February 27, 2014 at 1:00 am

2015 Subaru WRX STI: Wild thing

WRX STI leaves preconceptions about Subaru in dust

Zero to 60: The Subaru WRX STI
Zero to 60: The Subaru WRX STI: Detroit News Auto Critic Henry Payne takes a lap at Laguna Seca in the Subaru WRX STI.

You know the Subarus. The sensible Japanese clan of safe, reliable, all-wheel-drive vehicles like the Forester and Impreza that nature lovers drive through burbling streams for picturesque views of Lake Michigan. But like many perfectly stable families, Subaru has a wild child. Chrysler fathered the Viper. Chevy the Corvette. VW the Golf R. Subaru has the WRX STI.

This turbocharged, turf-gnawing, all-wheel-drive hellion with flashy wing bling is the terror of the weekend track crowd. I for one am sick of seeing STIs in the mirror of my dynamite, 330 horsepower, 8,000-rpm, straight-six E46 BMW M3 at Pontiac’s Waterford race track on public track days. They eat me alive. So when Subaru offered a new 2015 STI carnivore for a test-drive at California’s famed Laguna Seca racetrack, I jumped at the chance.

First, a briefing on Subaru’s family tree. Late last century, Subaru’s marketing team decided its granola brand needed some performance cred. The idea sprang from their heads like a pair of devil’s horns. Subie tackled the World Rally Championship, the most demanding sedan test in all racedom — and one that perfectly suited the brand’s AWD architecture. To win the WRC, the WRX was born.

Based on Subaru’s popular compact $19,000 Impreza AWD sedan, the base $27,000 WRX is plenty of sport sedan. Subie engineers outfitted the Impreza’s reliable four-cylinder, 148 horsepower BOXER engine with a turbo, turning up the wick to 268 horsepower. But for another 5 grand, the 2.5-liter STI is the real deal.

Fans from everywhere

This 305-horsepower band saw is the Tasmanian devil of sports sedans. Its flanks bulge with wheel flares. Its hood scoop gulps air for the hungry turbo intercooler within. Its huge functional rear wing dominates the rear end like a scorpion’s tail. The STI screams rally racer. It practically reeks with musk.

And it attracts motorheads from miles around.

At the staging lot for our California testing, STI-philes appeared from nowhere. “These test STIs have the short-throw gearboxes, don’t they?” said one fan swarming our vehicle. How did he know that?

Serious grip

The STI gains its cult status honestly. This car is epic.

It begins with the AWD system that vaulted the STI to three straight World Rally Championships from 1995-98 and first-in-class in the 2011-12 Nurburgring 24-hour. Subaru calls it Multi-Mode Vehicle Dynamics Control stability and traction control system. You can just call it serious grip. With electronic sensors constantly adjusting steering angle, throttle position, rpm, lateral-g, yaw, ABS and wheel speed, the STI corners on rails. No wonder my mere rear-wheel-drive M3 is on its lunch menu.

For the 2015 model, Subaru’s engineers have added Active Torque Vectoring, which applies brake pressure to the inside front wheel to facilitate more neutral cornering, thus erasing the inherent cornering push of AWD systems. The result is .98 g skid pad cornering that nearly matches the ferocious Porsche 911’s 1.0 g. With concentrated use of high-strength steel and structural reinforcement at the A pillars, the 2015 STI boasts a 40 percent increase in torsional rigidity over the last generation. That translates into less body roll than M3s and Porsche Caymans that cost $20,000 more.

Performance plus

On track, I could rotate the 3,444-pound sedan into Laguna Seca’s fast roller-coaster turns with nary a hint of front-end push. Only in the track’s slowest corner, the hairpin Turn 11, would the car push, a condition soon remedied by my size-15 right foot feeding all four wheels more power.

The best-in-class 305 horsepower (class? Only the VW Golf R is a worthy competitor) comes without compromise — look ma, no turbo lag — so that you can mash the pedal with abandon. Even turbocharged four-bangers lack low-end torque, however, so I navigated the track using only gears 2-4 in order to maximize rpms between 3,000 and the 6,700 redline. The STI was as happy as a puppy in a Purina bag. Only the aforementioned short-throw shifter disappointed as it often felt vague and rubbery, particularly in second-to-third gear shifts.

How capable is this heat-seeking missile? Pro instructors throw Laguna’s 1,400-pound Skip Barber Formula racers around Laguna in 1 minute, 41 seconds. Veteran sports car pro — and Subaru test jockey — Bob Bowman ticked off a 1.45 with the STI. After just a half-hour of driving, your club-racer scribe got down to a 1.48. That’s serious swag from a sedan.

I dwell on Laguna specs because you shouldn’t buy a car this capable unless you plan to explore its limits on track ... after you’ve terrorized the neighborhood first, of course.

Rule Woodward’s stoplights with 5.1-second, 0-60 mph launches. Mock Detroit roads with a quick 13:1 turning ratio that transforms potholed asphalt into Olympic slaloms. Laugh at Old Man Winter with snow-shredding AWD and ice-defying ABS-tuned Brembo brakes.

'A raptor's stare'

Inside the STI’s office is the familiar Impreza layout with handy console control knobs and a dash-mounted cowl featuring — not a clock — but a STI-specific turbo-boost monitor. Wild thing, I think I love you. “The money goes into the oily bits,” says Subie communications chief Dominick Infante, explaining why the interior differs little from its much-cheaper sedan sibling.

The STI’s red leather trimmed Alcantara-fabric seats, however, are worth special notice — for what you don’t notice. In a car this violent I emerged from a day on the track — and subsequent 55-mile assault on twisty Carmel Valley Road — with no back or hip discomfort. Even fellow drivers who complained of loose dental fillings after riding the bronco’s stiffened springs complimented the seats.

Further enhancing driving comfort, the STI Limited package comes with a Harman Kardon stereo system, so you can crank up Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as you mercilessly descend on your prey. And the ’Ru entices unsuspecting rear seat passengers by expanding the rear door opening by 6 inches and interior leg room by 2 inches. Rear seat barf bags not included.

Ultimately, though, the STI is about its exterior.

I drove the STI “launch edition” — painted signature STI blue with gold-BBS wheels. Even without this garish wardrobe, the Subie’s Red Baron rear airfoil, hood scoop and narrow headlights — “designed to evoke a raptor’s stare,” to quote STI press materials — advertise the ’Ru as trouble. This is not a subtle car. No quiet, M3-like hood bulges. No artfully flared, Mercedes AMG-like nostrils. The STI comes in full war paint ready for battle.

If that’s your style, the STI is your car. On sale this spring, the Subaru family’s bad seed has accomplished its purpose by winning races — and winning over some of the most demanding car buyers in the business.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. or Twitter @HenryEPayne

2015 Subaru WRX STI / TYLER GOURLEY