OJAI, CA. – Buttonwillow Raceway finishes with a flourish by ramping you over a butt-clenching blind corner before a long sweeper spits the car into a series of high-curbed, back-and-forth esses.
I eased off the accelerator and exhaled for the first time in a long time as I turned in toward the pit lane entrance.
?What do you think?? the driving instructor asked me.
Frankly, I hadn?t exactly found the time to pick apart every new nuance of the 2015 Subaru WRX and its 2015 Subaru WRX STI stable mate, even though I had now put in a few laps in both new models, along with comparo drives in their 2014 predecessors.
We pulled up to a stop in pit lane and Masuo Takatsu, who is in charge of the project, seemed to silently echo the instructor?s question with an inquisitive lift of the eyebrows.
Even Tommi freakin? Makinen, for Pete?s sake, the four-time WRC champion, was fishing for feedback.
?Handling is neutral, yes?? he asked, coming over to the car and leaning into the cockpit window.
Subaru first spiced up their small car Impreza lineup with a WRX (World Rally Cross) derivative that was angled towards World Rally Championship competition.
They followed this up with an even more dedicated WRX STI (Sport Technica International) high performance version later. But as the years passed the design team?s focus shifted to tarmac competition with entries slated for the 24 hours of Nurburgring and other racetrack challenges.
It?s all part of the evolution of the product.
And, although even minor changes can cause anxious swooning in the ranks of the faithful, for 2015, Subaru has introduced major modifications to help keep the WRX and WRX STI models on top of the boy racer ranks.
Both cars, available in sedan form only, start with a more rigid platform and body reinforcements, stiffer suspension bits and lighter, stronger wheels. New, tighter steering ratios and Subaru?s torque-vectoring system (braking an inside wheel during cornering maneuvers) complement the go-kart-like handling.
Across the board changes include a 25 mm wheelbase stretch. Both models are 15 mm longer and 10 mm lower. Thinner, stronger ?A? pillars with added partition glass have been pulled forward 200 mm for a faster windshield rake. And those dimensional changes have added a little more shoulder room inside along with 900 mm more legroom for rear passengers. Door openings are larger, step-in height is lower and even the trunk space has increased, growing from 320 litres to 340 litres.
Interior changes include a smaller diameter, thicker and softer D-shaped steering wheel, taller and better bolstered sport seats with new tilt-adjustable headrests, a lowered instrument panel, a lower shoulder line and too many enhancements to list here, everything from a standard rear vision camera, a new boost gauge readout on the driver info display and an available Harman Kardon audio system.
And all this is wrapped up tidily in a more dramatic exterior presentation with a reworked hexagonal grille and strong nosecone treatment, aluminum hood, more pronounced fenders and air ducting treatments, side mirrors moved to the doors, a lower but familiar trademark profile and a rear diffuser accented with a quad tipped exhaust system and a choice of either the WRX?s subtle lip spoiler or the big wing treatment available with the WRX STI.
Let?s touch on some individual model traits.
The 2015 WRX harnesses a brand new 2.0-litre four-cylinder, direct injection turbocharged boxer engine making 268 hp and 258 lb/ft of torque.
It can be mated to a brand new six-speed manual or a new optional CVT transmission (Subaru prefers to call it a Sport Lineartronic transmission) automatically shifting through six preset simulated gear points or, in manual mode, through eight paddle-operated shift points.
The mainly male customer base might just talk their spouses into this seemingly more moderate choice.
The 2015 WRX STI carries over with the more powerful 2.5-litre multi-port injection turbocharged boxer engine making 305 hp and 290 lb/ft of torque.
This is the no-apologies performer of the lineup, in essence, a street-legal racecar. A new ECU enhances throttle response with engine revs singing through a new sound creator system. Modifications to the one-choice 6MT transmission complement the WRX STI?s exclusive Multi-Mode DCCD track-oriented symmetrical all-wheel drive system.
?So, what do you think?? they asked again.
Well, I think we?ve got a winner here. Or, should I say, two winners.
I think the WRX with the added Sport Lineartronic automatic transmission should broaden the appeal and customer base to at least the 20 per cent of sales that Subaru is expecting.
I think the very real steering, handling and performance tweaks of the WRX STI will keep that ultimate Subaru true to its high performance mantra, even with all the added niceties.
?And I think,? I finally answered with a grin, ?that I need to take a few more laps.?
Subaru WRX and WRX STI 2015 At A Glance
BODY STYLE: four-door, compact sport performance sedans
DRIVE METHOD: symmetrical full-time all-wheel-drive.
ENGINES: WRX: 2.0-litre DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder boxer direct-injection engine (268 hp, 258 lb/ft) with twin-scroll turbocharger mated to 6MT or CVT; WRX STI 2.5-litre DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder boxer multi-port injection engine (305 hp, 290 lb/ft) with twin-scroll turbocharger mated to 6MT.
CARGO: 340 litres
FUEL ECONOMY: WRX 6MT 9.8/7.0L/100km (city/hwy); WRX CVT 11/7.9L/100km (city/hwy); WRX STI 12.3/8.6L/100km (city/hwy)
PRICES: WRX $29,995 – $36,795 (depending on trim, $1,300 for CVT); WRX STI $37,995 – $44,995 (depending on trim)