Fifteen hours of travel and a vaguely nauseating drive to 6,600 feet in elevation came down to three seconds of action:
Rally master Mark Higgins burst through dense Romanian fog in Subaru’s purpose-built STI time-attack racer, howled past our vantage point and … vanished again into another fog bank.
Thanks to murky weather, it was an anticlimactic glimpse of an otherwise remarkable attempt: Subaru managed to grease enough government palms to shut down 84 kilometers of the Transfagarasan Highway — a hilariously curvy stretch of asphalt bisecting the Carpathian mountains in central Romania — to allow Higgins to set a baseline record time before anyone else could do it.
Higgins eventually managed a clean run with minimal fog: 40 minutes, 58 seconds, which translates to an average speed of 76.7 mph — look at the images of Transfagarasan and you’ll get an idea how insane that number is.
We were there to watch, yes, to document the attempt, but between the timed runs, there was a bit of fun: Subaru turned us loose on the Transfagarasan in our own STIs.
I spent the first couple runs in a well-used white WRX STI getting to know the road’s myriad twists and reconnecting with the current STI’s inherent goodness. There’s a lot of it -– as good as competitors like the Focus RS and Golf R have become, there’s a raw mechanical aggression in the Subaru that’s almost been refined out of the others. The Mitsubishi Evo had it too, but we know what happened there.
Subaru STIs, all in a row
Among the handful of stock STIs, Subaru brought along a single, blue Type RA (for Ring Attack, an homage to the race STI that managed a 6:57.5 run at the vaunted Nürburgring) WRX for us to test too. If I’m being honest, I had the production Type RA pegged as a sort of “tribute edition” money-spinner with a few tweaks here and there, and I expected it to be a mildly interesting footnote to the trip. I didn’t even bother requesting seat time in the car until after lunch on the second day.
Properly tanked up with sausage, pickles and the greatest dessert in the world (Hungarian Kurtoskalacs), I set out traveling south on the north stretch of the Transfagarasan Highway, the route taking us to the same peak at which we’d watched Higgins swallowed by fog the previous day. Conditions were cool and damp, but without much in the way of standing water on the road, and the RA was able to pluck plenty of grip from the road, at least at the limits to which I was willing to push.
The RA doesn’t do much to announce itself to the casual observer; it’s arguably subtler than the regular STI thanks to the less obnoxious carbon-fiber wing mounted on black brackets. Likewise, the inside is conventional WRX save for a small numbering badge (which, incidentally, identified our car as “Number 000 of 500,” likely indicating a future as a museum piece or crusher fodder).
Launching up the hillside and into the foggy forest, firmer steering is immediately apparent, but most welcome are the RA’s altered gear ratios. This stretch of Transfagarasan is almost all second and third gear, and the stock STI often needed a quick upshift then downshift at the end of a short straight. On the same road, the RA was able to be held longer in second during some stretches and pulled more readily in third when a downshift could be avoided.
And the turns themselves? Magic. Good cars will transmit a bump through the steering wheel, maybe even indicating how large the bump is; the RA’s taut suspension and hydraulic — NOT electric — steering telegraphs ‘patch about 2 feet in diameter and an inch deep where the repaving has come loose, with some gravel in it.’ The resolution is brilliant, and it allows the driver’s subconscious to handle the required subtle adjustments so full conscious attention can be projected to the road 50 or 100 yards away.
Better drivers than me (and there are plenty) can manage this trick –- manipulating the present while visualizing the future — behind the wheel of just about anything. The rest of us benefit from a driver’s car like the STI Type RA.
I hesitate to use the word “revelation,” so instead let’s just say I get it — I know exactly why 500 enthusiasts will plunk down $50,000 for a lightly massaged Subaru WRX STI. The total equals more than the sum of its parts; add in the fact it’s a safe bet these cars will hold their value well, all while delivering a ton of fun for the lucky owner, and the value equation changes quite a bit.
If you happen to be one of those lucky owners, find the nearest twisty mountain road and consider me envious.