|Subaru JDM's :||
JDM Forester XT STi
||A Tale of Two Subies - Forester XT STI and Prodrive Impreza STI
It's a warm summer morning in Mitaka, and we've just left an interview with Mitsuhiro Matsumoto, Vice President, General Manager of General Affairs/Overseas Liason Department of Subaru Technica International Inc., aka STi. If it's the first time you've head of STi, then you now know have been officially informed that they are the tuning arm of Subaru, responsible for the rally versions of the Impreza WRX and a variety of other projects for Subaru also, which includes all their racing operations. Today they are letting us try out their newest offering, the Forester XT STi. They lightly mention that the Prodrive Impreza STI is also available on that day. We find it impossible to turn down a chance to add another partner to our dance party. After some chitchat, I plant my humble behind into the Forester XT, and we are off at an easy pace. Not a quiet one, that is all but impossible being behind the exhaust system on the Prodrive STi. It had a rather open design that produces a nice burble at minimal throttle openings, then a sonic assault whenever the pedal hits the carpet (for some reason, my ears are assaulted frequently from the front). Alas, in the city that is all but impossible for any more than mere nanoseconds. It is one of my enduring regrets in life that I can bicycle the short 7-8 kilometers to work faster than I can drive it, and I don't bicycle that fast. Traffic around Mitaka STi is no improvement upon that. After a bit of crawl through the suburbian entrance/exit from STi, we make a right onto Route 20 for further 5km/h cruising opportunities. Lacking the huge wing, stickers and move-over-mamma attitude of the Prodrive Impreza, other drivers on the road give it the usual cold shoulder, but it's such a nice and cozy ride that I have no problem ignoring the unwashed masses around me. I pass over a wrinkled moonscape that is tamed into the semblence of a smooth road, and I become one with the boxer beat.
Created in the mid-90's, the Forester has always been a delightful vehicle, if a bit homely. Subaru's inspired answer to the SUV boom, it was a breakthrough small-SUV that had the other manufacturers scrambling to roll their own in this newly discovered market segment. It has maintained that quirky Subaru cool, perhaps too much for more flash buyers. It's a very square offering, forsaking the latest swoops for outright utility and comfort. You sit upright in a tall, square-ish greenhouse with large amounts of glass that gives a commanding view of the road. And despite that upright look, expressway driving is quite composed and calm, aerodynamically speaking, with little wind noise at even excessive speeds. Amazing ease of entry and exit is a hallmark of the Forester, and the high roofline accomodates the height-enhanced set quite well. We are in the new model though, and it's been improved in many ways since that first version. It retains all of the pluses of the old, and improves upon it with a snappier exterior and interior design. The interior possibly deserves more mention than the exterior, posessing a very nice layout both ergonomically and esthetically, possibly the best looking interior yet for a Subaru despite the lack of leather. There is elbow room and head room galore, with all the controls in easy reach.
This new Forester XT in standard trim is no slouch off the line, either. Even the 2.5-litre NA flat 4 is a sprightly performer, thanks to it's low weight and incestous relationship to the Impreza. The 2.0-litre turbocharged flat four with intercooler is much quicker. It's a medium-sized SUV with a less powerful intercooled turbo 2.0-litre powerplant from the WRX. That's not all, as base underpinnings are also shared with the little brother WRX, albeit with a taller suspension for the proper off-road warrior look. The shared blood and bone yields surprising amounts of handling for a vehicle loosely termed an SUV. Motivating it is the turbocharged 2.0-litre powerplant with "only" 162kW (216hp) and 309n•m (224ft/lbs) of torque from 3500rpm. Giving an idea of the low end on this excellent motor is the 240n•m (173ft/lb's) of twist available at a low 1800rpm. It's quicker than the numbers would initially indicate, because what it gave up in peak hp over previous turbo versions, it gained vastly in low- to mid-range torque. It is quicker than the previous 245hp version, believe it or not. Helping out is it's weight, a svelte 1410kg curb weight (3102lb), lighter than the previous version.
And STi has come along to make it a bit quicker. Improving the system's flow of air is the flower-strewn path to happiness with turbo vehicles, a path STi trods well with a higher-flow panel air filter in conjunction with a cat-back STi-spec muffler. This combination produces a nicely muted burble, enhanced response, and improvements to the stock power. Well, I swear there was a nice burble, but with the prodrive in front, I'd be hard pressed to remember the exact details of the sound. Then STi tied that to the ground with shorter struts, firmer dampers and higher-rate springs, lowering the vehicle and flattening out it's attack angles by a good bit. Not low enough to scrape off speed bumps, just enough to appreciably lower the center of gravity while maintaining an amazing ability to absorb small bumps and smooth off the ragged edges of the big ones. Select bits and pieces of the rear suspension arms are also replaced with more rigid pink bits, tying the rear end down quite a bit in comparison to stock. Then there are the requisite aero bits, and I must say, they are some of the best looking bits I've seen from STi on any Subaru. A front bumper spoiler, side skirts, and rear bumper spoiler create a very nice package. I must admit that between the lowering and the aero bits, the STi Forester has a passing resemblence to a go-fast mini-van with sporting intentions, but I personally like the look quite a bit.
After some oozing through traffic, it is time for lunch. Culinary carnage ensues forthwith at a pace that would strain even the fastest of Subaru's. While we're eating, I manage to switch the keys while Test Drive Ed. Winston is distracted by his food, and afterwards find myself snugly belted in behind the wheel of the Prodrive Impreza STi, a different entity entirely. I must admit that I began to regret the appropriation of the Prodrive STi in the city, for the suspension did it's best to keep me from having any kidneys I could sell to put my kids through college. Route 20 sees a lot of traffic, including heavy trucks, and the surface is more wrinkled than my grandfathers face. The suspension dutily informs my back that you could hide schnauzers behind some of the wrinkles. Subaru's are known for having more than a modicum of off-road rallying ability, but I would prefer that I only had to explore those abilities when off-road, not on. It's hard to reconcile this surface with the one I that had floated over in the Forester with it's sportier STi suspension.
We found that Prodrive had specifically set up this STi for circuit duty, which explained the need for kidney surgery. When it comes to racing, smooth and track go together like me and Jennifer Lopez. Racing drivers will storm the race marshal's office declaring that the track is a death trap if they experienced a zit-sized bump in corners, and their vocal protestations will drown out race engines if they've experienced a ripple on the straightaway that ants couldn't hide behind. By those standards, nearly any road besides one that was finished the day before would seem rough.
Reality intrudes in a few minutes as I pass the source of the crawl, a "bingle", in Australian. Somebody had done their best to peel the side off of a van with their car, though they didn't quite manage it entirely. Thankfully, it looked like their were no fatal injuries. Humbled, I left the scene behind at a relaxed pace, swing left off of Route 20 and payed my way into the fast lane, an expressway up to the mountains. At speeds exceeding 50km/h, the car settles down into a ride that was far more acceptable, even if you wouldn't call it smooth. What follows is calm, smooth motoring up into the foothills. Somehow, I find myself mashing the throttle when we come to a tunnel, resulting in a primal howl that had me looking over my shoulder to see if an express train happened to find itself beside me. If you are trying to maintain a low profile of any sorts, this is not the exhaust system for you. After some testing of the acceleration in top gear, and maybe just a little bit of the lower gears, we find ourselves in a cooler, higher clime. It's time to pull off and put both vehicles through their paces.
Japanese mountain roads are infamous for straightaways that are about 4 vehicles in length. I've seen longer, but not often, and the rest is all curves. Americans just blasted big holes through mountains, leveled out everything else, and made the road as straight as possible. The Japanese mountain road is one with the landscape, following every curve, dip and hump that was their since the beginning of time. It's the paved version of the logging road. It sounds bad, but it's not, it is always massive entertainment to be driving in the mountains. A good suspension and wide rubber just makes it better, all those off- and on-camber curves to be learned, to hopefully be tamed. If you fall asleep while driving these roads, you have no driving passion in your soul, and fairly soon a tree in your cockpit. Now it's time to hammer the Prodrive, and hammer it I did. More accurately a light tapping - limits are so incredibly high on this vehicle that there is no sane, or even mildly insane, way of pushing it's limits on anything but a race track. I must say that the brakes, while a bit noisy at city speeds and braking, are excellent when warmed up. The gravity well that they induce is literally breathtaking, and probably left beltmarks on my body. There was no sign of fade in the mountains, and I felt that you would run out of guts or gas before they did.
I've got to confess that both vehicles felt a little numb in comparison with the über-Subaru I drove only a little while ago, the lightening-quick STI S202. It incorporated a revised front suspension geometry the all-but-eliminates the characteristic Subaru understeer and bestowed it with telepathic turn-in. Subaru has indicated that the Impreza series in general will start incorporating this suspension change, and other Subaru performance vehicles should also eventually move over to this set up. In this age of manufacturers continually dialing in more understeer with each successive model, it's refreshing to see a move in this direction.
We stop for some coffee and a rest, shooting the breeze with the owners of a mountainside Ramen noodle restaurant. Literally on the side of the mountain, it overlooks a breathtaking view of countryside far down and away. After our heartbeats get below 140, we ingest liberal quantities of caffeine before swapping rides. I get very passionate indeed with the STi Forester following Anthony in that super hot Prodrive Impreza. The Prodrive is very much in it's element here, and surprising enough, so is the Forester. For all it's supposed SUV-ness, it's surprising the amount of control you have over the vehicle, and I found it a hoot to drive. With it's characteristic flat 4 burble, smooth and strong power delivery, and overall good manners, it isn't a pain to drive. in fact, quite the opposite, it's one of the better rides around. An upright greenhouse may not be the most aerodynamic nor sporty design, but it is great for visibility. From a crawl right up to warp factor 5, the STi Forester remains unflustered and quietly competent. Well, except for for the front tyres when exiting apexes under power, they will howl if you prod the gas enough. STi hasn't tuned out all of the understeer that is endemic to the Subaru lineup, but I felt very comfortable with the safety margin it gave when driving hard. Despite rather energetic movements of the gas and brake pedals and some flailing of the steering wheel, the Forester remained very drama-free even following the brutally fast Prodrive. I wouldn't say that I stayed very near it's tail, but the Forester acquitted itself in a far better manner than I expected. Subaru created a rather competent vehicle with the Forester, and STi has improved upon it with some quality work. If you have to live with only one vehicle, this one is extremely easy to be monogamous with.
0-100km/h (0-63mph) in the high 6's is performance that will give a lot of vehicles a scare. This is performance that you would expect from a quick sports sedan, not an SUV that doesn't have a BMW badge and V8 in it. For something so close to stock in this department, the Forester had the grunt to make ample use of the STi suspension bits and 17", 225-series rubber on lightweight STi rims. From a stop, the Forester moves off in a deceptively smooth manner that is hard to match up with the numbers on the speedometer. I never felt a lack of power even while going around tight corners going up a rather steep incline, and neither did the front wheels going by their howls of protest. Subaru's decision to give the Forester a different tune than it's WRX brethren for this model becomes apparent at this point. The top-end lacks the forcefulness of the STi with it's 8000rpm redline, instead running low of forward motion after 6500rpm, but has instead an abundance of low- to mid-range power. Very stress free when either cruising around town or working the engine in the mountains.
Soon, all to soon, we are back on the expressway. Here is another area that the Forester does well, cruising at eye-popping and wallet-emptying speeds with no sign of stress at all. Wind noise is rather low, with the majority of it coming from the door mirrors. Road noise is also commendable, though the wide rubber certainly increased it beyond stock. I felt that I could easily drive 8 hours straight, something I couldn't claim for the Prodrive STi which had tired me out quite quickly. Alas, we are back, and I must bid the Forester goodbye.
In this era of gas-thirsty SUV's, the fact that the JDM Forester XT Turbo gets 13km/litre (32.5mpg) is also an eye-opener. Getting performance from a JDM turbo isn't that noteworthy anymore, but getting 2.0 NA gas mileage at the same time is. That is on top of it's very good power and torque. With it's easy driving style, good visibility, comfortable and spacious seating, decent mix of power and the STi bits giving you some serious performance abilities, this is truly a case of having your cake and eating it. Oh, have I mentioned that America will finally be getting the Turbo Forester soon? Talk about good news.