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New Car Tests

First Drive          It has the performance but what about the prestige?

Engineers at Subaru's secretive tuning arm, STi, have a new mission in life. No longer satisfied with making high-performance Imprezas, the group has declared: "We want to build the world's ultimate Subarus. We want our relationship with Subaru to be like BMW's M badge or Mercedes' AMG."

The news was delivered at the launch of the latest addition to STi's growing stable, the limited-edition S204. Only 600 will be built. Set to arrive in Australia eventually as a grey import, the S204 is said to have the power and the pedigree to make the company's latest dream come true.


So how does this new saloon stack up? Is it the M3 of the STi line-up? The answer isn't quite that straightforward. On the road, the S204 is sensational. Inheriting a reworked 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder boxer engine from its predecessor, the S203, the car puts out 320bhp at 6,400rpm, while torque is 432Nm at 4,400rpm. The 0-100kph sprint is expected to take around 4.5 seconds, and the top speed is 250kph.



From 3,000rpm, stronger mid-range torque means the driver can make better use of third gear, particularly in long corners, and still have plenty of revs for lightning exits. Push it beyond 6,000rpm, however, and the retuned exhaust note invades the cabin as it takes on a primeval howl. The six-speed gearbox has short throws. But for a car costing upwards of A$54,000 - that's $17,500 more than a standard Japan-spec STi - you'd expect to have your pants blown off. Although the S204 is quick out of the blocks, it's not explosive, and could do with another 50hp.


However, there are no complaints about the handling. The newcomer gets a stronger chassis, better roll rigidity and revised suspension. But it's the innovative step of fitting what STi calls gperformance dampersh to the body structure between the front and rear suspension strut towers that makes the difference. Apart from their ability to iron out vibrations and bumps, plus give a superb ride, they permit smoother initial turn-in, deliver more information to the driver and virtually eliminate understeer. The best-handling STi so far, this car devours corners, helped partly by the grippy Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres, which combine effortlessly with chunky four-piston Brembo brake calipers.


Inside, though, it's a different story. The cabin is based on a stock STi's, but designers have only added two leather Recaro seats - which are too tight across the hips yet cost $6,000 each - and a few extra yards of high-quality leather.

As for the exterior, lose the rear wing, S204 badge and 18-inch BBS alloys, and you'd mistake this for a current STi. Yet while work is needed on the aesthetics, nothing comes close at this price for performance and cornering potential. So STi hasn't

quite built a car worthy of BMW's M Division - but it's close.

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