Since the 1980’s, Subaru has been a dominant force in the sport of rally. The company has built some of the most iconic rally cars of all time. While Subaru has used multiple models from their range of cars, the most recognizable and successful has been the Impreza. In the 90’s, Subaru began seeing huge success with drivers such as Colin McRae, Kenneth Eriksson and Richard Burns. As they transitioned into the 2000’s, the success continued with Richard Burns and Petter Solberg both winning World Rally Championships in the Impreza.
Starting in 1990, Subaru began working in conjunction with STI (Subaru Tecnica International) to create a handful of limited edition cars available for sale to the public. These are normally enhanced versions of their everyday production cars. One of enhanced cars that has become a mainstay for Subaru of America, is the WRX STI. Introduced to North American market in 2004, the STI has vastly grown in popularity and become the Subaru of choice for the rally, tuner and performance communities. When DirtFish was founded in 2010, we chose the STI, because of the fact that it was essentially a turnkey rally car right out of the factory. For everything we teach here, there are very few modifications required to make them work properly.
Since 2010, we have used nearly every generation of Impreza for our driving programs and competition rally cars. We began with a small group of GC chassis that were built by the infamous Prodrive. We then added a collection of “Hawkeye” WRX STIs (GD chassis) to the fleet that were built by Vermont SportsCar and were once used as Subaru Rally Team USA competition cars. After establishing a solid foundation of cars, we began to fortify the fleet by adding the latest WRX STI hatchbacks. This is when we began building, fabricating and modifying all of our cars in-house. Now, every single Subaru that we acquire is sent through our shop where they are converted from the cars you see on the road everyday into the purpose-built rally machines we use for our customers and rally team.
Thanks to Subaru of America, we have acquired three of the latest generation of Subaru WRX STI sedans, in the last year. The first one our shop got our hands on was converted into a full-on rally-prepped car that fit the specifications to compete in stage rallies across the United States and Canada (click here to read about that car). The following new car was chosen to be the first VA chassis added to our fleet of Subaru STI school cars. The process to prepare our school cars isn’t nearly as rigorous as one of the competition stage rally cars. Our shop installs a rollcage, upgraded the suspension (find out why we upgrade the suspension here), forged engine internals, underbody protection, a hydraulic handbrake and a multitude of safety equipment.
What I really wanted to find out, is how the two generations compared while being pushed hard on gravel.
To find out the answer to that question, I took our most recently converted hatchback and our newest 2016 WRX STI for a drive on the same course here at DirtFish. I again roped in DirtFish Motorsports Team Manager, Michelle Miller, to give me a second opinion on how the two cars stood up against each other. Having her point of view to compare against mine turned out to be extremely beneficial and the results were surprising! Just as I previously stated in the article about the Importance of a Proper Suspension Setup, Michelle and I have very different driving styles that caused us to have opposing opinions about the two cars.
Since Michelle and I have both instructed here at DirtFish, we both have been behind the wheel of the hatchbacks a lot and have had the chance to get to know them pretty well. With that being said, we should be able to instantly feel the difference between that and the new car.
The hatchbacks have worked very well for us over the years. They have proven to be the right tool for the job when it comes to successfully teaching our students the proper rally and car control techniques to make each of them a better driver. Not only that, but they have been able to take the beating that we put our cars through on a daily basis. This is a testament to the engineering and technology that Subaru has put into their cars over the years, while being one of the fastest growing automotive manufacturers in the world.
Similar to our previous suspension comparison, we chose a course that would be a good controlled environment for us to get a feel for both cars. Since the Boneyard was occupied by a group of students in our Subaru BRZs, we decided to use the W’s: one of our lesser used courses, that is located on the back half of the DirtFish property. Similar to the Boneyard, it is on level grown with a great combination of fast straight-aways, tight corners, long sweepers and even corners that you have the opportunity to link if driven properly.
While Michelle and I have a lot of experience and wheel-time with the previous cars, we don’t have any behind the wheel of the 2016 car in this spec. So, we thought it would be good to start out with the hatchback to get a baseline, plus we wanted an excuse to drive a little more.
We start by accelerating down the first long straightaway shifting up to third before trail braking hard and shifting down to second to setup for a set of three corners (we’ll call them corner 1, 2 and 3 or the W’s). If entered properly, you are able to link the three corners together using momentum from each to rotate the car and get it pointed for the next one (Pendulum/Scandanavian Flick technique). Following those corners, there is a long straightaway with a small crest that leads into a 90° right hander, which is followed immediately by a long 180° left hand turn. This corner is perfect for a little bit of pedal sharing, which allows you to carry the rotation and momentum over the transition to tarmac at the exit of the corner. Over the Tarmac, the course loops back on itself and you head right back down the previous straightaway towards the W’s. Heading into the first of three corners, you’re carrying a good amount of speed in third gear. Trail braking hard gets the car rotated early, which sets you up in the right position to accelerate hard and lift-turn-brake through the next two corners and allows you to get back on the throttle for the final straightaway. Of course all of that depends on me executing each corner properly.
How did the two cars compare on the same course? Well, this is where mine and Michelle’s different driving styles and preferences come into play. That being said, we could both feel an immediate difference between the two cars.
Both cars are very good cars for rally and have some obvious rally pedigree. The way they look, the way they handle and the acceleration, have all been developed from the numerous years of Subaru dominating the sport of rally around the world. The hatchback body style was the final iteration that competed in the WRC before Subaru ended its tenure in the series.
When it came to driving the hatchback, it felt easy to drive – it was predictable, it had great driver feedback and felt very nimble for a car that weighs in at 3,400 pounds (1,542kg). To me, the car felt like it required a lot of work to control and keep it on the intended line through the corners. For example, linking corners 1, 2 and 3 was a lot of work for me with a lot of steering input and manipulation of the brake/throttle to keep the car going in the right direction. Michelle had a different opinion saying, “very little work was needed to place the nose of the car right along the stack of tires on the apex of each corner.” Where I thought this car shined was during high-speed corner entry when I have to use an aggressive trail brake on. I could really feel the weight of the car on the front tires as I was turning into the corner, allowing me to modulate the brake to adjust the rotation of the car more accurately for the faster corners. To me, it felt like bumps and elevation changes upset this car quite a bit. The back end was thrown around a lot and every bump was felt through the steering wheel, forcing me to work more to stay on my intended line. However, thanks to Michelle’s different driving style she thinks, “the brakes and power delivery were consistent and required less work to place the car where she wanted it,” and finished by saying, “It is very fun to drive and I felt that I could be consistently fast, confident and comfortable.”
Speaking of comfortable – that is what I immediately felt when I stepped into our 2016 Subaru STI. While the car looks much bigger than the previous model, once I began driving it didn’t feel like there was a size difference at all. As soon as I began driving it like a rally car, it felt like it got even more compact. I have had the opportunity to drive one or two of the STI’s smaller competitors and I have to say, this felt nearly as small and light as one of those. This was the first thing that shocked me about the car. However, that was another aspect that Michelle and I had opposing feeling about. She thought it felt longer and heavier, and was lacking the same nimble sensation she had received in the hatchback.
Heading into the first three turns, I was immediately able to hit my mark on each one of them, putting the nose right where I wanted it and clipping the apex. This allowed me to get back into the throttle much sooner and accelerate towards the next corner, then easily hit my mark on that one. Linking together corners 1, 2 and 3 felt so simple and my exit speed felt faster than it did with the hatchback. Another aspect that was very noticeable for me, was how light the back end of the car felt. When trail braking on a fast straightaway into a 90 degree corner, I was able to rotate the backend more easily allowing me to point the car where I wanted to go early, then ease back into the throttle. I was extremely impressed with how much more consistently I was hitting my intended line through each of the corners with the new car. Even on throttle powering down the bumpy straightaways, the rear end was planted and stable. It wasn’t upset much by potholes, acceleration bumps or small crests, all of which would normally resonate from one tire through the entire car.
I forced myself to wait until I had finished driving the two cars before I looked up the stats for each. While the new car looks much larger, the wheelbase is only one inch longer than the previous generation and the track width is identical with 60.2” in the front and 60.6” in the rear. When it comes to weight, the 2016 is nearly identical with the hatchback weighing in nine pounds more. One aspect that Subaru and STI pride themselves on is the stiffness of the chassis on the latest generation, which on a paved road translates to a slightly higher cornering speed and better feeling for the driver. Even with all of that, the engine, transmission and drivetrain are essentially the same.
All of the above does not mean that the new car is worlds better than the previous generation. As I mentioned before, it might cater more to my driving style than the hatchback. Michelle basically had that same feeling about the hatchback as I did about the 2016. Don’t get me wrong, I still love driving the hatchback. But, I do prefer the latest generation of Subaru WRX STI when it comes to rally. I mean, let’s be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad time driving a rally car, sometimes it’s just a little more enjoyable depending on what you’re driving.
Want to get behind the wheel of either one of these cars? Click here to take a look at our Driving Programs.
Article by: Trevor Wert (DirtFish)
Photos by: Justin Fitch (DirtFish)