I drove the 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STI backwards. Not in the reverse gear sense, but leaving Palm Springs it's only a very short climb up a straight, steep highway before you get to the kind of roads we car guys can usually only dream about. As state route 74 climbs up to Pinyon Crest, overlooking the Anza-Borrego state park, the road twists and turns, looping back on itself over and over again as it forms tight hairpins. Cliffs rise dramatically on one side and drop thousands of feet on the other.
Palm Springs is kind of like Las Vegas without the seediness. A desert oasis that attracts people looking for golf and happy-ending-free massages rather than poker and hookers. It's still the kind of town where every fourth car costs more than your typical friendly, deprecating hotel staffer will earn in a lifetime of fluffing pillows and decanting fruity cocktails. Up here, on 74, where the views are beautiful and the driving better, the cars that the citizens of Palm Springs own are out in force, ferrying their over-the-hill occupants up and over the long way out of town.
But today, the STI and I don't have time for old men possessing Ferraris or driving their Porsches badly. Today, we've got ground to cover and the tools to make it happen. Quickly.
When I say I drove the STI backwards, what I mean is that pulling out of the hotel parking lot, I switched the throttle mapping into Sport Sharp, the differential to max, the traction control off and gunned it. By the time we reached the first hairpin, the STI and I had already found the rev-limiter and arrived at an agreement. I was going to drive it hard, and it was going to let me.
At about 4,000rpm, the turbo starts spooling up and the STI begins to make real power. Its mad rush forward is accompanied by a roar from the intakes in front of you and a scream from the four exhausts behind. But up here, with the throttle to the floor, there's not time to appreciate the 2.5L boxer's glorious howl. Hairpins arrive sooner than expected, demanding hard braking. The rev-limiter arrives faster—once the engine gets going, get ready to shift. Heel and toe, normally blunted by the decay caused by lack of practice, falls into place, of necessity.
Ten minutes in and the frustration I've felt driving slower cars through New York City or the cramped confines of the Catskills is completely gone. Reawakened are the reasons I do this, and the reasons I don't. Rounding a fast right-hander in third, then fourth gear, pushing all four wheels to hold the line, I pass an unexpected overlook on the left. Gathered are at least a dozen motorcycle cops, stopping for an afternoon coffee. Speed allows only a glance, but it's long enough to see heads turn in the kind of synchronicity usually reserved for Wimbledon. My mind's eye pictures sprayed coffee as well, but the rest of me is already at the next corner, struggling to hold the throttle steady to the apex. Speed is my friend, keeping me safe from whatever lies behind. Far behind.
Turn right off route 74, and 234 will take you through Idyllwild and back down to I-10, scarcely pausing for a straight along the way. You come out about 20 miles from Palm Springs, about an hour later. Making this either the slowest, or fastest trip I've ever taken.
Onto Los Angeles' main east-west thoroughfare and into plain old Sport mode, the differential adjusted for straight-line stability. The sat/nav reads 99 miles and nearly two hours to go. It takes me four.
Enraged by the six or so hours they spend in a car every day, LA's population doesn't much like being held up at much below 80 once the snarls and bottlenecks clear. Traffic flows fast out here, requiring a readjustment from the East Coast's overbearing slowness. Back home, driving something this red with this many bulges at anything near 80 mph would be unthinkable, a literal beacon for every state trooper lurking by the roadside. But, speed is still speed and red is still red, even in California. I take it relatively easy; my self-imposed speed limiter is set at 85.
That's not much slower than I was taking those hairpins on 74, but there I was focusing on the road. Here, stuck in traffic I'm focusing on the car. The wide, grippy tires snare every ripple and rut, pulling the car along with them. The suspension bounces and crashes along those same imperfections. Keeping the STI in a straight line requires a firm hand and quick reactions.
Apparent now too is the engine noise. On the highway it's an ever present grumbling, adding to the road noise emanating from all four tires.
Evaluated subjectively in this environment, the STI would fair poorly. The engine's too peaky for easy speed changes, the ride is just plain awful, and you can't hold a cup of coffee with one hand and steer with the other. A pot hole could send you off the road. But, I drove the car backwards, getting the opportunity to see it in its most favorable environment - the mountain road - first. Right here, on the highway, in traffic, the STI sucks, but overriding every bad input is the memory of the magic this car is capable of. Every jolt, every groan, every floored throttle with no acceleration just serves to remind me of what the STI can do when its in its element, and for that I love it.
Part Two will appear on Monday, stay tuned.
Photography: Grant Ray