Dream cars take many strange and wonderful forms and I’ll admit a boxy, four-wheel drive Japanese estate car with a big bonnet scoop and a bit of a drinking habit might seem an unusual object of lust. I don’t care. I love my Subaru Forester STI with a passion and here are seven things owning it has taught me.
When I moved from Hertfordshire to Yorkshire my wife declared we NEEDED a 4x4 of some sort. Tiguans and Qashqais aren’t my thing though. I did briefly consider a Skoda Yeti but my mouse hand must have slipped and I ended up in the Subaru section of the classifieds instead. And I’ve always liked the boxy old SF and SG Foresters.
Four-wheel drive? Check. Sensible size? Check. Practical? Check. Impreza running gear? Hang on, that STI version looks a bit tasty… From best intentions to buy a sensibly priced, Labrador-scented UK model XT from some tweedy type in Harrogate I found myself at an import specialist in Bradford laying 10 grand down on a freshly landed STI. I’d done my job. I’d bought a sensible, reliable four-wheel drive family estate capable of taking on the toughest Yorkshire winter. “Why’s it got all those pink stickers on it?” asked my wife, eyes narrowing in suspicion…
As a country lad I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Subarus. Back in the day the local farmers used to clatter about in mud-splattered BRAT pick-ups, Justys and Leones. The sight of ‘normal cars’ doing stuff that would make a Land Rover flinch was just super cool. Then came the McRae/Burns rally years and Subaru’s evolution into a red-blooded performance brand. Then there’s THAT NOISE!
Subaru styling has been at best eccentric though and I’ll concede my Forester is, by conventional standards, a bit of a minger. I don’t care. I think it’s punched all the way through ugliness and come out the other side.
Remember me saying I was going to buy a UK-model Forester? The 2.5 XTs with the same engine as my STI were easily tuned to the same power, have a more appropriate and useful combination of soft springing and extra ride height and can even hold their own in nursery slopes off-roading. They cost half as much to buy as an STI too. Gold Brembos and pink STI logos can do funny things to a man and come at a premium. But because it’s an import my VED is pretty much half that of a UK car, and because the STI has six gears and not the five of UK models I can cruise on the motorway without stirring the turbo. I’ve even seen 30mpg on a run. Reduced running costs like this are things you can appreciate long after the purchase price has faded from your memory. Man maths win!
When Litchfield was importing Forester STIs they were easily tuning them to 300bhp and beyond with little more than an air filter, remap and exhaust. That temptation lurks. But if there was one immediate concern with my STI it was that the standard OE exhaust was just too quiet. If you’re going to drive a Subaru it should, after all, sound like a Subaru.
This is our family car though, and Mrs Trent wasn’t about to sign off on a JDM-yo backbox. So I did some research and found that Hayward & Scott do a standard looking system that releases the burble without looking too chavvy. It was on the car two weeks before she noticed, the bassy warble it unleashed being the perfect balance of Subaru soundtrack and social acceptability. And with that my STI was a proper Subaru.
Other than the need to transport kids and do all family stuff, I need a car big enough to carry mountain bikes and all the associated clobber too. The nature of the sport means driving to muddy forest car parks and remote spots too and while four-wheel drive isn’t strictly necessary it’s nice to have. The Forester nails all these objectives while being an absolute hoot to drive on the way there too. Bike racks on the roof spoil the lines of most cars I’ll admit, but see point 2 – if it’s already ugly you’ve nothing to lose.
These days turbocharging is credited as the source of all modern driving evils. Not sure why. I like turbocharged cars and Subaru’s character has been defined by them for decades. The Forester feels properly turbocharged too, as in it has lag and then a thrilling 1-2-3 sense of the boost building before – WHOOSH – we have lift-off.
I love it. The kids love it. It’s exciting in daily driving and when I’m on my own and pressing on it adds an extra degree of challenge. The need to maintain boost and make the most of the explosive four-wheel drive traction out of the corners means I’m always playing around with throttle inputs, left-foot braking and all manner of fancy footwork to keep it on the boil. Unlike these modern ‘all your torque from 1000rpm’ turbos, the Forester needs revs and boost to really come alive. I mentioned it sounds good too, didn’t I?
Rain? Slippery roads? Fog? Bring ‘em on! While most performance cars are best enjoyed on a sunny day and dry roads, my Forester really comes alive when the weather is absolutely vile. The fact it has proper permanent four-wheel drive and a limited-slip differential at the back gives it a mechanical authenticity the electronically controlled Haldex-style systems used in VWs, Audis and the rest can’t match. And in a Subaru it really is a case of the wetter the better.
When I first saw my Forester on the ramps I was impressed to see suspension hardware that looked like it had been ripped straight off a WRC Impreza. It kind of goes like one too, which I find endlessly amusing, given the way it looks. Get the front end settled, get your boost on and it does effortless diagonal drifts out of the corners, feeling both utterly planted but also alive and adjustable, especially on the kind of slippery, leaf-strewn roads most would back off on. And the turbo loves cold, dense and foggy air, meaning it goes even better when the weather is wintry and horrid.
While the rest of the UK considers snow as travel apocalypse, Subaru owners like me see it as playtime, the slight rear bias to the four-wheel drive system meaning it always wants to drift. There’s a fine line between confidence and over-confidence though. And the other day I decided to test the car’s mettle on a cobbled hill locals nickname ‘The Wall’. It’s brutal, with two hairpins so steep and tight it feels like the car is going to fall over backwards. With a fresh dusting of snow a sensible man would have taken the longer route. I’m not a sensible man and having romped round the hairpins I thought the Forester had aced it and the kids thought I was a driving god. Then we ground to a halt. Then we started to slowly slide back down and my beloved Subaru became a big black sledge. With a bonnet scoop.