Who would have ever thought that a Japanese-built economy car would become one of the best-handling and most fun to drive cars of the last decade?
We have already covered some of the most important pioneering performance cars to have used all-wheel-drive, most notably the Porsche 959 and Audi Sport Quattro. So now we'll be covering some of the more recent uses of AWD in performance cars. Subaru's rally-bred AWD sport compact is a great place to start. It introduced the mass market pure rally car to the US in WRX form in 2002 and Subaru later followed this up with the more hard-edged WRX STI in 2004.
The Impreza, which the STI is based on, was first introduced in 1992. Available with either front- or all-wheel-drive, and with either a naturally-aspirated or turbocharged engine, the small sedan was fairly sporty in all its forms. AWD versions were praised for being very lightweight despite the additional weight the system brings with it. This has always been one of the car's strong points, light weight without the need for expensive and exotic materials and while still offering AWD. Though the Impreza wasn't built exclusively for rallying purposes, it was clear from the start that it would be used for this application.
Subaru had partnered with Prodrive for competition in WRC since 1989, but the larger Legacy had been used for racing before the introduction of the Impreza. The STI (at the time badged as "STi") was introduced in 1994, and that same year saw Subaru's first WRC victory with the Impreza. The Impreza would go on to claim WRC titles in 1995, '96 and '97. This was a slightly more powerful, slightly lighter and more rally-focused version of the WRX, and its 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged boxer engine produced 247 horsepower. Initially, Subaru built only 100 of these per month, and they were made by modifying already completed WRX's.
This practice wouldn't last long, and the STI soon had its own assembly line. Even once the STI had its own line, the car was still a thoroughly stripped-out purpose-built racer, and was made in fairly small quantities. Of course, a big part of the reason why Subaru didn't sell many units of the STI was that, for several years, it was sold only in Japan. The WRX made it to a couple of other markets, but the US didn't receive any turbocharged form of the first-generation Impreza. There wasn't even a real sport model until 1998. This was the 2.5RS, which boasted a bigger naturally-aspirated engine, bigger brakes and 16-inch gold wheels inspired by those on the WRC race cars.
This corresponded with Subaru's move to make AWD standard for all markets outside of Japan. A grey market existed for the STI during the years before the car was exported, and this was biggest in Australia. Geographic convenience was probably a factor here, but the fact that the right-hand-drive setup didn't bother the Aussies is probably a bigger factor. The second generation of the Impreza was introduced to the Japanese market in 2000 and to the US in 2001 as a 2002 model. Having tested the performance Impreza waters with the 2.5RS, Subaru decided to bring the WRX over for the first time.
This turned out to be even more successful than expected, and the following year, Mitsubishi responded by bringing over the WRX's longtime rival, the Lancer Evolution. But the Evo was faster than the WRX, and Subaru soon realized that they would need to bring the Evo's true rival, the STI, over if they expected to compete. So 2004 finally saw the introduction of the STI, a car which had been lusted after for years by countless adherents to the import car culture. The current car comes with a turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer engine which produces 305 horsepower.
This, unfortunately, isn't very much anymore. It's the same as a V6 Mustang, and the two cars have nearly identical weight as well. The STI will handle much, much better than the Mustang (as well as most things on the road), but seeing as it costs about $10k more, it damn well better. The sad truth is that cars like the STI (and the Evo) are a bit past their prime. Neither of these rivals has won a WRC title since 1998, and no Japanese manufacturer has won since 1999. Top-tier rallying is now mostly dominated by French manufacturers (and Ford), and this lack of racing relevance has dulled the edge of these greats from the Nineties.
But make no mistake, the STI is now better than ever. Even if it is no longer a stripped-out purpose-built racer, it is faster than before and even handles better. It's tons of fun to drive, and is truthfully probably better for street use now that this is the application it is actually built for. It's one of the few icons of Nineties Japanese performance that survives today, and this alone is a very special thing.