Engineers at Subaru’s secretive tuning arm, STi, have a new mission in life.
This review was first published in MOTOR magazine's April 2006 issue.
No longer satisfied with merely producing high-performance Imprezas for the boy racer and rally set, the group has declared its unabashed intentions of making STi as synonymous with Subaru performance as AMG is to Mercedes-Benz, or the M Haus is to BMW.
The news was delivered at the launch of the latest addition to STi’s growing stable, the stove-hot S204. Only 600 sedans will be built, and it’s only likely to be seen in Oz as a private import.
So how does this new sedan stack up? Is it really – just whisper it – the M3 or the CLK55 AMG of the STi line-up? The answer, sadly, isn’t quite that straightforward… On the twisty, sinuous roads around Tokyo, the S204 is, put simply, sensational. Inheriting a reworked 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder boxer engine from its predecessor, the S203, the car puts out 240kW at 6400rpm, while torque is 432Nm at 4400rpm. The Japanese manufacturer’s gentlemen’s agreement is well and truly dead…
The 0-100km/h sprint is expected to take around 4.5 seconds, and its top speed is given as 250km/h.
From 3000rpm, heartier, heftier mid-range torque means the driver can make far better use of third gear, particularly in long corners, and still have plenty on tap for lightning-fast exits. Push it beyond 6000rpm, and the retuned exhaust note invades the cabin as it takes on a primeval howl. The solid six-speed gearbox has short, responsive throws that reward a smooth hand.
But for a car costing upwards of $54,000 – that’s $17,500 more than a standard Japan-spec STi – you’d hope to have your pants blown off. And while the S204 is quite the weapon out of the blocks, it’s not explosive, and it’s easy to see that the chassis could handle another couple of dozen kilowatts.
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However, there are absolutely no complaints at all about the handling. The newcomer scores a stronger chassis, vastly improved roll rigidity and revised suspension. But it’s the innovative step of fitting what STi calls ‘performance dampers’ to the body structure between the rear strut towers, and between the rearward bushings on the lower control arms at the front, that makes the difference.
Looking for all the world like a regulation rear strut tower brace, a closer look reveals a small hydraulic damper built into the central brace. While a stiffened chassis pays dividends when it comes to making your trick dampers and springs work to the best of their abilities, too much body stiffness can be a bad thing, especially right at the limit.
The hydraulic dampers – a joint project between Yamaha and Subaru – take the sting out of lateral chassis loadings at various frequencies, bracing the chassis for the extra grip of the stock – and sticky – Pirelli P Zero Corsas under high loadings. The performance dampers also help to all but eliminate understeer.
The dampers are more than a one-trick pony; how can a flexible strut brace aid ride AND handling AND dial out understeer? It’s without doubt the best-handling STi so far, helped partly by the grippy tyres, which combine effortlessly with chunky four-piston Brembo brake calipers up front and two-potters out back. But before you leap onto the internet to Google up a pair of Performance Damper braces for your new Rex, you’re out of luck; it’s a S204-specific item only for the foreseeable future. But these parts usually make their way into the STi Sports Parts catalogue.
Inside, though, it’s a different story. The cabin is still based on a stock STi’s, designers adding only two leather Recaro seats – which are too tight across the hips, yet cost $6000… each – and a few extra metres of high-quality leather. Boost gauge? Well, no. Oil pressure or water temperature gauges? Umm, nope.
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As for the exterior, lose the rear wing, S204 badge and the very hot 18-inch BBS alloys, and its secret STi base identity would be revealed for all to see. Yet while work is needed on the aesthetics, nothing comes close, at this price, for sheer performance and cornering potential.
Has STi built a car worthy of tackling the Germans head on? No – but damn, it’s close.
Fast Facts - 2006 Subaru Impreza WRX S204 STi
ENGINE: 2.0-litre, DOHC 16-valve turbocharged flat-four
ON SALE: now (Japan only)