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Subaru WRX STI 320R review (2011 onwards)
What is it?
The launch of any new generation Subaru Impreza is just a starting point. If there's one thing we've learned over more than two decades in the company of these turbo-boosted rally replicas with their grumbling exhausts, it's that there's always room for a quicker version.
Like most manufacturers with product planning departments in full possession of their mental faculties (take note Lotus), Subaru likes to unleash its new hardcore Imprezas at carefully spaced intervals. That way it keeps buyer interest high and fans hooked. The WRX STI 320R is the latest of these all-wheel-drive, B-road blasters to hit the streets and it's tuned to deliver a not inconsequential 316hp.
The 320R comes at a time when Subaru is gearing up for the arrival of an all-new Impreza in 2012 so you could call it a run-out model even though Subaru definitely won't. You'll also notice that, like the standard WRX STI these days, it drops the Impreza name completely.
It's not the quickest of the current generation Imprezas we've seen (that honour goes to the Cosworth-tuned STI CS400 - a 400bhp physics lesson) but it does pump out 20hp more than the WRX STI and satellite navigation is included. Better still, the special edition 320R is the same money as the WRX STI - that's £32,995 in case you're wondering.
Where does it fit?
For years, successive generations of the Subaru Impreza were locked in mortal combat with one arch rival and the rest of the market largely left them to it. Those were the good old days when you could imagine a Subaru Tecnica International (Subaru's motorsport and performance arm) headquarters where the words 'Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution' prompted everyone in earshot to spit disdainfully at the floor.
Unfortunately, the epic tussle between the Impreza and the Mitsubishi Evo isn't as ferocious as it once was. That's partly because the two turbocharged, all-wheel-drive Japanese rally wannabes have diverged slightly. The Mitsubishi Evo X went all high-tech with top models creeping close to the 400hp and £40,000 barriers. At around the same time, the Impreza changed from a saloon to a hatchback.
The motivation for launching the third generation Impreza only as a hatch in 2007 was to sell more ordinary 1.5 and 2.0-litre models to people who would otherwise have considered a Ford Focus or a Vauxhall Astra. It sounds sensible enough but it looked like the end of an era for the power-packed STI performance models which had always been compact saloons, or occasionally estates.
The move also opened hostilities between the WRX STI and the other hot hatches in the £30,000 ballpark. The inevitable comparisons between the quickest Imprezas and top performance hatchbacks like the Ford Focus RS, the Volkswagen Golf R and the Renaultsport Megane 250 tended to highlight quality and design shortcomings in the rough and ready Subaru.
Happily, The Imreza was plugged back into its traditional market niche in 2010 when the four-door version was brought to the UK market. The STI works best as a four-door because there's little else like it and it's the STI 320R saloon model we're testing here.
Is it for you?
The WRX STI is a serious piece of performance car kit. The 2.5-litre turbocharged boxer engine sends its power to all four wheels via Subaru's Permanent Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system with front, rear and centre differentials. Topping things off are the hardcore 'spec. C' suspension package, tuned to optimise handling and tighten body control, and the Brembo braking system with its huge ventilated discs.
Drivers can choose from a whole raft of settings for the STI's centre differential, the VDC stability control system and the engine mapping - adjusting the car to their preferences via the Si-drive control console behind the gear lever.
The STI 320R version uses the same set-up but with an engine upgrade pack that takes power to 316hp and torque to 332lb ft at 3,400rpm (the standard STI has 296hp and 300lb ft at 4,000rpm). It also adds a Pioneer satellite navigation and stereo system to a standard spec that includes keyless entry, leather Recaro seats, cruise and climate control.
What does it do well?
The STI 320R has the basics of a great driver's car nailed down. There's a raw mechanical feel to its controls that makes drivers want to throw it around a bit and suggests that the car would quite like that too. The steering is light at low speeds and lacking in feel but gains weight in corners to inspire extra confidence. The wide alloy pedals are perfectly spaced and while you couldn't call the manual gearbox slick, it does snicks between ratios like it means business.
After reading the spec of the advanced all-wheel-drive system it's no surprise that the Impreza has an abundance of grip and no problem at all in the traction department. You can get on the gas early in the corner and employ those 316 horses to slingshot you out again. The car remains largely unfazed whether the road is wet or dry.
In a straight line it feels quick and then some, a 0-62mph time of 4.9s pretty much saying it all. The engine really starts to motor at around 3,000rpm and, although there's something of a lull before that, the 2.5-litre unit doesn't have the same turbo lag issues that affected powerful Imprezas of old.
What doesn't it do well?
For all the enjoyment you get at the wheel of the STI 320R on the right road, it's still lacking sophistication in lots of areas. Some people will get a kick from its back to basics charm but it's more difficult to do so with full knowledge of the other performance cars you could acquire with a £33,000 budget.
Despite the Recaro seats, the Pioneer stereo and the STI badges scattered about the place, the cabin feels very low rent. Too many of the plastics are too cheap, the doors close with an uninspiring clang and things don't work with the well-damped ease that they should in a car at this price point.
What's it like to live with?
It's important not to confuse the poor quality materials in the STI 320R with fragility or poor engineering. The Impreza, along with other Subaru models has a superb reliability reputation and even the interior looks like it will still be in one piece when the insides of some glossier rivals are showing their age.
There's a lot of space inside the car. The saloon model might forgo some of the practicality of the hatchback but there's still lots of rear legroom and a useful boot. You won't fit four adults in many family hatchbacks as easily as you will in the Impreza.
On the road, the ride is firm and there's a fair bit of wind noise at motorway speeds but the droning exhaust note that used to make long trips in old Imprezas a real hardship has been toned down a bit.
How green is it?
Running costs for the WRX STI are fairly high with the official combined cycle economy at 27.4mpg and CO2 emissions of 243g/km. There are no stop/start or brake energy regeneration systems on the Impreza.
Would we buy it?
The Subaru WRX STI 320R is a mechanically excellent car that just lacks the final few layers of polish that are required at this price point. It's extremely fast, driver-friendly and capable in the full range of weather conditions and as enjoyable as anything on typical bumpy British B-roads.
The fourth generation Impreza is due in 2012 and it's clear where the improvements need to be made. A more upmarket cabin with a higher quality feel would really set Subaru's finest up for success. Whether they can manage it is a different story. Maybe fans will settle for them keeping faith with the saloon version.
Gallery: Subaru WRX STI 320R
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