Payne: Subaru Impreza Jekyll vs. STI Hyde

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

All cars come with WARNING stickers cautioning front-seat passengers about the dangers of air bags.

I’m thinking four-door sport sedans should have rear-seat WARNING labels, too. Then, when drivers are seized by their inner street-racer, they’d see something like: WARNING: THIS CAR MAY MAKE SUDDEN, VIOLENT, HIGH-G TURNS THAT COULD RESULT IN DIZZINESS, NECK SPRAINS OR KNOCKED NOGGINS.

I had such a moment recently in a 2016 Subaru WRX STI with my teenage nephew riding astern. I took a 90-degree right-hander off Telegraph Road like Turn 6 at Waterford Raceway and my cousin’s head thumped — WHACK! — the door window. He’s a good, hard-headed Payne male, so no harm done, but you get my point: He should have been warned.

After all, if you’re riding shotgun in, say, a $75,000 Corvette, you know violence might ensue at any moment. The thing looks like a Ferrari, sounds like the Kraken, and has two “OH, CRAP!” handles within easy reach. But how’s a compact sedan passenger in the back seat supposed to know?

Such are the risks of today’s most capable, under-$40,000 machines: VW Golf R, Ford Focus RS, and Subaru STI.

Yes, Subaru.

The STI is the unlikely, evil twin of arguably the nicest, most capable auto bargain on the lot, the Subaru Impreza. So adorable is Subaru that its ads talk incessantly about “love.” At an affordable $19,090, the Impreza is the only all-wheel-drive compact on the market. I particularly like the utilitarian, five-door Sport hatchback ( my wife loves hers) which starts at $23,990 — or half the price of a similarly-sized AWD Audi A4 All-Road. Half.

The Subaru ain’t bad looking, either. In 2012 Impreza received an extreme makeover to match its winsome personality. Raked headlights, trapezoidal grille with chrome winglets, swept-back windshield, athletic stance. No more boxy bods with clown noses that stuck out like pimpled nerds in too-short pants in high school.

The interior is a comfortable office as well — class-competitive rear head and legroom in the wagon, a console with cubbies in all the right places, big fat knobs for easy infotainment/climate navigation.

The Impreza is as handsome and as loyal as Lassie. Its AWD will rescue you in the worst stuff that Old Man Detroit Winter can throw at you. And its consistently-high reliability ratings will keep it out of the auto repair pound ( Consumer Reports loves it).

The all-wheel-drive STI is a whole ’nother breed. It’s the Impreza with rabies. A Rottweiler in a collie suit. A snarling, misbehaving ticket to trouble.

Park the Hyper Blue STI (special ’16 edition) and Quartz Blue Pearl Impreza next to one another and they look as opposite as Schwarzenegger and DeVito in “Twins.” The STI doesn’t hide its aggressive intentions, featuring a big hood scoop and rear wing that looks like it was taken off Baron von Richthofen’s WW I triplane.

Slip into the familiar interior and the instruments’ blazing red graphics — like glowing wolf eyes — alert you that something is different. The bolstered seats grip like go-kart buckets, warning of the capabilities to come.

Driving the Impreza hatchback is like driving your washing machine — the 2.0-liter, 148-horse engine mated to a droning, automatic CVT transmission that methodically takes you on your way: START, WASH, RINSE, ARRIVE. The blown, 2.5-liter STI boxer mill more than doubles the Impreza’s output — to an Audi S4-challenging 305 ponies — and is controlled by a firm, 6-speed manual box that begs to be rowed.

Impreza is hardly a boat, but it’s a ’95 Buick Roadmaster compared with the STI’s washboard-hard suspension. When the STI debuted a couple of years back I rung its neck around Laguna Seca raceway, posting times that would make many sports cars blush. Its power and torque-vectoring AWD make it a sensational weekend track warrior. You might want to check house listings next to Waterford.

On road, though, it’s like a piranha in a goldfish bowl — it never seems happy unless it’s devouring other fish. Stomp the gas, bury the bravo Brembo brakes, throw it through corners (sorry, nephew), and STI pleases. But grunt around town and it’s loud and uncomfortable.

The 2016 Impreza and STI are built for different folks. And they are taking their last bows.

At last fall’s Los Angeles Auto Show Subaru showed Impreza 5.0 due later this year. The exterior was nicely evolved — crisp lines, tidy fascia — but the biggest change is within, where Subaru promises a quieter ride on an all-new, stronger global platform. This will benefit STI as well as it pales in daily drivability next to same-priced peers such as the Focus RS and Golf R. We can’t be boy racers all the time.

But when we are, my nephew would appreciate that WARNING sign in the back seat.

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

2016 Subaru Impreza


Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger hatchback

Price: $19,090 base ($26,682 Sport Hatchback as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, Boxer 4-cylinder

Power: 148 horsepower, 145 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 5-speed manual, CVT

Performance: Zero-60: 9.0 seconds (CVT, Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,131 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 28 mpg city/37 mpg highway/31 combined

Report card

Highs: All-wheel-drive; Roomy hatch

Lows: Droning CVT


2016 Subaru WRX STI


Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport sedan

Price: $35,290 base ($39,790 HyperBlue Series as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter, Boxer 4-cylinder

Power: 305 horsepower, 290 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: Zero-60: 4.8 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,411 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/23 mpg highway/19 combined

Report card

Highs: Great seats; Torque-vectoring terror

Lows: Harsh ride; Pricey next to more refined competitors