The night is dark and full of terrors. That is, if you’re a sheep standing on the damp, dark A4069 over south Wales’ favourite driving playground, the Brecon Beacons. It’s the cold hour before dawn and the icy drizzle is petering out at last, but the darkness is split by a pair of xenon headlights and the unmistakeable growl of a very specific Japanese quartet.
Four horizontally-opposed cylinders sing the song of a people; clamouring for air and fuel on the rising Black Mountain road, crying out to an automotive sub-culture that has lasted 20 years. From the first deeds of rallying success in the 1990s it grew strong in the early 2000s, before laws, rivals and a global environmental conscience began to erode its once mighty seat of power.
Sadly, the 150-car Final Edition of the WRX STI you see here doesn’t have the legendary gold wheels. Instead, there are yellow-painted and STI-branded Brembo brake calipers behind larger, grey-finished Y-spoke hoops. There are special Final Edition door badges and a token logo on the shiny, piano black trim behind the gear lever.
The recipe is Subaru’s finest, in time-honoured tradition. The latest and ever-proud Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive layout sits beneath a rumbling, whistling 2.5-litre turbocharged boxer engine. Both are stretching their legs as the road rises into sheep-laced moorland, a few woolly obstacles sensibly sprinting for cover as the biggest and angriest hound they’re ever likely to meet rounds bend after bend in a barrage of light and angry flat-four music.
Not as much ‘music’ as you’d expect, though. It’s easy to forget, when you spend any time around Impreza and WRX STI culture, that some of them actually have standard exhausts. Like this one. From the spacious but grippy driver’s seat I can’t hear the solid, throaty and famously distinctive tailpipe burble rise and fall. That’s a pleasure only the sheep get to enjoy today.
Instead I’m reminded how the engine sounds without silly double-fister aftermarket cans and dump valves. Clear turbo whistle furnishes the offbeat thrum as soon as spooling begins in the mid 2000s revs per minute. After 4000rpm that whistle peaks addictively before the barrel-chested baritone reaches a pitch near the 6500rpm redline that sounds almost uncomfortable. Better to grab a new cog by 6000rpm, via the stiff and slightly notchy but satisfying six-speed manual.
Our departing hero is definitely happiest between 3000rpm and 6000rpm, delivering smooth thrust in its softer, progressive I (‘Intelligent’) driving mode. A flick one way or the other on the chunky mode dial and the settings switch to maximum-trouser Sport Sharp or Sport, if you prefer a middle ground. But there will be no half-measures today.
The A4069 is a challenging road, at once tempting and yet narrow, with drops steep enough to end your day on a very sour note. It’s easy to make a bad decision here, but it’s also the perfect test for this car. Switching to Sport Sharp, the difference comes like a Chuck Norris roundhouse to the face. The ride becomes track-day hard at low speed, and suddenly 3000rpm brings with it an explosion of speed; a hammer blow of acceleration that comparably priced super-hatchbacks have only recently become able to beat.
Part of the STI’s downfall is that it hasn’t changed much over the years. Of course, that’s also the reason those of us who loved it back then, still love it today. Its 296bhp – there’s no celebratory power hike – is even beaten by plenty of different Impreza WRX STIs from a decade or more ago. It has singularly failed to move with the times.
With that, as the sun pokes its head over the hills and I settle into the car’s unbelievable abilities, hitting the throttle harder and sooner through bends, feeling the incredible reactions of the all-wheel drive, suspension whose genius emerges only at speed, brilliantly strong and progressive brakes and that bomb under the bonnet, the realisation comes. This may be a distant descendant of a rally legend, still clinging to old glory days despite its makers having long since left them behind, but its talents haven’t been diluted by the passage of time. Quite the opposite.
The STI feels like it’s milled from one block, barring a few trim rattles. There’s epic cooperation between key elements, from the feelsome steering to the outrageously grippy tyres. It aces the mechanics of catapulting you away from an apex like a giant hand has grabbed the inside front corner and yanked. It also chats busily about how it’s doing it. It clearly signals when grip is low, when the front-to-rear weight balance shifts under power or braking and when there’s still more depth to plumb in the talent tank. Some might call it a blunt instrument but it’s balanced, communicative and anachronistically analogue. By God, does it feel good.
The Final Edition might not be the glorious final hurrah we would have wanted for an iconic lineage that stretches back to our childhoods, where, with mouth agape, we watched blue-and-gold missiles contest the World Rally Championship. The brilliance of the WRX STI, and the Imprezas that came before it, has nonetheless been constant. Even in the face of its faster, more comfortable and more fashionable rivals, the Subaru is now more special than any of them. And my, doesn’t it look good filthy.