Avoidable Contact #141: Killing (the STi) in the name of
In the pilot episode of David Simon’s cruelly underrated Treme, a trombone player who has been hired for a funeral “second line” parade inquires as to the identity of the deceased. Upon being given the name, the musician replies, “I thought he been dead.” Truthfully, my first response to the news that Subaru was discontinuing the STi was something along those same lines. They still make the STi?
Well, of course they do! Well, until recently they did, anyway. It just hasn’t gotten any faster since … 2004. Return with me now, reader, to survey the automotive landscape of 2004! There was the 331-horse E46 M3, the 260-horse Mustang GT. The Porsche 911 squeezed 320 hp out of its fragile 3.6-liter boxer. Chevy fans had … a Camaro that had effectively zero horsepower because it wasn’t for sale. The C5 Corvette was still around, however, offering buyers 350 horses from the LS1.
The 2.5-liter U.S.-market STi that appeared for 2004 was a low-cost cat among the pigeons. It made 300 horses stock and could be pushed much further than that, thanks to a strengthened transmission. (Tuners who went too far, however, would meet the shortcomings of the “open deck” American STi engine in hurry.) All-wheel drive made it a stoplight killer against more expensive and powerful hardware. The STi was great fun to autocross, rally, club race. There was a point in history where you could hear the distinctive Beetle-ish music of a catalyst-delete STi at every single trackday, everywhere you went, and it was usually running right up front. Few cars have made that kind of reputation in that kind of hurry.
Having almost instantly converted a significant percentage of America’s automotive enthusiasts into the kind of tiresome people who wear Subaru Blue rally jackets in public, the nice people at Fuji Heavy Industries took that momentum and … uh … well, first they did nothing, then they made the STi into a hatchback that nobody wanted, then they brought back the sedan but made it heavier, then they … well, I seem to recall that there were definitely some special editions in the mix. But the car never really went any faster or harder than the 2004 U.S.-market original. A final “S209” Edition cost $63,995; like guitars from the Fender Custom Shop, the S209 was primarily sold to middle-aged people with near-infinite funds who were trying to recapture a sliver of an idealized youth.
It had 341 horsepower. Mathematically speaking, that would be like Ford offering a 2019 Shelby GT350 with 311 horsepower.
Not only has the STi been allowed to tread water in public, over the past two decades Subaru has allowed the WRX to hunt on the STi’s land, so to speak. A $500 tune will make your WRX faster than any STi ever built for our market. There was about a five-year period where the WRX and STi had the same engine. To put it in terms that my fellow Ohio hicks can understand, the STi stopped being a “WRX Z06” and started being a “WRX 1LE.” And while Subaru has been shy about adding power, it hasn’t had the same concerns about curb weight. The sedan has been putting on mass in a manner that would shame Carnie Wilson, going from about 3200 pounds to about 3500. (If you don’t feel that’s fair to Ms. Wilson, feel free to put my name in there instead; I’ve gained seventeen pounds in the four months since the end of my SCCA season and I need to lose every single one of them to fit in my Radical come May.)
So yeah. I thought the STi been dead.
But now it’s dead for real. We all saw this coming, I think. The 101-octane, neckbearded, rally-blue crowd was always an embarrassment to a company that positioned its vehicles in advertising as necessary-evil adjuncts to a lifestyle primarily centered around dogs and leisure travel. One of your humble-but-hateful author’s greatest pleasures in life is to visit lift-service mountain-bike parks and watch the Outback/Crosstrek crowd writhing with the effort of getting their bicycles and gear off and out of their jacked-up economy cars while I simply pull my Guerilla Gravity Megatrail off the tailgate of my truck and lift my bag out of the spacious bed. There is absolutely nothing you can do with a $35,000-plus outdoorsy Subaru that you couldn’t do with a 2003 Honda Civic on new tires.
Well, I guess you can always do a set of wheel bearings.
I rented an Outback a few years ago and found it to be pleasant but feckless. To our modern Eloi, who primarily display wealth through an increasingly insane and ersatz affectation of woodsy cosplay that makes Justin Timberlake’s Man Of The Woods look as sincere and authentic as A Love Supreme, the Outback’s willful lack of aggression is a feature, not a bug. Without checking, I’d be willing to bet serious money that the WRX and STi have owners with the lowest household income, least impressive education level, and most reactionary politics of any Subaru model. Subaru doesn’t really want to do business with these people any more.
Shame, really, because the WRC-jacket crowd was fiercely loyal to the company and its products. Year after year, they willingly bought high-priced “performance” sedans that were easy meat for Charger Scat Packs and similarly lowbrow vehicles. They purchased the accessories, wore the clothing, attended the events, identified as WRX/STi people first and foremost. The “flame wars” between Subaru and Mitsubishi fans made the Camaro/Mustang schism look like two English noblewomen discussing the finer points of dog breeding over tea. Many years ago I was vaguely affiliated with a bunch of degenerate street racers and I can tell you that the dislike between the “blue cars” and the “red cars” occasionally spilled over into actual fistfights. Automakers spend billions of dollars on marketing to generate a shadow of that loyalty, but Subaru made money by selling four-cylinder crapboxes at 40 grand and up to people who then had the company logo tattooed onto their bodies.
Goodbye to all that. The company’s decision can be summarized in meme form like so:
Oh, well. The current WRX is actually pretty decent and will keep up with a V-6 Camaro in most circumstances. You can still buy it. Should you? I’m of two minds about this. The first is that the best way to encourage companies to build desirable cars is to buy the close-to-desirable ones they’re currently selling. This sounds counter-intuitive, but I’m aware of many a corporate meeting where the bean-counters said, “If they won’t buy the Si, why would they buy a Type-R?” or something along those lines. Normal, sane human beings can easily see why buyers would stay away from a half-baked effort while still being ready to vote with their checkbooks for the real thing, but that’s not how corporate lizards work. So if you want to encourage Subaru in the production of a real future STi, instead of some Mach-E-ish tragic wagon, it would help matters if you bought a WRX, like, right now.
Or you can look at it like this: We should all stop doing business with corporations who hate what, and who, we are. If Subaru would rather play granola pattycake than bust out a Colin McRae tribute, then you should let them do it and give your business instead to a company with a demonstrated commitment to “ICE” performance cars. About 30 years ago, I remember making this same argument about buying a BMX racing bike from companies like Trek and Specialized. “They have contempt for BMX, and they’re only trying to make a buck, so we should deal with BMX-centric firms instead,” I whined. Turns out I was right and then some; those big bike companies only saw BMX as a feeder series to “real cycling,” not as an end in itself.
I personally think that we are about five years away from running headlong into the very real consequences of trying to jerry-rig (apologies to my fellow Germans, but not really) an EV infrastructure on the unstable foundation of a failing national electric grid, exceptionally fragile supply chains for the requisite raw materials, and the intrinsic limitations of current EV capabilities. When that happens, there will be a headlong rush back to the safety of conventional powertrains. At that point, maybe Subaru will bring a real STi back. But if that happens, I’ll be right there to channel my inner Jonah Hill: “PEOPLE DON’T FORGET!” The STi been dead!