Too posh by half

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 June, 2008, 12:00am

Thirty years of air-kissing in Mid-Levels teaches you not to smirk at the make-overs of old friends, but Subaru's revamp of its rally inspired fastie is a shock.

For 16 years the WRX Sti has been the rugged bedroom-poster vroom that vied with Mitsubishi Evos and sprayed grit at little Citroens in the World Rally Championships. The muscle and rev of Subaru's top-of-the-range ride in Hong Kong marked you as a nutter below Kennedy Road, a raucous eccentric above it and a golden-wheeled member of a high-revving fraternity watched by coppers the world over. And in 2006 the ninth Sti proved sublime on the Shek O Road and formidable as the safety car for two Macau Grand Prix.

But Subaru's gone all clever and given the latest, 10th version, airs and graces that don't always come off. I hear the marque learned that its WRX Sti clientele was older, Queer-Eyed the sports icon for the executive car park and gave it 20 more horsepower and a HK$359,000 sticker. The result is a cat-dog design of two halves that could frighten mums and seem precious among rally coats.

The front's as butch as you might expect in an ueber-Impreza, with the usual whopping air intake on the bonnet, chunky bumper and mean xenon headlights augmented by BMW Z4-like creases along squat, sporty flanks. But Subaru's muscle car seems to morph into mumsiness at the B-pillar.

Someone at the Japanese marque has decided to do away with the Sti's endearing, bookcase-style spoiler - the automotive equivalent of the mullet - and primped a more subtle version on the roof. And the traditional gold wheels that looked so striking against the marque's blue or black are no longer standard traffic-warden worrying equipment, but back-of-brochure options. The rounded rear is a complete makeover, too, with bold tail lights, a twinset of dual exhaust pipes - and hatchback with an Sti tattoo, for goodness sake.

The interior's been upgraded too. Subaru's stylists have replaced the Sti's traditional, no-nonsense blue and black Recaros with stiffer leather and Alcantara seats that try to talk posh. Their stitching emulates Audi or BMW's cut and their recesses restrain the lollop of middle-aged spread on bends, but the finish neither feels as refined - nor, ironically, as comfy on a well-rucked back - as their more boy-racer friendly predecessors. The Alcantara elbow and wrist rests also suggest luxury, but the grey shade could accumulate the shadow of dirt.

The steering wheel feels substantial, however, with easy stereo controls, and there's plenty of legroom to pump the test car's drilled aluminium pedals. An engine start button has been fitted for Hong Kong enthusiasts and activates at the press of the clutch. There's keyless entry, too, but several times in stop-and-go driving the handbrake feels out of place, positioned to the side of a sliding-slatted central console.

A rev counter dominates the dashboard and reminds of Subaru's rallying roots, but if you want to regulate your WRX Sti's speed past this city's 240-odd speed cameras you must train your eye on the smaller speedometer to its right. Subaru's colourists have also matched their clocks' orange electro-luminescence with the pink of the 'Sti' logo on the controls and another potentially distracting pink Sti logo is said to light up in front of the gear stick. The Prius-like digital clock in a high dashboard slit is more practical, as are the no-frills dials for an adequate air-conditioner and radio-CD-MP3 player.

The new WRX Sti is a Subaru at heart, however. Few cars are more reassuring in Hong Kong's wet with competition-perfected all-wheel-drive and suspension. The marque's award-winning 2.5-litre flat four feels restrained in traffic yet thrives on stretches of the Shek O Road where you can still sample some of its 300 horsepower and excellent Brembo brakes.

The marque's Intelligent Drive electronics are said to enhance the Sti's drive. You get three options, controlled by an iDrive-style twiddler on a central console plate: Intelligent for around town; Sports for speed; and Sports Sharp for really hoofing it. The Sti can still delight in 'Intelligent' at Hong Kong speeds, but I fear our city might be too small for the faster alternatives. Ageing experimenters might have to wear half-moons or put spectacles at the end of their nose, as I have to at 51, to read the twiddler's red on black mode markings. So perhaps Subaru might take a tip from Jaguar and show what mode's what on a dashboard touch screen so evergreen Sti drivers don't have to look up so far to refocus from the cabin to the road.

The Sti is also loaded a with Multi-Mode Drivers Control Differential system and a Vehicle Dynamics Control system, electronics that promise more control along Cotton Tree Drive, and that'll shave seconds of your cornering to CitySuper and lull new owners into potentially dangerous experimental drives in the New Territories.

This newbie sprints as well as its predecessor, but I don't notice the extra horsepower, torque or the effect of new double wishbones on the rear suspension at Hong Kong speeds. The dealers say the new WRX Sti's turning, stability and overall performance has been improved and the test car proves a confident lane-changer with fine mirrors. Shorter overhangs also make the new Sti an easier park than its predecessor. But the new-look Sti doesn't draw as many glances at traffic lights as the glorious ninth, and that's part of the point of owning one in Hong Kong. So attention-seekers might check out other urban spurt alternatives such as the Suzuki Sport (HK$178,000), Mini Cooper S (HK$324,800) or Volkswagen's stonking Golf R32 (HK$388,000). Alternatively, you could trawl local websites for a bit of second-hand, traditional Subaru 'rough', with asking prices on websites last week ranging from HK$265,000 for the ninth version to about HK$50,000 for an unpretentious and probably hammered 1997 GC8 WRX Sti.

Even so, this 10th version should make a terrific safety car at the next two Macau Grand Prix. Traditionalists in the pits might wonder what the marque was thinking when they put a weeny hatchback spoiler on the back of the Sti. Never mind. Subaru's new look will be welcomed with open arms in Mid-Levels. Try not to stare too long at that spoiler. As we'd say in MacDonnell Road: Subaru's happy with the Sti's new look, and that's the main thing.