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First drive: 2016 Subaru WRX STI Series.HyperBlue

If the vanilla Subaru WRX STI is still too subtle, try the Series.HyperBlue

Subaru’s sportiest offering stays old school, with just enough refinement to make it worthwhile.

When Subaru debuted the all-new WRX STI back in early 2014, there was a lot to be excited about – a significantly stiffer structure, a new, more aggressively tuned suspension system, and a revamped interior to go along with the thoroughly rethought exterior.

With the imminent demise of the STI’s biggest rival, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, the future looked especially bright for Subaru’s top-spec performance sedan. But in just a few short years, the automotive landscape has changed rather dramatically, and the STI now finds worthy competition in the Volkswagen Golf R and the Ford Focus RS, the latter of which is just starting to make its way into U.S. showrooms this summer.

Not one to rest on its laurels, Subaru has sought to inject some additional excitement into the STI with the Series.HyperBlue package. Just 700 examples of this very blue WRX STI will make their way to the United States. Along with the exclusive paint shade, the Series.HyperBlue STI sports matching blue interior stitching, unique black 18-inch BBS wheels with matching mirror caps and badging, and all 2016 WRX STI models receive a new infotainment system with a nine speaker, 440-watt Harman Kardon audio system. The blind-spot warning system and a backup camera from the STI Limited are also included as standard here in the Series.HyperBlue model.

All told, the WRX STI Series.HyperBlue makes for a comprehensive package on paper, but how does it stack up out in the real world? Key fob in hand and a lead foot at the ready, I ventured out into the urban sprawl and back roads of northeast Los Angeles to find out.

Seek no subtlety here

If the STI’s raucous exhaust note and eye catching rear wing weren’t enough to make this performance sedan stand out in a parking lot, the HyperBlue paint should do the trick.

Smurf jokes aside, the hue suits the STI’s silhouette quite well, finding the sought-after line between striking and gaudy and holding fast to the preferable side of the equation. That said, while the STI has never been a model that shies away from attention, in this new bold color its intentions are made in no uncertain terms.

Yet for those who’re ready for something that beyond the iconic World Rally Blue paint and gold BBS wheel combination of the STI Launch Edition, the Hyper Blue’s pairing with black accents gives the car a more contemporary style that sits well with the uprated luxury content found within the cabin. Aesthetic restraint has never been a hallmark of STI design, and for those that embrace that approach the Series.HyperBlue’s visual appeal is undoubtedly compelling.

Proven dynamics come at a price

When Subaru was developing the new WRX STI, they set a shockingly lofty benchmark to hit for handling dynamics – the Porsche 911 Carrera S. Considering the STI’s price tag is a fraction of what the Porsche commands, it’s certainly an admirable accomplishment that they did in fact achieve similar cornering capability, but getting there on a budget proves to have some concessions.

Smurf jokes aside, the hue suits the STI’s silhouette quite well, finding the sought-after line between striking and gaudy.

Subaru is surely banking on the fact that potential STI owners are dyed in the wool enthusiasts, and perhaps the most compelling evidence of that can be found in the car’s suspension tuning. While not outright objectionably harsh, it avoids complaint only by the narrowest of margins, and it’s here where cars like the Golf R gain the most ground on the STI.

While the Volkswagen has optional – and very well tuned – adaptive dampers that allow the car’s suspension to switch from unyieldingly stiff to downright cushy at the push of a button, the Subaru makes do with static shock absorbers. The result is that in the STI, you’re subjected to its aggressive suspension tuning at all times, whether or not you want to be.

The Subaru’s 305 horsepower, 2.5-liter turbocharged four cylinder proves to be another weak spot for the STI. Unchanged since 2008 with a lineage that can be traced back to the 2004 WRX STI, the EJ257 is really starting to show its age.

When the latest iteration of this motor originally debuted its performance was compelling, but the game has changed significantly in the years since. Beyond its lackluster output by current standards, the 2.5-liter relies heavily on the boost to make power, which results in prominent turbo lag under about 3800 rpm. This characteristic would be more forgivable if it weren’t for the fact that turbocharging technology has made significant advances in the last few years, the results of which can be seen in numerous turbocharged performance cars on the market today. Many of these deliver peak torque lower in the rev range than where the STI’s engine just starts to wake up.

2016 Subaru WRX STI Series-HyperBlue
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

But when it does, you quickly remember what made the STI such a sensation to begin with, and its unique growl is an unmistakable Subaru hallmark that serves to buoy a lot of its perceived shortcomings.

Getting with the times

One particularly notable upgrade included with all 2016 STI models is the new infotainment system featuring Subaru’s Starlink connected services. Along with the system’s MySubaru remote services, which allow you do things like locate your vehicle and lock/unlock it from a desktop PC or mobile app, it also boasts a separate Apple CarPlay-like companion mobile app that allows you to stream in content from iHeartRadio®, Stitcher, calendar programs, news sources and other feeds into the infotainment system from an iOS or Android device.

But beyond its feature set, the new system is simply worlds apart from the one it replaces in terms of speed, ease of use, and overall presentation.

In the STI, you’re subjected to its aggressive suspension tuning at all times, whether or not you want to be.

It’s still a step or two behind the best systems currently on the market, but the seven inch touchscreen is crisp and responsive to touch commands. The menus are intelligently laid out and it functions as expected overall – none of which are ways I would describe its predecessor.

It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but I can’t help feeling like there’s more work to be done with the Subaru WRX STI, and ultimately much of it is centered around the price tag. My tester came out to $39,970 as equipped (with destination), more than a thousand bucks over the bottom line of the 2016 VW Golf R we reviewed earlier this summer.

The Golf R was equipped with the optional adaptive suspension and the Driver Assistance Package, which includes features like Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Departure Warning, Rear Traffic Alert and Park Distance Control. Along with a more modern drivetrain and one of the best infotainment systems on the market, it’s tough to justify the STI’s higher price tag despite the special edition package and all that’s included with it.

But then again, for all the similarities between these two cars, they yield substantially different personalities, and in turn, appeal to different buyers. The good news for diehard Subie fans is that the WRX STI Series.HyperBlue brings with it nothing but improvements that are applied to an already solid formula.

For the rest of us, perhaps the takeaway here is that as good as the STI Series.HyperBlue is, the competition is making the choice harder than ever.

Highs

  • Quirky, yet compelling looks
  • Gutsy engine note
  • New infotainment system is a huge improvement over predecessor

Lows

  • Prominent turbo lag
  • Lacks overall refinement versus competition