“FORGET tail-wagging wheelspin, axle tramp, induction roar, flailing fists, masses of metal being torn from rest,” I wrote in 1993, of the just-launched Subaru Impreza WRX. “This apparently innocent sedan, built to carry Subaru’s future hopes in world championship rallying, might just be the car to define high performance 1990s-style.”
In terms of rallying, I guess I was right: of the 10 WRC drivers’ championships from 1990-99, all but one were won in Japanese fourcylinder turbo 4WD cars. Okay, the WRX accounted for just one of those (Colin McRae, 1995), punctuating the reigns of Toyota’s Celica and Mitsubishi’s Lancer – but in the WRC manufacturers’ title, Subaru claimed three on the trot (1995-97).
In this, Subaru was aided by its STi (Subaru Tecnica International) competition department and British-based Prodrive, with which it had collaborated in rallying since 1989 with the all-wheel-drive Legacy, and subsequently the compact Impreza WRX since 1993.
In celebration of its title hat-trick, and to better represent the newfor-’97 World Rally Car regs allowing greater freedoms than the outgoing Group A, STi took direct inspiration from the sexy coupe-bodied ‘WRC 97’ works machine and packed a road-or-rally customer version with a hand-assembled, enlarged 2.2-litre turbo flat-four, and a catalogue of trick homologation parts.
British designer Peter Stevens had penned the WRC 97 competition machine’s bulging, 80mm-wider body and unique aero package that included a tall, adjustable rear wing. Starting with the production coupe shell (STi Type R, introduced in 1997), both these elements would make it to the new, limited-production model, formally known as the Impreza WRX Type R STi 22B.
STi began its production run of just 400 domestic-market 22Bs at its Osawa, Tokyo plant in March 1998. The allocation had been sold out in less than 48 hours (some say in one hour). Urging from foreign quarters, not least Australia, teased out a further 25 cars: 16 for the UK, five for Australia, and three ‘000’-numbered prototypes, bound for special customers (see Fast & Factual). Production wrapped in August 1998.
All 425 cars were finished with gold-painted wheels and the familiar metallic Sonic Blue. A number of the cars were destined for competition, allowing those owners to chase their ’97 works heroes McRae, Kenneth Eriksson and Piero Liatti. And the rest – including wide-eyed journalists – got to marvel at supercar-beating point-to-point performance, and a truly iconic expression of the turbo all-paw four.
The 2212cc EJ22G engine, a partsbin peculiarity to the 22B, had a closed-deck block with stock WRX rods, forged pistons and EJ20K heads with sodium-filled valves. Turbo was a single IHI VF23, though a larger, laggier VF22 was optional. Official outputs were 206kW and 360Nm, via a (disappointing) five-speed ’box, twin-plate clutch and drivervariable torque split. Zero to 0-100km/h took 4.7 seconds.
The STi coupe body was 10kg lighter than sedan, hatch, but 22B’s bulged guards (on 20/40mm wider front/rear tracks) and aero package brought kerb weight to 1270kg. Nozzles in bonnet scoop sprayed mist over the intercooler. Down under were a quicker steering rack, Eibach springs, Bilstein dampers and 17-inch wheels, covering ABS-less discs with STi calipers.
The STi 22B might have cost $125K in Australia (near BMW M3 money) but it had few luxury aspirations. The coupe cockpit is surprisingly spacious, the (unbranded) blue Alcantara-insert bucket seats supremely grippy, but subtleties like CD player, air-con and airbags were absent, in favour of toys like console-mounted DCCD (driver controlled centre differential) dial and intercooler spray switch. Each car had a numbered plaque below the ashtray.
Three ‘prototype’ 22Bs were numbered ‘000’ and presented to Colin McRae, co-driver Nicky Grist and Prodrive technical director, David Lapworth
In Australia, the 22B’s price was listed at $125K; the five customers (Subaru Oz was one) paid a further $7K for road certification.
STi (STI since 2006) owes its existence to Oz: Subaru’s motorsport debut was with a GS/ Leone in the Southern Cross Rally in 1972 (our records suggest 1973).
In June 2017, ‘WRC 97’ chassis #001, a development prototype, was auctioned in London for $387,000. A mint 22B fetched $181,000 in Japan.
Subaru UK got its allocation of 16 22Bs in ’98, but had to wait until ’99 to register them – behind a queue of about 50 grey-market 22B imports.