No Fixed Abode: Quo Vadis, STi?
Earlier this week, I fielded a question regarding German hot hatches. A few commenters suggested that I had made a mistake by not recommending the Subaru WRX or STi as an alternative to the Golf R and Focus RS. After all, I’d been perfectly content to recommend a Subaru as an alternative to a Volkswagen just a week before. So why not suggest an STI in place of an RS? Was it the long-dormant Euro-snob in me surfacing unexpectedly, like a Kraken slouching up from dark water to terrify the innocents on shore with its repugnant and vicious countenance? Or had I simply forgotten about the mere existence of the twin turbo compacts?
With regards to the first of these two scenarios, I can only assure the readership I’ve repented of my youthful Euro-snobbery to a degree that would make a post-Room-101 Winston Smith weep over his Victory Gin. With regards to the second scenario, I will only say this: somebody has forgotten about the WRX and STi, and that somebody is the corporate person known as Subaru of America.
Exhibit A, ladies and gentlemen: this highly complex Excel spreadsheet I made a few minutes ago, showing the available horsepower in several different enthusiast-oriented nameplates over the past 16 years. As you can see, the “horsepower war” is real, and it’s spectacular. Unless, that is, you’re a Subaru fan. The WRX is less than 15-percent stronger than it was sixteen years ago. The STi has, for all intents and purposes, the same amount of power it boasted on its debut back in the Bush Administration — although there was a minor change in how SAE measured horsepower a while back, so maybe the current car has 10 more horsepower instead of 5 more. Maybe.
It gets worse, because the WRX is now about 300-pounds heavier than it was in 2001, give or take a couple of pounds depending whether you are comparing the new car to an old sedan or an old wagon. The current STi is about 200-pounds chunkier than the “peanut eye” STi that appeared in 2005. It’s no wonder then that most people seem to think that it’s a little slower than its predecessor. Can you think of another new car that cannot match its decade-old progenitor in a straight line? Maybe the Cruze RS against a Cobalt SS Turbo. Other than that, nothing comes to mind for me.
Twelve years ago, the STi was a legitimate trackday threat that could haunt the mirrors of Porsche and Corvette drivers even before you turned up the boost. Even the base WRX was enough to cause trouble for 2.5-liter Boxsters and such. Nowadays, the WRX is easy meat for family sedans and the STi is a distant memory in the mirrors of sporting vehicles as diverse as the Mustang GT and the Macan Turbo. Forget hassling 911 drivers; nowadays, you’ve got to crank the boost on these cars just to make sure you can drop a Camry V6 in the quarter-mile.
I don’t want to overstate the situation. The base WRX is still good value for money and it’s dirt-cheap to effectively upgrade. The STi is very close to being a performance contemporary of the Focus RS and Golf R and it sells for a similar price. But the days when the little blue sedans punched like heavyweights are long gone. It’s easy to forget that Subaru created a massive enthusiast fan base in just the space of a few years. In 1999, the only “performance” Subaru out there was the tepid 2.5RS and the only people excited about it were the so-called weaboos. By 2005, every autocross and trackday in the country had 10 guys wearing blue windbreakers. Last year, I attended a Global Rallycross event in Washington D.C. and I was nearly trampled by the hundreds of people fighting tooth and nail to get a free Subaru T-shirt being tossed in our general direction.
That kind of insane enthusiasm wasn’t generated by chance or accident. It was the product of good cars that kicked ass and didn’t cost a ton of money. The current cars might retain some of those long-time fans — what else are they gonna buy? An Elantra GT? — but they won’t do much to increase the size of that fan base.
It’s a shame the way Subaru messes around with the hearts of its loyal performance-oriented buyers. The company can and should do better by them. I’ve been told by people who should know that Outbacks and Crosstreks are selling faster than they can be built. That’s good news and I’m happy for Subaru. But that’s no reason to neglect the blue-windbreaker crowd. It’s another case of a marketing department that cannot understand people who are even slightly different from them. Your average STi owner might not be an LGBT assistant professor and he might not buy coffee from a quaint little shop in Williamsburg named after a sans-serif font, but that doesn’t mean his money isn’t real and it doesn’t mean he’s beneath notice as a customer.
This might all be a temporary state of affairs. You can argue Subaru has always focused on Mitsubishi as its competition and it will take it a bit of time to refocus on the Focus RS, Civic Type R, and all the other cheap-speed options out there. I sincerely hope that’s the case. I’d like to see the return of the no-holds-barred, bad-ass blue sedans I admired a decade ago. Let’s all cross our fingers for that. Until then — can I interest you in a CLA45 AMG? No? Where are you going? DON’T WALK AWAY FROM ME!
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