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Subaru has a knack for continuous improvement on its vehicles—particularly its performance-minded Impreza WRX and STI models. And while these rally-themed models aren't all-new this year, both of them get a more aggressive look as well as extensive changes underneath.
Line both of these models up side by side and they're closer than ever in appearance. Together, both of these models get a number of changes—most of which are now shared between the WRX and the STI. A new wide-body brings macho front-end detailing, an aggressive lower-body look, quad-tip exhausts, and bulging front and rear fenders that give the car more voluptuousness. Inside, the appearance is familiar, but there are new instrument clusters, a new audio system, and darker, more understated trim.
At first look, the 2011 Subaru WRX has shed some of the bland appearance for which it's been criticized since the entire Impreza family was last redesigned. Both models remain offered in four-door sedan or five-door hatch bodystyles, but it's the sedan that's changed (and benefited) most from the new wide-fendered look. Where it looked a little dowdy before, the flared sheetmetal makes the whole design pop. In our opinion, the hatch was already the better of the two bodystyles, and it also benefits a bit from the new look.
The WRX and STI are both based on Subaru's Impreza compacts. But for 2011, the WRX is now more differentiated from the Impreza; it now shares its body structure with the STI, but powertrain and suspension is where they're quite different, and it amounts to a quite different driving experience between models.
The 2011 WRX continues to get a 265-horsepower, 2.5-liter horizontally opposed (boxer) four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission, with viscous-differential all-wheel drive, while the STI gets a 305-horsepower, 2.5-liter turbocharged boxer four, six-speed manual transmission and an all-wheel-drive system that includes the Driver-Controlled Center Differential (DCCD). Worth noting is that the former Impreza GT model with the four-speed automatic has been dropped. That leaves an all-manual lineup for the WRX and STI, a factor that might be a deal-breaker for some.
While these two engines are now relatively close in output, their tuning is quite different. The STI works itself to a frenzy near redline but can be gruff and flat-feeling down low; the WRX, by comparison, comes on smoother, torquier, in a way you can feel a full 1,000 rpm lower. The combination of slightly larger gaps between gears makes it feel more docile, more flexible, though ultimately less aggressive; only serious enthusiasts are going to keep the STI revving and keep its awe-striking quickness on tap.
Only in the STI, an SI-Drive controller lets you select Intelligent (I), Sport (S), or Sport Sharp (S#) modes, each affecting throttle response. There's an Auto, Auto+, Auto-, and six levels of manual center-diff lockup, all accessed through a little flip switch in the center console. Larger Brembo performance brakes are included with the STI as well, and a Super Sport ABS system allows independent control of each rear wheel and reduces understeer. And the stability control system includes a 'traction' mode, intended for the track, that uses the brakes but no longer cuts the throttle; it can also be turned off completely. With some clever suspension engineering, Subaru has managed to stiffen springs, bushings, and stabilizer bars, and lower ride height on the STI this year, without making the in-cabin experience any harsher.
The 2011 WRX keeps it simpler—and, some might say, more enjoyable—skipping the DCCD, SI-Drive, and trick new front suspension. Pick the right gear coming into a corner and the WRX will slingshot you out of it, scrabbling for more grip than you knew was there. Blip the throttle while braking—the pedals are well-spaced, even for big feet—and drop a gear or two, trailing off the brake as you turn in, and there's no understeer, no tendency to push when it should grip. Do it right and you can even induce a little four-wheel slide just about anywhere you'd like, perfectly controlled and very neutral.
With any sports car, the engine is only part of the story, and this is especially true in the case of the WRX and STI. Subaru engineers have done a sublime job with the suspension tuning. Despite thicker anti-roll bars and stiffer springs being introduced last year, both the WRX and STI soak up bumps, ruts, potholes, and coarse surfaces with aplomb. The ride is beautifully smooth and isolated; the handling wonderfully direct and taut. At highway speeds, apart from a little engine rumble and wind noise from the side mirrors, the cabin is very quiet.
Slide behind the steering wheel of either the WRX or STI and you're greeted by a well-lit instrument cluster that's dominated by a large, centrally mounted tachometer. It's flanked on the right by a smaller speedo in Porsche fashion, and all the gauges are clearly marked and readable in an instant—gone are the tacky boy-racer and econo car designs of past generations. A pair of racing-style bucket seats is positioned up front, and while they are incredibly supportive, we did have some qualms. Namely, the seats come with a fixed headrest (the entire seatback is just one long piece) that some testers find uncomfortable. Note that STI model gets more upmarket Alcantara trim, and for 2010, black Alcantara with red stitching replaces last year's gray and silver stitching. The rear compartment is happily much bigger than the car's tidy exterior dimensions suggest. Headroom in back, a sore spot for most small and even mid-size cars, is fantastic even for those unusually long in the torso. Trunk space is reasonable at 11.3 cubic feet, and fold-down functionality for both sides adds a world of convenience. For both style and practicality, we think the hatchback's the way to go. One issue in the STI especially is that it throws up a bit more road noise and a rather jittery ride.
The 2011 Impreza WRX and STI are two of the safest vehicles in their class, with five stars from NHTSA in most categories and good ratings—at least last year—from the IIHS. All Impreza variants come with side impact and side curtain airbags, electronic stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes with brake-force distribution and brake assist, and daytime running lamps as standard. Manual models also get hill start assist.
Once upon a time getting an STI meant getting a very basic tuner-car interior with limited options, but you'll no longer need to make that compromise. Subaru has become smart to the idea that WRX buyers would rather have a STI, and some STI buyers aspire to a BMW M3 or Porsche Cayman—without giving up creature comforts—so the automaker has now added an all-weather package for the STI, as well as made leather and a moonroof optional. Sound systems are all-new this year, with standard USB and iPod connectors, while a touch-screen nav system with Sirius Satellite Radio remains optional. And Subaru has finally added a one-touch up/down driver's window with anti-pinch. Of course all of this places the WRX and STI on stronger competitive ground against its archrival, the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart and Evolution.