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While the pedestrian Subaru Impreza sedan and hatchback were thoroughly updated for 2012, the hot-rod Impreza WRX and STI models soldier on with the older and proven body style for another year. Both were restyled last year, with more aggressive styling and substantial suspension and running gear changes, so they're far from outdated.
The 2011 wide-body look includes bulging fenders front and rear, a brawny lower-body look, a macho grille and front-end treatment, and four exhaust tips coming out the back. The new wide-fender styling benefits the four-door sedan most, removing its slab-sided economy-car aspect, whereas the five-door hatchback was always sportier looking. Inside, the trim and upholstery, instrument clusters, and even the audio systems were updated to match.
Both the WRX and STI are offered in either body style. The differences between the two models, though, belie their similar appearances even though they're only apparent once you get behind the wheel.
The 2012 WRX continues with the 265-hp, 2.5-liter horizontally opposed engine, mated to a five-speed manual transmission and Subaru's characteristic all-wheel drive. The STI comes with an even beefier turbocharged flat four, putting out 305 hp, and powering the all-wheel drive through a six-speed manual. Nope, no automatics in the lineup. If you want an automatic, you may not be a suitable WRX or STI buyer. Sorry.
The two engines are only 40 hp apart, but they're tuned quite differently. The WRX is more tractable in all-round usage, with smooth torque coming on fully 1000 rpm lower than its big brother. The slightly larger gaps between each of its five gears makes it feel more flexible, docile even, though in the end less aggressive than the STI.
The STI is jaw-droppingly quick, but can feel flat at low revs until the driver floors it. Once that happens, the engine begins a rising howl and the car rockets forward in a frenzy of acceleration and engine noise. An SI-Drive controller giving the driver the choice of three different tunes--Intelligent (I), Sport (S), or Sport Sharp (S#)--is limited to the STI model. Along with that level of control come stiffer springs, bushings, and stabilizer bars.
A center console switch offers no fewer than six settings to control the lockup behavior of the central differential, and a Super Sport ABS system controls each rear wheel individual to reduce understeer. There's even a "traction" mode in the stability control system, really only meant for track use, that brakes for stability but doesn't cut the throttle at the same time (the system can also be turned off entirely). Larger Brembo performance brakes haul everything down to normal speeds again.
The simpler WRX has fewer of these systems, but is still just as fun to drive--and perhaps easier for mere mortals. With experience, drivers know to blip the throttle while braking, drop a gear, and simply accelerate out of the turn with all four wheels pulling you forward. You can even learn how to make the car induce a little four-wheel slide, very neutral and easily controlled. Both the STI and WRX ride surprisingly well, soaking up ruts, potholes, and other bumps with confidence. And despite their power, the cabin is remarkably quiet inside, though Subaru's traditional weak spot--side mirror noise--is present.
The racing-style bucket seats hold the driver and front passenger firmly in place, but the fixed headrests project forward at an uncomfortable angle.The STI models get fancier black Alcantara trim and upholstery with red stitching, front and rear, though the rear seats remain the standard-issue item from the regular Impreza. Rear-seat space is remarkable for a compact car, with oceans of headroom even for those with tall torsos. From behind the wheel, the instruments are clear--dominated by the central tachometer--and thankfully are for adults, without boy-racer graphics or odd background lighting.
Years ago, the Subaru STI was an economy car with a remarkable engine, all-wheel drive, and handling. Its interior was basic, and it was meant for serious drivers who could put up with some crudeness and a lack of features. Today, WRX buyers would like some of the STI's features, and STI buyers may be eying BMWs or even Porsches in comparison. So Subaru has added options like leather upholstery and a moonroof, satellite radio, and other quasi-luxury features. Increasingly, these set it apart from its arch-rival, the Mitsubishi Ralliart and Evolution models.