John DiPietro , Automotive Editor
The Subaru Impreza WRX STI has a strong — one might say rather rabid — following. On the order of Celtics and Lakers fans. We have a colleague here who regularly flies the Subaru flag via his WRX T-shirts and baseball caps. And why not? The Subie is a hoot to drive, with plenty of speed and attitude to go 'round.
Still, we've had a long-standing gripe with the STI: When driven hard, it feels rather soft in terms of steering response and body control compared to its archrival, the razor-sharp Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. The upside is that the STI is a better daily driver due to its more compliant ride. That's a considerable advantage for those who live in neighborhoods where road maintenance is about as common as Ron Artest making both free throws.
With the 2010 Subaru WRX STI Special Edition, the company attempts to appease us (OK, not just us) with a unique STI that sports the JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) "Spec C" suspension calibrations and wheel fitments. That translates into crisper response and handling as the SE responds with more immediacy and less body roll when you're slicing up a curvy road. So now the STI handles like it should, right?
Well...almost. Whereas before, the STI ran out of suspension before it ran out of tire grip, now with the Special Edition it's the other way around. But that's nothing that replacing the tires (after you've suitably worn them out) can't fix. Overall, it's an agreeable setup and we'd like to see Subaru put this suspension on the standard STI, and put the standard STI's suspension on the standard WRX.
Another bonus is that this slightly beefed-up but also slightly decontented STI (halogen headlights versus HIDs, a four-speaker/single-CD player versus 10-speaker/CD changer audio system and manual versus automatic climate control) stickers for $2 grand less than the standard STI. That said, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR still has the edge in terms of sharpness and communication, though its ride is notably stiffer. And if blistering acceleration and all-wheel drive are not mandatory, you could save big money by considering the feisty Mazdaspeed 3.
Under the STI SE's scooped hood lies the STI's familiar 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that cranks out 305 horsepower. Though it makes decent power down low, it doesn't hit its stride until about 3,500 rpm, when the turbo really kicks in. The thrust is accompanied by the meaty, somewhat gruff sound of the Subaru's boxer (horizontally opposed piston layout) engine, which brings some welcome character in a world of buzzy inline-4s.
During instrumented testing, this Subie sprinted to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds and ran down the quarter-mile in 13.6 seconds. Respectable times, to be sure, but we've gotten sub-5s out of previously tested STIs. We're guessing the culprit was a stickier track surface this time around that didn't allow any wheelspin off the line (which allows the engine to get up into its power band quicker). The quickness will cost you, as the EPA ratings for this hot rod stand at 17 city/23 highway mpg and 19 mpg combined. We averaged 17.7 mpg in mixed driving.
We found that the six-speed's shifter made it easy to grab gears despite a somewhat notchy feel, and the clutch was a little on the heavy side for a few staffers. But braking was hard to fault, with a firm, progressive pedal and an impressive 106-foot stopping distance from 60 mph.
Taking on a curving canyon road brings out what's most special about the Special Edition. Though a few of us felt that the steering was too light, the rack was precise and its response noticeably crisper compared to a standard STI. Reduced body roll also contributes to the SE's eager feel in the turns. As you'd expect, the ride is firmer, though not uncomfortably so (it's still smoother than an Evo's).
At the track, the 2010 Subaru Impreza WRX STI whipped through the slalom at nearly 70 mph (68.8 to be exact) and pulled 0.93g running 'round the skid pad — both respectable performances. Pushed very hard, the tires will slide, albeit in a linear, controlled fashion that's easy to rein in. Though those Dunlop SP Sport 600 high-performance summer tires should be enough for most folks, hard-core enthusiasts may want to consider switching to stickier performance rubber after they wear out the Sport 600s.
With its efficient three-spoke layout, thick rim and well-placed thumb detents, the steering wheel feels great and its tilt-and-telescoping feature allows drivers of all sizes to find an ideal position at the helm. But despite the front seats' aggressive bolsters, most folks will find that they're too wide to provide that reassuringly snug fit when powering through the turns. The seats are generally comfortable on long cruises, as they provide firm back support; still, a few of us felt that under-thigh support could be beefed up a bit.
In back, ample room and support are provided for two passengers; even 6-footers are comfortably accommodated, thanks to the high roof line. As expected, squeezing in a third could cause grumbling on anything other than a very short trip.
As stated before, the Special Edition's firmer suspension calibrations don't exact much in the way of a ride penalty; the suspension remains supple enough to take the bumps and ruts of pockmarked streets in stride.
The SE's instruments are large and clear, and the primary controls are where you'd expect and intuitive to use. There's the familiar and proven three-knob setup for the climate control, and once you've memorized their locations, the steering-wheel-mounted audio controls allow "no-look" operation of your tunes. There is no dedicated iPod input/interface; however, you can play one through the standard auxiliary jack. Sound quality was so-so at best. When cranked up, it lacked the clarity and punch that we'd expect in a $30,000 car.
There's no denying the versatility of this little hatchback. With the split rear seatbacks up, there's 19 cubic feet available for your stuff — that's nearly as much capacity as a Lincoln Town Car's trunk. If you need more, flipping those seatbacks down opens up 44.4 cubic feet. Stowing a couple of golf bags or a large suitcase back there is a breeze. And thanks to the roomy cabin and tall greenhouse, putting Junior's rear-facing child seat in the backseat won't test your flexibility or your back muscles.
Design/Fit and Finish
Now entering its third year, this generation of the WRX STI has drawn some barbs for its styling. But it's a Subaru, and it's supposed to be quirky, right? The Special Edition has a few features that differentiate it from the standard STI, including a cleaner front fascia (no foglights) and multispoke alloy wheels (borrowed from the "Spec C" variant sold in the homeland).
Inside, it's standard STI fare, with the exception of a few controls (manual climate control instead of automatic). Unfortunately, that also means a few substandard materials, such as the fuzzy headliner. Overall build quality on our test car was very good, with tight panel gaps and no squeaks or rattles noted.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2010 Subaru Impreza WRX STI Special Edition is ideal for serious driving enthusiasts who are disappointed by the somewhat soft nature of the standard STI but put off by the unyielding underpinnings of the Lancer Evo. By neatly splitting the difference between these two, the SE offers an agreeable compromise between track-tuned performance and daily-driver livability.
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