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May 3, 2012

Review: 2012 Subaru Impreza WRX STI A-Line

Photos by Ulysses Ang
Rally-derived sports sedans such as the Subaru WRX STI certainly appeals to a lot of buyers. After all, what’s not to like about its bodacious good looks, powerful turbocharged engine and all-weather security courtesy of an advanced all-wheel drive. However, even if you can afford one, since it’s only available with a manual transmission, it takes a select few—the purist—to truly appreciate a beast such as this. Fortunately for the rest of the populace, thanks to the increasing trend towards automated gearboxes on high-performance machines, Subaru is now offering an automatic transmission option on its WRX STI for the very first time and it’s called the WRX STI A-Line.

From the outside, there’s absolutely no way to distinguish between the manual and automatic transmission variants of the WRX STI. Both the self- and automated-shifting models carry its rally-bred heritage on its shoulder with the wide body design, copious amount of air vents, high-luster alloy wheels and of course, a large rear wing. Thus, Motor Image Pilipinas, the distributor of Subaru automobiles in the country, has taken upon themselves to offer one big differentiating factor: the six-speed manual is only available as a sedan while the automatic is exclusively a five-door hatchback.

Personally, Subaru has made a great move by differentiating the models based on body style. The sedan and its exaggerated trunk-mounted wing is synonymous with Subaru’s rally heritage and should appeal more to the hardcore tuner crowd who’ll transform their machines into a 500-horsepower monster in no time. On the other hand, the A-Line and its much more subtle hatchback profile is best reserved for those who’ll probably use it as a daily driver. Their list of upgrades will probably be limited to a set of more aggressive rims and a free-flowing exhaust.

Much like the exterior, not much differentiates the manual and automatic transmission variants of the WRX STI. The black-on-black scheme with the wing-shaped gunmetal gray accent is still there as are racy-type front bucket seats, thick three-spoke steering wheel and sadly, the scratch-prone plastics. That said, the interior fairs pretty well in both ergonomics and available space for four passengers (five may be a bit of a squeeze). For the 2012 model year, the WRX STI gets power adjustments for the front occupants (formerly exclusive to the A-Line) as well as a USB input for your Apple iPod or other portable media device.

Though the WRX STI now offers ample audio entertainment, the best aural delight it serves actually comes from under the hood: the 2.5-liter EJ25 boxer four with 300 horsepower. It’s interesting to note though that mated to the five-speed automatic, the engine actually produces less torque (350 Nm versus 407 Nm) than the manual; though the automatic benefits from a flatter torque band delivering maximum output from as low as 3,000 rpm all the way to 6,000 rpm. Turning the ignition, the trademark flat-four lets out a deep burble, hinting at the car’s extreme performance. As the revs climb up, the sound just keeps getting better. It’s the sort of engine note that will terry kids but enthusiasts and horsepower junkies will love.

Swapping the trusty 6-speed manual for an electronically controlled 5-speed automatic may seem like a recipe for disaster when applied on the WRX STI, but it actually works quite well. Being a conventional automatic, the shifts aren’t as quick and crisp as a dual-clutch system but the gear engagement is actually precise enough though there’s noticeable hesitation to shift especially if the Subaru SI-Drive is left in Intelligent or ‘I’ mode. There’s also some turbo lag, but if you keep the revs high enough or do the shifting yourself using the paddle shifters, the A-Line is a formidable driving machine. And since you don’t have to do a foot ballet with three pedals, it’s actually easier to concentrate especially when negotiating mountainous roads.

Although the WRX STI is proud to show off its rally car heritage, Subaru has actually done some, compromises to make this car much more hospitable for everyday use. Though you still can’t quite equate the ride of the WRX STI to say, the run-of-the-mill Impreza RS, it’s actually quite bearable for everyday use. The WRX STI soaks up road imperfections to a point. It does the heavy stuff well enough such as humps and small concrete craters, but when it comes to the smaller stuff like cat’s eyes or concrete junctions, the entire cabin will be jarred about.

The steering itself is nicely balanced too, providing good and precise inputs. However, the steering effort itself is on the hefty side plus the widened track and larger tires creates a larger turning radius than what you’d expect from a car of this size. The brakes require much more pedal effort because of the large, multi-piston Brembo calipers, but once you’re used to it, it provides great stopping power.

When equipped with an automatic transmission, the WRX STI loses the fancy Driver’s Control Center Differential or DCCD. Nonetheless thanks to Variable Torque Distribution or VTD, the WRX STI A-Line does split the torque between the front and rear wheels at a 45/55 split. It can then vary the power delivery automatically when the car detects an impending slippage.

Coupled with the VTD is the WRX STI’s Subaru Intelligent Drive or SI-Drive. Most of the time, you’ll probably leave things in its default ‘Intelligent’ mode. However, if you need sharper responses (at the expense of fuel economy), you can change the throttle mapping to ‘Sport’ which maximizes the turbo’s response. Meanwhile the ‘Sport Sharp’ gives the most direct throttle response and precise engine rev control across the entire rpm range. A weekend drive in the STI returned an amazing 6.53 km/L in purely city driving.

Subaru’s move to add an automatic transmission to its WRX STI may seem sacrilegious—an impure addition to the otherwise haloed line-up. Still, they’re on to something with the introduction of the A-Line. There are certainly some enthusiasts out there who want to own a piece of top-notch Subaru technology but can’t drive a manual. There are some too, who’ve always wanted to drive a WRX STI as a daily driver but can’t bear with a manual thanks to Manila’s horrendous traffic. But whatever the reason you’ll use to get one, the Subaru WRX STI A-Line is one magical piece of engineering—sophisticated, capable and sporty, every bit as you’d come to expect from Subaru’s top-tier STI division.

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