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By Peter Lyon

Just don't mention the headlights... Subaru has faced all the criticism it can take over the design of the Impreza WRX. The controversy stirred by the bug-eyed machine launched two years ago has reverberated around the world, forcing the rapid launch of the car Auto Express has driven here.

Tougher opposition hasn't helped, either. Mitsubishi's Evo VII offers a sensational blend of power and grip, while Ford's Focus RS has proved you don't need all-wheel-drive to corner quickly. If the Subaru wants to keep its reputation as one of Britain's best-loved driver's cars, it's going to have to work very hard indeed. The car driven here is the new flagship STi, which goes on sale in February, priced from £30,000 - and there's no doubt it is better-looking than its predecessor. The huge rear wing, gold wheels and massive bonnet vent may be over the top, but you don't buy a bright blue car such as this to be discreet. Inside, the STi is practically unchanged apart from a smaller steering wheel and new lightweight seats.

Despite the savage facelift, Subaru is keen to point out that the really meaningful modifications are under the metal, with the most significant a more efficient turbo similar to the one used in the legendary Evolution VII. This newly fitted turbo has smaller turbines and works in conjunction with a revised exhaust system which divides boost pressure before feeding it evenly to both sides of the 2.0-litre flat-four engine.

Also, a newly located catalyst delivers an im-proved exhaust flow and sharpens throttle response. The changes have had a big effect, with the engine now delivering a significant slug of power from as little as 2,000rpm. By comparison, the previous car struggled to gen- erate any meaningful muscle below 3,000rpm. That said, the 280bhp en-gine of this Japanese-spec model (UK editions will offer 265bhp) still needs to be worked hard, and the maximum torque of 394Nm is not delivered until you hit 4,400rpm.

Acceleration times were not possible on our drive, but a conservative estimate puts the STi's 0-60mph sprint at about five seconds. And although straight-line per-formance is impressive, the vehicle's grip is simply astounding. Through long sweeping bends the car refuses to understeer, holding a line with real determination.

The extra stability comes from a significant redesign of the suspension and axles. Up front, the arrangement is moved 15mm forward to improve rigidity. Stronger components are used and there's more crossbracing, allowing engineers to add more negative camber. At the rear, the Impreza has beefed-up anti-roll bars and mounting points to stop it squirming during hard cornering.

With the new settings, more throttle input results in less understeer. In addition to the centre differential and front Suretrac LSD, Subaru also plans to offer DCCD (Driver's Control Centre Diff) in Japan. This allows the driver to choose how the transmission will deliver the power. The system can also detect wheelspin, and alter its set-up to maximise grip. As a result, corner exit speeds are higher than ever. Sadly, UK cars will not get this modification.

The only downside, if you can call it that, is the Brembo brakes. While they employ four-pot calipers with 326mm discs at the front and 316mm discs at the rear, pedal feedback is not all it should be, feeling soggy and lacking precision. The anchors still bite hard into the discs, but you can't help feeling a little short-changed.

Overall, however, the changes made to the new Impreza certainly improve the package. Get behind the wheel of one of these and the last thing people will ask about is the headlamps!

2001 CL Type S
2001 Lexus RX300 Silversport
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