Classic: The Subaru Impreza 22B-STi

By Ronan Glon

March 07, 2014

The limited-edition Subaru Impreza 22B-STi is remembered as one of the most iconic Japanese sports cars of the 1990s.  Although it boasts a menacing look and is packed to the brim with race-derived technology, it owes its existence to the homely Leone and Subaru’s aspiration to take on big names in the ruthless world of rallying.
Subaru timidly made its first steps in rallying when it fielded three modestly modified Leones in the 1980 edition of Kenya’s Safari Rally.  The automaker sporadically participated in rally events over the course of the 1980s and finally became seriously involved in the sport in 1990 when it asked an English company named Prodrive to develop a race-going version of the turbocharged Legacy RS.  Designed to compete in the Group A class, the Prodrive-prepared Legacy made its competition debut that same year at the Safari Rally. 
Subaru placed a young Scottish pilot named Colin McRae at the wheel of the Legacy RS the following year.  McRae took first place in four races and went on to win the British Rally Championship in 1991, marking a major milestone for the burgeoning Subaru team.  The Legacy proved well-adapted to rallying because it featured permanent all-wheel drive and a low center of gravity thanks to its flat-four engine.
McRae won the British Rally Championship again in 1992, prompting Subaru’s move up to the more competitive World Rally Championship in time for the 1993 season.  The rally program was an expensive endeavor in spite of a generous sponsorship deal from cigarette makerState Express 555 but it paid off by boosting sales around the world.  For decades, Subaru’s quirky breed of all-wheel drive cars was mostly popular in rural areas and the rally campaign helped the automaker break into the mainstream.  
The Legacy retired with panache by winning the 1993 Rally New Zealand, marking Subaru and McRae’s first-ever WRC win, and Prodrive chose to replace it with the then-new Impreza WRX because it was smaller and lighter than the second-gen Legacy Subaru was preparing to roll out.  Like its predecessor, the WRC-spec Impreza WRX was finished in an eye-catching shade of dark blue with contrasting gold wheels, a livery that defined Subaru race cars for nearly two decades.
An exceptionally well-balanced machine, the WRX helped McRae take home the 1995 WRC Driver’s Championship and enabled Subaru to grab the Constructor’s Championship from two-time winner Toyota.  Prodrive continuously improved the car and Subaru captured the Constructor’s title again in 1996 and 1997.
Subaru was turning 40-years old in 1998.  It decided to commemorate its birthday early and celebrate its three consecutive Constructor’s titles by building a close-to-production concept called WRcar-STi that was presented at the 1997 edition of the Tokyo Motor Show.  The rally-inspired show car was unanimously hailed as one of the highlights of the event. 
Faced with an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the public and the press, Subaru announced the WRcar-STi concept would reach production as a highly-exclusive, limited-edition model christened Impreza 22B-STi.  Production kicked off in Subaru’s Ota, Japan, factory in March of 1998.
The 22B was powered by a balanced, hand-built 2.2-liter flat-four engine that made 276 horsepower at 6,000 rpms and a generous 267 lb-ft. of torque from just 3,200 rpms.  The engine gave the car its name: 22 stood for the displacement and B was an internal code for turbo.  Developed exclusively for the 22B, the flat-four was equipped with metal headgaskets, forged pistons and sodium-filled exhaust valves.  The intercooler was fitted with an innovative system that sprayed nearly its entire surface area with a mist of water in order to dissipate heat.
Power was transferred to all four wheels via a strengthened five-speed manual transmission with short gear ratios for improved acceleration.  A driver-controlled center differential made it possible to alter how the power was split between the two axles. 
To complement the extra grunt, the 22B boasted upgraded brakes all around, a twin-plate clutch disc and a lower, stiffer suspension setup that included Blistein springs, Eibach shocks and numerous components crafted out of aluminum. 
The WRcar-STi’s dynamic design made the transition from concept to production.  Only available in Sonic Blue Mica, the 22B featured a rally-inspired body kit consisting of fender flares, aggressive bumpers on both ends and a two-way adjustable rear spoiler.  A STi-specific cherry red emblem on the front grille and Pirelli-wrapped 17-inch BBS wheels painted gold rounded out the major visual updates on the outside.
Subaru engineers put a big focus on reducing weight so ABS brakes and features like a CD player were left out.  Instead, the 22B featured a function-over-form cockpit with a three-spoke steering wheel, bucket seats for the front passengers and analog gauges with white faces.  The dashboard was coated in an anti-reflective material similar to the one used on WRC-going cars.
The 22B-STi was sold exclusively online, a bold move at a time when not all households had an internet connection.  The 400 examples offered in Japan were spoken for in the blink of an eye in spite of a base price that was colossally higher than that of a regular STi, making the car an instant classic in its home country and a rare forbidden fruit in the United States.  Other countries had more luck: 24 additional examples of the 22B were built for export and distributed by local importers in right-hand drive markets like the United Kingdom and Australia.