x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The 2015 Subaru WRX STI is near-perfect on the racetrack

David Booth twists and turns through the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in a Subaru 2015 WRX STI.

The 2015 Subaru WRX STI boasts a 22 per cent stiffening of the springs in its suspension, which improves its performance around turns. Courtesy  Subaru
The 2015 Subaru WRX STI boasts a 22 per cent stiffening of the springs in its suspension, which improves its performance around turns. Courtesy Subaru

With 154 twists and turns crammed into its 20.8 kilometres, Germany’s Nürburgring is the world’s toughest racetrack, a test of rubber and resolve by which all sporting cars are measured. Everyone comes here – Paganis and Porsches, Seats and Subarus – to test their metal against the Nordschleife’s spotty pavement, mesmerisingly similar corners and weather that makes Old Blighty seem positively dry and sunny (the Nürburgring is so big that it’s often sunny and dry in one section and rainy and slimy in another).

One lap challenges every aspect of a car’s performance – the might of its engine along the many long straightaways, the firmness of its suspension on entry to drop-offs such as the Carousel and the power of its brakes as all that speed must also be scrubbed off for all those corners. That one often has to share the track with swarming motorcycles and the occasional Sprinter minivan just adds to the Nordschleife’s mystique and justifies its place in the pantheon of great circuits.

But California’s Laguna Seca – oops! Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – is no slouch in the stomach-churning department. Perched atop the Salinas Valley, its 11 corners and 3.6km of roads dipsy-doodle through California’s central coast mountains, its pronounced elevation changes often having your heart in your throat. MotoGP has long raced here, World Superbike just started and Champ Car jockeys jittered around here not so long ago. It’s not the fastest track in the world, but then outright speed is seldom the measure of true fear.

Unless, of course, you’re going flat out over a hill only to have the wheels drop out from under you. Everyone thinks that the Corkscrew – Laguna’s famed Corner Eight (and Eight A) – is what separates the men from the boys in Northern Californian racing. In truth, Turn One has that honour. In the speedy little STI version of Subaru’s WRX we’re testing this week, you hit it near the top of fifth gear, having had the entire front straight to wind the turbocharged flat four’s 305 horsepower to seven grand. And, just as you clip the apex – without letting off the gas if you’ve got any guts at all – the tarmac simply disappears beneath you, the little Sube getting decidedly light in its loafers (if not quite airborne) while you’re still mid-turn.

That’s where a sports car’s sometimes over-rigid suspension – Subaru claims the 2015 has seen a 22 per cent stiffening of springs – is suddenly very welcome. Were it not for such aggressive suspension tuning, the WRX, or any sports car for that matter, would bounce around after apexing Turn One like a Biggest Loser contestant riding a pogo stick. Luckily, for we of meagre talent but great enthusiasms, the STI displays the stability of an ocean liner.

That’s a good thing, because as soon as you’ve straightened the little Subaru’s steering wheel, you’re hard on the brakes, hoping that those ventilated, four-pot front Brembos are as powerful and fade-free as Subaru claims because, lap after lap, they’re going to have to shed a lot of heat.

That’s because Laguna’s Turn Two, the Andretti Hairpin, turns out to be a test of man’s ability to craft a dual personality automobile. Just milliseconds ago, you were thanking the man above for the STI’s incredible stability at high-speed; now, you’re in the hands of the chief project manager who assured you that the primary goal of his engineering team was tightening up the STI’s steering. All manner of graphs and charts were used (detailing something called steering “gain,” essentially the delay inherent in all cars in reacting to the driver’s input which, if the aforementioned to be believed, is minimal) to prove that his pride and joy would indeed follow your command to turn tight, tighter, then tightest into the 180-degree, decreasing-radius switchback.

That the new Subaru makes it through Andretti’s without understeering its way into the weeds proves that its maker’s claim of steering response equal to a Porsche 911 is more fulfilled promise than idol worship. Compared with its predecessor, this is the most significant of the many benefits of this year’s redesign; attempting the same corner at the same speed would have seen the previous STI’s front tyres sliding as if on ice.

Turns three and four are the track’s most routine bends with moderate braking, constant radii and no hidden surprises lurking beyond clipped apex. Because they lack technical challenge, however, one expects to speed through here with maximum alacrity. Peak lateral acceleration, thanks to gummy 245/40R18 Dunlop Sportmaxx performance radials, is now claimed to be 0.98g. And while performance claims can often be derided as more esoteric than real, you can actually feel the improvement in cornering compared with the previous generation’s maximum of 0.92g. The STI is now in the same league as that colossus of cornering grip, Chevrolet’s ZR1 Corvette.

The entry to Turn Five, itself another fairly routine affair, this time going left, reveals the new STI’s one lingering weakness. While the 2015’s chassis is all new, its engine is largely a carry-over. For its part, the 305hp, 2.5-litre turbocharged “boxer” four feels more than up to the task, but though the STI’s six-speed manual gearbox is upgraded from the previous version’s five-speed, the whole clutch-shift-clutch routine is starting to feel a little dated for racetrack use. If you’re quick through Turn Four, for instance, you might just touch fifth before slamming on the Brembos for Five. Then it’s down two quick gears and then as soon as you’re past the apex, you’re looking to immediately upshift again. The WRX’s manual is slick enough, but a paddle-operated, dual clutch transmission would be so much quicker through here and a whole bunch easier to boot. Purists may welcome the continuation of their traditional gearbox, but the STI is lesser for it.

Turn Six is a little tougher. Its radius and curvature are nothing special but it’s steeply banked like a mini Carousel (the most famed of corners at the Nürburgring) meaning that the 2015 STI’s newly stiffened suspension (set with its adjustable dampers all the way to their racetrack-ready Sports Sharp setting) is once again challenged. Lesser cars can bottom out here, or at least wallow about, if their springs are not up to snuff. The new STI rails through as if following laser guidance. It’s worth noting, however, that the price of the significantly stiffened suspension is a definite lack of compliance in everyday driving; all the passengers on our drive complained of the jittery ride.

This sixth turn is also important because it is the launch pad that feeds, uphill, to the most famed corner in North American racing, the Corkscrew. Here again, you’ll find yourself wishing for a quick-shifting, dual clutch box. The run up to the Corkscrew’s initial left-hand hairpin is completely blind and it would be a lot easier if you could just focus on getting your corner entry right rather than also futzing with heel and toe.

But the STI more than makes up for the slight delay in downshifting with the catlike reflexes of its steering. The aforementioned chief engineer, determined to optimise that quick-as-you-can-be steering response, tightened its leverage ratio from an already semi-sporty 15.0:1 to a lightning-quick 13.0:1. That makes the Corkscrew, if you’ve timed that blind entry just right, nothing more than a quick left-right flick and then back on the power. Oh, to be sure, there is that whole precipitous drop thing for which the Corkscrew is famed (plummeting about five-and-a-half floors in less time than it took to read this sentence), but the new STI and its dialled-in suspenders make easy work of the descent and you’re soon speeding towards Turn Nine.

Rainey’s Curve, like Turn One, doesn’t get nearly the respect it deserves. Thanks to all the speed gained in the aforementioned plummet, you now need to turn, brake and settle the car at the same time, all the while hoping those sticky tyres will actually see you through the high-speed sweeper. Front-end grip, which, again, the new STI has in abundance, is absolutely essential, as most cars – including the previous WRX – plough with speed-sucking understeer. The rocky desert floor can seem alarmingly close when the front rubber won’t grip through Rainey’s. Setting the Driver Controlled Center Differential to its most rearward torque bias (six positions with varying locking characteristics are available) also helps matters immensely.

After that, there’s just the high-speed (but compared to Rainey’s and Turn One, a doddle) Turn 10 and the hairpin back onto the front straight for another turbo-boosted ride up through the gears (accompanied by a big LCD boost gauge so you can quantify how much fun you’re having).

If it all sounds so simple, a large measure of the ease is down to having a willing four-wheeled co-conspirator. The 2015 WRX is one of the most willing of partners in four-wheeled crime; its handling, stability and speed making child’s play of one of the world’s toughest racetracks. That it now comes with an extra helping of upmarket amenities – a soft-touch interior, a 440-watt Harmon/Kardon audio system and a new, almost-up-to-date infotainment system – is the icing on the cake. There is simply no other four-door saloon this cheap (think Dh125,000) that goes this fast with this much control.

Prices and on-sale dates for the UAE are yet to be announced.

weekend@thenational.ae

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