Driving a rally-prepped Subaru BRZ, an Impreza WRX STI Rally Car, and Riding with Mark Higgins in the new 2015 Subaru WRX STI NR4
Subaru has been a big supporter of the legendary Isle of Man TT motorcycle race for the better part of four years and has now gotten its program down to a science. In the past, Subaru has had journalists along to witness Isle of Man native Mark Higgins set the automobile record for the 37.7-mile long TT course in an Impreza WRX STI in 2011 and WRX STI in 2014 and for some rally-style fun in the Subaru BRZ in 2012 and 2013. This year, Subaru combined the two events and invited us to visit the Isle of Man during the motorcycle races to check out the new 2015 Subaru WRX STI NR4 rally car, drive the old Impreza WRX STI N3 rally car, and get some seat time in a rally-prepped Subaru BRZ.
Tour of the Isle of Man TT course in a 2015 Subaru WRX STI
It’s easy to forget how capable the Subaru WRX STI is. Most owners appear to spend the majority of their time in the STIs commuting or doing doughnuts in the snow, neither of which speaks much to the capability of the car. It took a quarter of a lap around the Isle of Man TT course last week with rally ace Mark Higgins behind the wheel for me to remember just how capable a bone-stock Subaru can be. After being on the ground in the Isle of Man for no more than half an hour, I hopped in the back seat of a stock 2015 WRX STI for a lap of the TT course with Higgins as my guide. Although I’m usually a big proponent of a caffeine-induced pick-me-up, I must say that Higgins’ lap around the scenic course proved to be all I needed to conquer a bad case of jet lag. The course features tight, fast sweepers, hairpin turns, wide-open flats, and some quite awful pavement — all conditions that the WRX STI is built for. Although Higgins didn’t attempt to break his 19-minute, 15.8-second record, he did give me and my fellow passengers a good show, averaging well above 100 mph (we spent lots of time around 120 mph), all the while regaling us with stories of driving these very same roads as a teenager while growing up on the Isle of Man. Not only did the lap renew my respect of the WRX STI, but it also increased the respect I have for the motorcyclists who live, and sadly often die, the Isle of Man TT.
Were Higgins to attempt to break his record, he says he’d need more aero and possibly different gearing.
First Drive of a Subaru Impreza WRX STI Rally Car
The following morning I found myself at the former RAF Jurby. The windswept, abandoned airfield on the northern tip of the Isle of Man was used during World War II to train new pilots for the Royal Air Force and protect the nearby cities of Belfast and Liverpool from German air raids. Today it’s being used to train 10 motoring journalists of varying confidence levels how to drive a rally car. With the official unveiling of the 2015 Subaru WRX STI NR4 rally car, Subaru decided to set us loose in a previous-generation Subaru Impreza WRX STI Group N rally car on a makeshift circuit laid out on the former runways.
Although I’ve driven everything from a Coda EV (remember those?) to a Porsche 918 Spyder since I started working for MT, the one car I hadn’t been able to check off my bucket list was a Subaru rally car. Until now.
Despite having spent a considerable amount of time in super- and sports cars, nothing could prepare me for the sensory overload that was driving an honest-to-goodness rally car. It was louder than an Alfa Romeo 4C and more violent than a Hellcat — completely and utterly intimidating yet remarkably familiar. At face value there’s nothing different between driving an Impreza WRX STI rally car and the street version, but there was so much going on all at once, learning a new track and not wanting to be “that guy” who breaks the rally car, that my brain went to mush. I just couldn’t cope with it all, leading me to overshoot my braking points and miss my apexes. I even forgot to downshift going into one corner because I was focusing too much on modulating the brakes properly. (You never got any real bite until nearly halfway through the pedal travel, but then whoa baby, do they bite.)
Although I neither impressed my co-pilot, Mark Higgins, nor set the fastest lap time of the day, I did at least finally have my first addicting taste of what it was like to drive a rally car. Soon I’d discover how a driver properly exploits a rally car.
Rally-Prepped Subaru BRZ
After my less than impressive lap in the Impreza WRX STI rally car, I refocused and set my sights on setting the fastest lap in the rally-prepped Subaru BRZ the automaker brought along for us to play with. Subaru had set up a little gravel autocross course for us, and as someone who (probably somewhat foolishly) daily drove a 2000 Mustang GT during two western New York winters on all-season tires, I’m pretty confident piloting a rear-wheel drive car in the dirt.
The rally-prepped BRZ was set up almost perfectly for some dirtgoing autocross. Used by Higgins as a recce car for a Manx rally last year, the BRZ featured a Proflex rally suspension to give it a bit more ground clearance, 18-inch wheels with summer rubber attached, and a stripped and caged interior, complete with carbon-fiber bucket seats and five-point harnesses.
After a slow lap around the autocross course to familiarize myself with the layout, I set out at full speed, the BRZ shooting out rocks behind me as I took off. The BRZ felt mostly fine through the slalom — perhaps slightly less sharp than I remember — and then I approached the 360 cone, which we were to drift around. Normally in a BRZ on gravel, all you’d need to do to accomplish this would be to slow down slightly, keep the revs high, and chuck it into the corner, as a tail-happy car like the BRZ doesn’t need much coaxing to drift. However, instead of that happening, I plowed forward. Understeer. Damn. Going much slower this time, I attempted to do a quick 180-degree drift around another cone to head back the other direction. More plowing. Weird.
After I pulled back into the start-finish area and got out, I discovered the problem. The left-front tire (which was recently swapped from back-to-front) was on its cords. The group before us had so much fun that they had pretty much completely burned through the BRZ’s tires. Damn. No fast lap for me.
Ride in 2015 Subaru WRX STI NR4 Rally Car
Although all of the above activities were fun, the highlight of my trip to the Isle of Man was without a doubt having the opportunity to ride shotgun with Higgins on a shakedown run of his brand-new WRX STI NR4 rally car on the Isle of Man Rally’s Druidale stage.
Built by the JRM in the United Kingdom, the new WRX STI rally car signifies a return to rallying for Subaru in Europe, where aside from privateer teams racing older cars, Subaru has largely been absent. Designed according to FIA NR4 regulations to compete in the WRC-2 feeder series, the 2015 Subaru WRX STI NR4 rally car is very similar to the Rally America WRX STI we got a chance to ride in with Mark’s younger brother, David Higgins, late last year. The WRX STI NR4 packs a restricted 2.0-liter, turbocharged flat-four under its hood, delivering 276 hp and 413 lb-ft of torque through a five-speed dog-clutch manual gearbox.
The roughly $156,000 USD rally car had just 15 miles on the odometer when Higgins pulled up. I hopped in the passenger seat and noticed a crack already had formed toward the base of the windshield. “Hard landing,” he said. Running a tarmac suspension setup on a paved stage that requires a gravel setup would do that, he added. And with that, Higgins cranked the anti-lag system on, pinned the throttle, and took off down the narrow rally stage. Despite the fact that Higgins was unhappy with his suspension setup, I was just thrilled to be along for the ride; I had the best seat in the house to watch Higgins work as he blasted up and down the stage, flying over bumps, bottoming out, and elegantly drifting around the S-curve at the end of the course. I’ve been fortunate enough to go for brief rally car rides on Gymkhana-style circuits, but I can say all of that without a doubt pales in comparison to riding shotgun flat-out on a real European rally stage.