This car is a ticket machine. One look at the Subaru Impreza WRX STI and John Law knows that you are either up to no good, or looking for trouble. Either way, some serious scrutiny follows you wherever you go.

There's just no way of avoiding the stigma. Responsible people just don't drive cars with bulging wheel arches, rooftop spoilers, and Hollywood Bowl-sized hood scoops. Every detail of the STI is designed to make it an illicitly fast car and look the part.

Odd, then, that it also has a number of qualities that may actually keep you from breaking the law in the first place. Ying and Yang were never so much fun.

If you are not familiar with this cult classic of the sports car world, the STI is the Frankenstein’s Monster version of the respectable Subaru Impreza compact. A road going version of the company’s rally and racing cars, it has been a champion throughout its storied history, and is the object of desire of everyone who’s ever played a driving game on Playstation.

Priced at $34,995, the STI costs twice as much as the economy version that it’s based on, and all of that money goes towards giving it world-class performance. The 2008 version is the biggest and most powerful ever sold in the United States.

Some purists complain that the new STI is too actually too big, the extra size and weight taking the edge off of its traditionally fleet-footed moves. To compensate for the added bulk, Subaru upped the output of the STI’s 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine to 305 horsepower, enough to get it from 0-60 mph in under 5 seconds, more or less the same as the outgoing model.

Putting that power to the pavement, or dirt as is often the case with STIs, is a complex drivetrain that almost seems too advanced for a car in this price range. It starts with Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, which is standard on all of the brand’s cars. The setup sends power to all four wheels all the time, constantly shuffling it around for better handling even in dry conditions.

The difference with the STI is that it is also outfitted with something called a Driver Controlled Center Differential (DCCD) that allows you to adjust the balance of power between the front and rear wheels six ways, optimizing handling for whatever nonsense you happen to be getting yourself into at any given moment. Combined with traction control that can be turned on, off, or not quite off, the number of combinations is staggering.

Lazy bodies like me will appreciate the ‘Auto’ setting on the DCCD. STI stands for Subaru Technica International and I like to get my money’s worth from technology. But, if you’re the type who likes to fidget with cars more than drive them, the STI also has Subaru Intelligent Drive which is a feature I’ve never gotten the point of.

It adjusts the responsiveness of the throttle, making it quicker or slower to react to the movement of your foot. I’d be just as happy to use the sportiest setting all the time. It fits the car better.

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The STI’s motor is pretty much useless at low engine speeds and needs a good prod of the accelerator to get it going. It’s only when the flat-4 engine starts spinning above 3,500-4,000 rpm, turbo blowing away, that the power comes on and things start to happen.

When you do get it on the good foot, hang on, because the thrills are plenty.

From the driver’s seat the sound of it all is pretty harsh. The howl of the engine mixing with the turbocharger whine is very industrial in tone, drowning out whatever sweet music might be coming out of the exhaust pipes for bystanders to hear. Together with a precise, but chunky 6-speed manual transmission, the experience is all business, if you happen to be in the business of racing cars.

Despite all of the quality improvements this year, the STI is still far from anything approaching refined. Shifting into third on the way to becoming a moving violation none of that matters.

Actually it all matters. The connection you have with the mechanical bits of the STI is part of the fun. Smooth but loud, you can nearly count the teeth on each gear as the transmission spins its way to the next one. The kind of people who buy STIs appreciate the experience in a way owners of more luxurious mounts never will.

Hit a road that requires you change direction often and the STI responds with as much grip as you’re probably holding the steering wheel with at this point. It simply won’t let go until you’ve made a spectacle of yourself, and even then a little slip to the side slows things down a notch, giving you a moment to put it all into perspective before you try it again.

At its heart, though, this car is a dirt devil and I couldn’t help letting it indulge itself. So, slick summer tires and all, I pulled onto the first unpaved road I came across, and nearly got lost.

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I didn’t mind, I was having so much fun, asphalt was the last thing I wanted to see. Even with the wrong rubber, the STI dealt with the sand and gravel trails winding their way through a pine barren like the pro that it is.

On those loose surfaces I fiddled with the DCCD a bit and could actually sense the changes it was making. Were they for better or worse? No idea, but it was cool. Into and out of slippery hairpin turns it felt like the STI gave me a good kick in the butt and a tug at the front a few times as it transferred power from end to end, keeping me out of the brush.

Eventually, the car in serious need of a good scrubbing, I found my way back to the blacktop, hoping the adrenaline rush wouldn’t lead to any overtly illegal activities on my way to the car wash. I shouldn’t have worried.

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The interior of the STI looks good, better than previous models at least, but the materials it is made from are dollar store dreadful. Rat fur lining the ceiling; overhead bin-grade plastic on the tin-thin doors; aside from the STI-specific leather steering wheel and partially leather sport seats, it’s no better than what you get in the standard Impreza.

It’s worse, in fact, because between the engine noise and the roar of the wide tires the STI’s cabin is never an easy place to spend time, even while loping along. Lots of sports cars are so isolated and capable at high speeds that they get away from you on the highway and before you know it you’re doing 90-plus mph, officer. In the STI you feel speed all the time, and when I wasn’t paying much attention, I usually found myself getting passed by everyone and their mom as I chugged along at or below the limit where the car and I settled in.

The standard 80-watt, 10-speaker stereo doesn’t help matters since you need to turn the volume halfway up before you can even hear it. Too bad, it has a straightforward layout, comes with a 6-CD changer, and works with XM or Sirius satellite radio. If you want, there’s a more powerful 100-watt version available, and for the first time in an STI, a navigation system.

True believers will say a car like the STI shouldn’t even come with air conditioning and that I should stop complaining about it because I don’t deserve to be driving one. Fine, but remember that the next time you’re stuck in traffic on the way to a romp in the woods, or track day at your local club.

At least you won’t get a ticket.


2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STI

Base Price: $34,995

Type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 5-door hatchback

Engine: 2.5L turbocharged flat-4

Power: 305 hp, 290 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

MPG: 17 city/23 hwy

What do you think of the Impreza WRX STI?

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