go. Perhaps the Japanese engineers at STi can do the same with its next performance hero. Certainly, it has the runs on the board to suggest so.
WE ALL know the story of Subaru Australia importing a batch of 400 first-gen STis and promising thereíd be no more. What it meant, of course, was that thereíd be no more two-door STis because the batch of 400 four-doors was almost already on the water. Cue outraged two-door buyers.
But what Subaru Oz couldnít get its hand on was this car, the Type R which was a souped-up version of the STi. This particular car is a Version 6, bears an MY00 build-date and is one of just 1000 examples worldwide.
Over a Ďstandardí STi, the Type R got the roof vent, the active (DCCD in Suby-speak) centre diff (which Australian-delivered STis wouldnít see until 2005) a bigger turbocharger, shorter gearing, a quicker steering ratio, no sound deadening and a weighbridge ticket of just 1260kg. Combine that with the 206kW that was the mandated limit by the Japanese authorities (and was starting to be sniggered at) and you were talking a serious weapon at the turn of the century. Still is, in fact.
This car is one of maybe three or four in the country and theyíre all, obviously, grey imports. If youíre anything like me, the first-gen WRX is the one. To my way of thinking, this Ė the very last of that series and very probably the most capable version outside of a 22B Ė is beyond merely desirable. Had the owner not been such a nice bloke, Iíd probably have disappeared in the Type R and never returned.
And Iíll tell you something else for free Ė the cops would have needed to send their bravest and best (and fastest) to run me to justice, because this thing absolutely flies. And I donít mean in a period sense. As in, right here, right now. Even though it might have a bit more grip, I doubt that even the currentmodel STi would see which way this blue bomber went. And another thing: how come the current car leaves you pissing blood after a speed hump when this car, built almost two decades earlier, rides so much better?
Itís not just a layer of plush that you werenít expecting, itís the whole way the type R deals with crappy roads without ever feeling mushy through the helm or the seats. Speaking of the seats, theyíre just lovely and while they look a bit flat and shapeless, theyíre anything but. And if ever you needed proof that lightness is a cornerstone of good car design, the featherweight Type R provides it.
It appears that, like the Legacy RA, Subaru managed to engineer all the nasty out of the STi in Type R form. The clutch is light and positive, the gearshift as close to idiot-proof as a H-pattern manual will ever be and even though the exhaust is a bit rowdier, it doesnít drone at cruising speeds, nor is it likely to have Plod looking up from his donuts.
And then, while youíre still marvelling at the civility of it, you go and step on the noise pedal. And the Type R takes off. Thereís very little lag and the short gearing (that sees about 3000rpm at 100km/h) ensures the thing always has a head of steam up. Throw in the faster steering which is as neutral and natural as any Subaru Iíve ever driven, the high grip levels and the overall togetherness of the package and the Type R emerges as much, much more than just another hyped limited edition.