LONG REGARDED AS one of the most significant cars in rallying, the Subaru Impreza's formidable reputation was dented two years ago following a controversial facelift by Subaru's design team. An odd hybrid of potent rally car married to family car looks, the bug-eyed 2001 model was so much a wolf in sheep's clothing that even Impreza enthusiasts shied away from buying, discouraged by its seemingly benign exterior.
Deemed by many as the company's great hope for 2003, the launch of the new Subaru Impreza STi has been greatly anticipated and I am no exception when my test car, the top-of-the-line STi model, pulls up on one of SoHo's quieter side streets. So, have the stylists at Subaru got it right this time?
At first glance the newcomer has improved its looks with blue mica paintwork and stark gold alloys that are almost too garish in Central's bright morning sunshine. Gone are the cutesy headlights of the 2001 Impreza, replaced instead with wildly tapered lamps. From the front, there is a palpable air of intent that its predecessor lacked, helped by an enlarged bonnet air intake and squat, nose-down stance. The rear bodywork is only transformed from bland to brash by afterthoughts such as flared rear wings, a fat single exhaust and a rudimentary box-type spoiler. Without these, the standard models appear all the more plain, but the revamp shouldn't polarise opinion as much as before.
Underneath, the Impreza is Subaru's most purposeful rally car. Other than improved trim and Recaro-style racing seats, the $388,000 STi has many significant modifications over the standard $258,000 WRX models. As Alpina is to BMW and AMG to Mercedes, the company's in-house performance division, Subaru Technica International (STi), has integrated a new close-ratio six-speed gearbox, uprated differentials, a Brembo braking system and improved front-strut suspension into an already capable package. A diminutive steering wheel, drilled aluminium pedals, and manually activated intercooler water spray lend further gravitas to the car's rally credentials.
So, with permanent four-wheel drive, a 1,994cc flat-four 16-valve turbo engine modified to produce 280 brake horsepower at 6,000rpm and capable of a blistering 0-100km/h in 5.1 seconds, I soon realise why this car is not for the fainthearted. Gingerly nosing through streets awash with taxis, the ominously illuminated rev counter that's red-lined at 8,000rpm (1,000rpm higher than the WRX models) and presence of a five-stage limited slip differential reminds me that this was the real competitive McCoy - or should I say, McRae?
Blissfully unaware of how to manually activate turbo coolers or change slip diffs in full flight, I would be first to admit that I'm no Colin McRae or Richard Burns - who both saw rally championship success in the car the STi is derived from - although I am fairly sure there are no frozen lakes or 120-degree hairpin bends to contend with in my test drive between Central and Shau Kei Wan. But I am instantly struck that the Impreza can be very civilised: when you want it to be.
At traffic speeds, the STi warbles smoothly and feels remarkably pliant for a car that's modified to handle speeds of up to 260km/h over rough terrain, and the combination of the Impreza's taut chassis, all-wheel drive and low centre of gravity mean that there is no shortage of grip at any speed. Once you let rip, however, acceleration through the lower gears is mesmerising and the ensuing torque distracts you all the more from changing gear (although a rev-indicator warning sound will helpfully remind you to do so). The STi is as devastatingly quick through to sixth gear and in this blur of adrenaline it's easy to fall prey to the Impreza's addictive and unrelenting turbo surge.
Accelerating wildly through corners is not advisable in most cars, but I find the Impreza is willing to turn faster and corner harder than anything else I have driven. With an increasingly vocal engine note accompanying the pitched whine of the turbo, there is a point through Heng Fa Chuen's fastest bend where I have to decide between testing the brakes unexpectedly or leave distributors Motor Image (tel: 2585 1922) with some hefty valeting bills. Falling short of the mythical red line, I reflect that I have been in little danger and that the solid grip of the Impreza has prevailed, reassuringly.
The STi has instantly gained my respect and is all the more impressive that, despite its bloodthirsty tendencies and rally prowess, it can still respond naturally in the hands of a novice on mundane tarmac.