Evolution of the Subaru STI

Article by Brendan McAleer. Photos courtesy of Subaru, and by Brendan McAleer

With Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution on its way out and no clear replacement in sight, it's time to call time on one of the fiercest rivalries on the road. The Camaro has the Mustang. The F-150 has the Silverado. The Mitsu Evo has the Subaru STI.

With Canada's relatively open grey market rules, these days you can find nearly all generations of the STI roving our highways, and boy do we love 'em. All-wheel drive and the ability to snort up the boost and throw four streaming roostertails of snow? Pretty flippin' sweet there, bud.

The three-letter acronym stands for Subaru Tecnica International, Subaru's in-house skunkworks that takes the already-potent WRX and pushes it over the top. Whether you find them ripping up the tarmac at an autocross event or tackling the gravel with big lights and armour-plated undercarriages, the STI is a do-anything, go-anywhere, all-weather rally-rocket. Here's a history of the breed.

1993 Impreza 555 Rally Car

As far as fans of the STI are concerned, the story begins with Colin McRae, air-borne over a hump in the road and streaming gravel out behind him like a comet. The triple-5 car would be both hero car and forbidden fruit to Canadian rally fans. Prepared by racing specialists Prodrive, this 300 hp Group A rally car thrilled audiences. Scottish driver McRae was perhaps less precise than his Finnish rivals, but his seat-of-the-pants style earned him a huge fanbase.

Subaru's rally-racing exploits predate the Impreza, and in fact there were a number of lessons learned when fielding the original Legacy rallying cars. However, as far as fans of the STI are concerned, the story begins with Colin McRae, airborne over a hump in the road and gravel streaming out behind him like a comet.

The triple-5 car would be both hero car and forbidden fruit to Canadian rally fans. Prepared by racing specialists Prodrive, this 300-hp Group A rally car thrilled audiences. Scottish driver McRae was perhaps less precise than his Finnish rivals, but his seat-of-the-pants style earned him a huge fanbase.

1994 Subaru STI V1

The very first STI models were created by pulling existing WRXs off the assembly line and strengthening their mechanicals. Special, hardcore models of the WRX had existed right from 1992, but the first proper STIs had further upgrades. Version 1 cars saw front strut tower bars made of carbonfibre, forged pistons, and better intercooling. The 2.0L flat-four powerplant made 250 hp in JDM trim, thanks to their readily available high-octane fuel.

The very first STI models were created by pulling existing WRXs off the assembly line and strengthening their mechanicals. Special, hardcore models of the WRX had existed right from 1992, but the first proper STIs had further upgrades.

Version 1 cars saw forged pistons, better intercooling, and front strut tower bars made of carbon fibre. The 2.0L flat-four powerplant made 250 hp in JDM trim, thanks to their readily available high-octane fuel. Along with Japan, Great Britain and Australia became the natural habitats of the STI, where they were available in both sedan and wagon versions.

1998 Subaru STI 22B

For most Subaru fans, this is the Holy Grail of cars, the one that makes folks stop in their tracks with a shout of, “Sweet mother of rally blue pearl!”

For most Subaru fans, this is the Holy Grail of cars, the one that makes folks stop in their tracks with a shout of, “Sweet mother of Rally Blue Pearl!”

It's not so much a homologation special as it is a party car – the 22B's production date marked both Subaru's 40th year as a manufacturer and celebrated a triple-win of the World Rally Championship by McRae.

Under its broadly flared body is a stroked-out 2.2L flat-four making 276 hp; it's less laggy than other JDM turbo-Subarus, with excellent torque response. Just 400 of these cars were initially built for the Japanese home market, with a further 24 added later – the initial run was offered online and sold out in under half an hour.

2001 “New-Age” STI

We know it better as the “Bugeye,” the goggle-headlighted machine that replaced the original Impreza with a larger, more comfortable driving experience. The looks were perhaps something to become accustomed to; the performance was still right there.

We know it better as the “Bugeye,” the goggle-headlighted machine that replaced the original Impreza with a larger, more comfortable driving experience. The looks were perhaps something to become accustomed to; the performance was still right there.

While Canadians would finally see the regular WRX arriving as a 2002 model, full-fat STI versions could once again be found overseas. With a larger hood scoop, enormous rear wing, and high-revving 2.0L engine, the STI hovered right at the limit of Japan's unofficial production horsepower limit of 276 hp.

Oh course, this STI – like all of the breed – was infinitely tunable, and there were soon many of them running around making huge power. Some Canadians outfitted their WRXs with STI bolt-ons, but we wouldn't get one from the factory for a few years.

2004 North American-spec STI

Pity anyone who bought a 2003 WRX new and tried to turn it into an STI: just one year later Subaru came out with a fully-fledged STI for our shores. Fitted with a turbocharged 2.5L motor, our version of the STI was a torque monster, and had better differentials, forged BBS wheels, a stout six-speed manual transmission, and a unique interior.

Pity anyone who bought a 2003 WRX new and tried to turn it into an STI: just one year later Subaru came out with a fully fledged factory STI for our shores. Fitted with a turbocharged 2.5L motor, our version of the STI was a torque monster, and had better differentials, forged BBS wheels, a stout six-speed manual transmission, and a unique interior.

2004 models made a proper 300 hp and were perfectly capable of putting the boots to much more powerful machinery. Suddenly, the best that BMW and Audi could offer had their hands full trying to keep that big rear wing in sight.

It was all very tempting. Too tempting, in fact, as the 2004 STI's lack of a passive immobilizer landed it on the most-stolen list for years.

2008 STI hatchback

The interior was now a more grown-up mix of dark Alcantara and minimal accents, and everything felt more substantial. The exterior, though, that was still proper STI, with huge flares to cover the wide BBS wheels.

After four fan-pleasing years as a fast, raw sedan, the 2008 version of the STI came as a surprise. For one thing, it was only available as a hatchback, and for another, it was a little bit softer than before.

The interior was now a more grown-up mix of dark Alcantara and minimal accents, and everything felt more substantial. The exterior, though, that was still proper STI, with huge flares to cover the wide BBS wheels.

Subaru would eventually respond to the fans and bring this generation of STI out in a sedan version. As the years went by, they'd also fiddle with suspension tuning, to the point where the last of the breed finally had all the poise and power of the original.

2015 STI Sedan

The new STI drives with the precision and agility of a Lancer Evolution. Its once-sloppy steering and gravel-tuned suspension are gone in favour of a more tarmac-focused experience. It’s a very different feeling than the original cars offered, but then drive it in the wet and that same ol’ STI charm shows up. A bit of a four-door hooligan, this car, but lovable as a Labrador Retriever.

It has no more power than the previous-generation cars – there's still a 2.5L turbocharged four-cylinder under that hood scoop, one making 305 hp at 6,000 rpm. The looks haven't changed all that much either, and the new STI is a far cry from the wild, coupe-styled concept shown at various auto shows before this latest generation's release.

But the chassis – now there's the big change with the new STI. Stiffer than ever and with a suspension tuned for driver confidence, it's an extremely fast car. The speed doesn't come from brutish power underhood – if anything, this car proves that Subaru picked up a few tricks from their old sparring partner, Mitsubishi.

The new STI drives with the precision and agility of a Lancer Evolution. Its once-sloppy steering and gravel-tuned suspension are gone in favour of a more tarmac-focused experience. It's a very different feeling than the original cars offered, but then drive it in the wet and that same ol' STI charm shows up. A bit of a four-door hooligan, this car, but lovable as a Labrador Retriever.

Coming up on a nearly a quarter century of Subaru's rally-bred rocketship.