REMEMBER when the "Rex" became a household name back in the '90s?

The raw driving experience, outstanding grip and turbocharged power captured the attention of purists around the nation.

Subaru's WRX was the performance pin-up, but in recent times it's come under criticism for going soft - both in appearance and ability.

Yet the fourth generation has arrived with a much tougher outlook, with the Rex leader starting from a super sharp $49,990. That's a 10-grand reduction on the previous retail price - not that many WRX STI buyers would have been paying that in recent times, many dealers have been heavily discounting ahead of this model's arrival.

The STI is the hero of the WRX family, and it has just touched down a few weeks after the stock-standard range arrived.

It's available in two trims, base STI and STI Premium which starts at $54,990.

Comfort

With carbon-look inlays around the shifter, stereo and above the glovebox, the STI looks and feels more upmarket.

It retains its sporty virtues, with the bucket seats and flat-bottom steering wheel, along with the racy red backlighting of the gauges.

Sitting on a larger wheelbase and shifting the A-pillar forward 200mm has created more cabin space and the driver has a higher hip point. With the wing mirrors mounted on the front door panels, lower dashboard and window sills, along with a new quarter window, it makes for an improved outlook and vastly reduced blind spot.

Even with taller front passengers there is reasonable rear seat accommodation for two adults. Three can be achieved although there is the transmission tunnel which impedes legroom for the centre pew.

Driver gauges are easily legible, but the digital speedo is extremely useful given how quickly the STI can rip to the speed limit.

The Harman Kardon stereo is a nice step up, as we've found Subaru systems fiddly and time-consuming to navigate in the past.

On the road

More control has been the focus, rather than pure speed.

With a more rigid platform and stiffer suspension, along with remarkably sharper turn-in, Subaru has resurrected the Rex essence.

The carryover 2.5-litre turbocharged boxer engine which produces 221 kilowatts of power and 407 Newton metres of torque sits beneath the skin, partnered only to a quick shifting six-speed manual with very short throws between cogs.

It delivers a wonderful whoosh of power above 3500rpm and keeps pulling to the redline…but you have to keep it spinning hard to maintain it in the sweet spot.

With that speed at your disposal you need confidence when heading into a bend, and it's aided by the centre differential which continually monitors the drive between axles to maximise cornering ability. It can be set to auto or you can select the ratio most suited to your driving style.

Active torque vectoring, which applies the brake to the inner front wheel when cornering for more neutral steering, also helps deliver rail-like performance in the twisties.

We had to head to the track, Wakefield Park near Goulburn, to actually challenge the WRX STI in a corner. Subaru says its figures show Porsche-like cornering performance, and it is mighty impressive.

Yet it does it all with relatively limited fanfare with a subdued exhaust soundtrack.

For a performance car the suspension soaks up bumps and lumps pretty well, although there is some tyre noise at highway speeds.

What do you get?

The standard features include Bluetooth audio streaming, dual zone climate control air conditioning, cruise control, Harman Kardon stereo with eight speakers, sub-woofer and amplifier, sat nav, D-shaped leather trimmed sports steering with red stitching and audio controls, push button start with smart key, colour display, daytime running lights, sports kit and a rear limited slip differential.

Premium adds BBS 18-inch alloy wheels (exactly the same size tyres), electric sunroof, heated front seats, heated door mirrors, wiper de-icer, leather trim and an eight-way adjustable power driver's seat.

It's also the safest Subaru ever made - with seven airbags and a reversing camera helping achieve a five-star rating.

Practicality

There are two cup holders in the console while each door is capable of holding a bottle.

Just in front of the shifter is a handy slot for phones, MP3 players and keys, just next to a 12 volt plug. There is another 12v socket in the console, also with a USB port.

Back seats fold 60-40, and there is easy access to the child seat anchorage points on the parcel shelf.

Front and rear door openings are enlarged, for improved entry and exit.

Running costs

Servicing is every six months/12,500km, and while there is no capped price servicing plan yet expect Subaru to move on this in the near future.

Fuel consumption is about 11 litres for every 100km, but that can quickly climb when exploring the STI's abilities.

Insurance may be prohibitive for some, so it may require some shopping around to get cover.

Funky factor

Looking much meaner, this is the appearance which Rex owners love.

It has a wide and low stance, improved snout, along with the sports body kit and 18-inch alloys.

The big rear wing can be removed without cost…although we're not sure if an STI buyer would dare.

Our choice would be the Premium model with the BBS alloys, but it could look even better with 19-inch alloys to fill out the arches.

The lowdown

Subaru has found the STI's mojo.

At $49,990 it is just $6000 more than the top-spec WRX which has a less powerful 2.0-litre engine.

Subaru has positioned the STI well following the proliferation of quick, compact cars now on the market.

The pricing is a much more sensible progression through the WRX range.

This WRX STI may not be as raw as the originals, the power delivery is more linear and it doesn't feel like it will throw you into a hedge at any second, but this should please those looking for a combination of comfort and performance.

What matters most

What we liked: Super responsive steering, lovely power sweet spot above 3500rpm, tougher looks, amazing in the bends.

What we'd like to see: More sporting exhaust note, bigger alloys to fill out those wheel arches, automatic option.

Warranty and servicing: Three-year unlimited kilometre warranty. Servicing is every six months or 12,500km.

VITAL STATISTICS

Model: Subaru WRX STI.

Details: All-wheel drive performance sedan.

Engine: 2.5-litre turbocharged horizontally opposed boxer engine generating maximum power of 221kW @ 6000rpm and peak torque of 407Nm @ 4000rpm.

Transmission: Six-speed manual.

Consumption: 10.4 litres/100km.

CO2: 242g/km

Bottom line plus on-roads: WRX STI $49,990; WRX STI Premium $54,990.



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