Subaru WRX STI review & buyer's guide
WRX STi is such a pure driving experience that only real drivers need apply. It’s a hoot to drive it like you mean it - very satisfying - but hard work for ordinary driving in traffic. Classic performance car paradox...
A replacement STi is not due until 2019, so for 2018 Subaru has done what any self-respecting carmaker will do - there’s a new bumper and grille, plus 19-inch alloys - biggest wheels ever on an STi. Plus Kermit-green brake calipers. Yesss!
Easiest way to train-spot the 2018 STi is: the building-site hi-viz brake calipers. Not so sure that’s a stylistic move forward - but it is certainly distinctive. Check them out below.
Normally these additions would not be enough to motivate me to review a car, but when the very nice girl from Subaru rings and says we’d like to lend you an STi for review for a week, it would be uncharitable to say ‘no’. I mean, chivalry’s not dead, and I would hate to hurt her feelings...
The powertrain remains a real hoot - albeit ageing, and albeit out-grunted by some newer entrants.
The peaks are 221kW @ 6000rpm and 407Nm @ 4000. A very healthy step up from non-STI WRXs - but you do have to feed it 98 RON unleaded.
I guess the big story there is the mid-range power delivery - it’s in front of the Volkswagen Golf R there. But not the Focus RS.
When you’re indulging yourself - just keep the tacho between 4000 and 6000 revs - very satisfying.
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This one I tested is the base-model STi - and it’s unbelievably affordable given the sheer breadth of capability. You’ll get it on the road for $55 grand here in Australia.
This car is outrageously cheap up front, and hardly ‘poverty’ inside. But the insurance is likely to make your eyes water, and then there’s the servicing - still due every six months, when most of the competition has moved to 12. So you better factor in $700-$800 a year there. And of course, you’ll have to keep jamming super-premium unleaded down its gullet if you know what’s good for you.
If there’s a class of interior comfort called ‘harsh comfortable’ - this is it. It’s a performance-driving-centric cabin arrangement. And it’s poverty in the back seat. This car is not the place to shop for opulence - and obviously the interior was not where they spent the big bucks in R&D. Instead they had a very serious conference with Isaac Newton.
You can delete the absurd towel rack on the rear deck for $300 - much better for flying under the radar. I’d be doing that - but if you are young and dumb, perhaps not. As a practical matter, it achieves nothing - except of course make you stand out in traffic. Officer, look at me! (Just what you want…) Or, you could cut out the middleman and just put your license in the barbeque…
The minus-$300 'towel rack'
It’s been a couple of years since I last reviewed an STi - and I note with some relief that Subaru’s badge gluing-on department is still punching well above its weight with this car. No budgets have been cut there.
There are badges on the front and the back, the brakes, the wheels, the mats, the scuff plates, the headrests, the steering wheel, the centre console, and I probably missed a couple...
Counting them is beyond the basic capacity for numeracy required by the motoring journalist’s code of competency. Anyway, the chance of forgetting your car is an STi, from any angle is still minus 273 degrees C …
Driving an STI
I love this car - it’s such a paradox. It’s a burden to drive it in traffic, and it’s not pleasant to take to the shops for the bread, milk and ammo. When you let it off the chain, it’s often more capable than you, and that’s a wholly humbling experience. And if you can drive it like a WRX STi - well, you probably shouldn’t drive like that on a public road.
It’s also a hard car to drive well - so if you’re into the whole ‘driving finesse’ thing - you know: slow is smooth, and smooth is fast - then the WRX STi is a continuous self-improvement challenge. And if you don’t know what that means, I’m pretty sure Toyota still makes the Yaris...
It’s always very traumatic giving back an icon like the STi. It leaves scars. Moving on, though: is the STI right for you? Very hard question to answer. Yet, let us do that, or die like Cletus in the attempt.
There are three flavours of STi in the range - poverty, premium and Spec-dot-R.
Poverty, which is a term Subaru does not use, is actually not all that hard to cop. Standard items are cruise control, dual-zone climate air, the full infotainment package, a 5.9-inch centre LCD and eight speaker Harmon Kardon audio. That’s about $51,000 plus on-roads - it’s just a life-support system for the awesome dominatrix driveline, basically.
Premium costs another $5800 - and for that you get a sunroof and you will sit on dead cow - probably more than one - plus the electronic oversight stuff - blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, front and side-view monitors … like that. You also get power-adjustable heated seats, auto-dimming rear-view mirror. So, that’s the hard, fast version of incipient luxury. Dominatrix with a velvet glove.
Spec.R adds $1750 - basically you get front Recaros plus 8-way power adjustment for the driver, but here, Dominatrix giveth with one hand and taketh with the other (it’s always the way) because the seat memory function is removed.
Download the full WRX STI specs here >>
Is WRX STI right for you?
This next bit is for you, if you are quivering at the dealership, poised to drop the big bucks on that horizontally opposed, symmetrically all-wheel driven impossible to please mechanical mistress.
The reality is that every drive is a lesson about frustration and insatiability - and make no miscalculation here: you’re the one in the latex gimp suit and it’s you doing the boot licking. (You can tell I’ve thought about this in extensive detail. I live my life below the belt, in a dungeon. You always look at me like that’s a bad thing.)
This is a harsh, draining car to drive. It’s wholly unpleasant in a mundane driving context. I mean, you’re not going to wear the gimp suit down the shops, right? Not unless you want to be on the news.
But it is awesome to have a red-hot go in an STi. You will have a Cheshire cat grin in that gimp suit - and I’d be lying if I said I did not scope exactly the right bend on exactly the right gravel - with loads of vision, plenty of runoff and nothing to hit, crank up the centre diff, have a judicious lift mid corner and then just dial it back straight with the throttle.
Forgive me, father, for I have sinned in this respect - and I would do it again on every day ending in ‘Y’. Commit me to hell if you must. The STi is designed for that stuff.
And for all you social justice warriors who think that’s unacceptable - get back in your friggin’ boxes. Do us all a favour: Hold your breath for five minutes. What’s unacceptable is driving like that in a residential street.
If you do it in the right location, well inside the control envelope, inside the limits of your own ability, it’s no different to a helicopter pilot practising an autorotation - because some day, the turbine’s going to quit for real…
Buying an STI ... or 'just' a WRX
So I guess there are three factors about buying an STi - and the first one is entirely subjective. You just want one. OK - understood. In that case, make friends with the ‘madam lash’ reality - otherwise the underlying harshness and fatiguing character of the STi might take the gloss off, long-term.
The next factor is the car itself, and factor three is you. In reality, the performance potential of an STi - and its competitors - is insanely high. So the key objective questions there are: Are you ever going to exploit that performance, and: Do you even have the ability to do that?
Most people aren’t, and most people don’t - and for this reason alone, I strongly suggest everyone on the cusp of STi ownership have a good long look at WRX Premium - which still has outstanding limits, is very satisfying to drive, and much more pleasant to use as a daily driver - especially the CVT version.
Objectively, many STi owners would be better suited to a standard WRX - but this is only if you take bragging rights out of the equation. A WRX is a car. A WRX STi is an icon. Big difference, subjectively.
My most recent WRX review >>
Most people don’t have the ability to drive an STi like an STi, and there are few opportunities to do that reasonably and safely, out there in the real world. These opportunities are only ever occasional. Objectivity - so limiting.
I say this in the spirit of you making a selection with your intellect, as opposed to your reproductive organs, which, if you are a man, do tend to be somewhat single-minded and often appear not to act, overall, on balance, in one’s long-term best interests…
Buying a WRX instead
If you do step down - across, whatever - into WRX Premium CVT you will save $2000 compared with the poverty STi, you’ll lose 24 kilowatts in peak power - but get there 400 revs earlier, and the mid-range power delivery gap is not that significant. And you’ll get to run it on 95-octane unleaded.
But the big difference is: WRX Premium is a superb daily driver. WRX CVT is not as quick to 100 kays an hour (6.3 for the CVT Rex, 6.0 for the manual and 5.2 for the STi) - but I would tell you the CVT is amazingly responsive on the fly, and none of these cars are designed for drag racing.
In terms of cornering and absolute limitations there, STi rolls on 245/35R19 Vs WRX 245/40R18 - and of course there’s the tweakable centre diff on the STi - but this is all just going to impact the way it feels at the limit, rather than the absolute amount of grip. STi is sharper, certainly - and that usually also means less margin between grip and slip.
It’s hardly as if a standard WRX is unresponsive or unsatisfying.
Honda Civic Type R - same price as the base STi. Lacks the all-wheel drive. Line-ball on performance. Looks absurd - like the car James T Kirk would drive on shore leave.
It's fast, and just as draining as an STi - if you’re shopping for the right dominatrix, this is probably the closest competitor.
Civic Type R is an impressive car - but really not that impressive in the context of new Honda versus ageing STi.
And Honda’s struggling in Australia, too, which impacts everything about customer interaction with the brand.
Ford Focus RS: also line-ball on price - more powerful, faster, has a longer service interval, and runs on 95 RON. This is a performance special with an incredible wall of mid-range power delivery (440Nm from 1600rpm to 5000rpm) - yes, I did say ‘power’ and yet quoted torque and revs.
Before some alleged expert reaches for the keyboard - bad troll - this is because power equals torque times revs times a fudge factor for the units - you look at the torque spec and the revs and it tells you everything you need to know about the mid-range power - if you can crack the kooky code of applied physics.
Unfortunately the Focus RS is renowned also for engine failures from catastrophic coolant loss. So much so that the top three predictive searches on Google for ‘Focus RS engine’ are ‘failure’ ‘recall ’ and ‘issues’... (For ‘Golf R engine’ it’s ‘specs’, ‘oil’ and ‘for sale’, and for ‘WRX STi engine’ it’s ‘for sale’, ‘specs’ and ‘2017’.
(Remember, predictive search is a reflection about what online humanity is actually searching for. Engine failure, recalls and issues are the major causes for interest among Focus RS engine searchers today. That’s gotta tell you something...)
There is also Ford’s legendary customer non-support to consider. That awe-inspiring hubris in the boardroom, the default presumption of which is: Consumer Law is optional. Which in Australia, sadly, it is, if you’re a carmaker with absolutely no moral compass.
Moving on, the Volkswagen Golf R is not quite line-ball with the STi on performance (but it is awfully close - slightly less mid-range power at most revs, plus peak power 500rpm higher and therefore slightly less accessible).
Golf R is equivalent to STi on price, but, like Ford, customer non-care at Volkswagen has been outsourced to the pit of Hell. Beautiful car, let down by the people who make it, and (here in Australia) also by the people who sell it.
In comparison, Subaru’s customer support is easily in the top three among the local carmakers. It’s the single biggest difference between these two competitors and the Subaru. Of course, you only experience this difference when your testicles are against the wall and you actually need customer support.
Left-field alternative: The BMW M140i - it’s $4k more than the STi premium, but screamingly fast. OK - not all-wheel drive, but there’s a lot to love about a small rear-driver with 250 kilowatts and insane - clinical, psychotic break crazy - mid-range power delivery.
Outstanding. 500Nm from 1520rpm to 4500rpm. Torque and revs again - yes!: brain-bending mid-range power in the M140i. Here’s a car that’s not only faster - in some ways it might be even more fun, and it certainly it flies a lot further under the radar...
And then of course, you could opt instead for the base-spec V6 twin-turbo Kia Stinger - and I know that’s not a direct competitor either. It’s faster than an STi to 100 (4.9 versus 5.2 - so you’ll need the video referee there) and you’ll save a couple of grand over the base STi.
The Stinger is heavier, and has slightly less rubber on the road, and despite the twin hairdryers it runs happily on 91-octane cat’s wee. It’s going to be a lot cheaper to own a Stinger.
Stinger is not the rally-inspired whip-wielding dominatrix the STi is, but it is a $50k car I’d rather have as my only daily driver. And if I were planning any long drives, that’d be the box I’d tick as well. Unless you want to arrive lashed and exhausted. Check out my full Stinger review >>
Finally there's the Hyundai i30 N - a truly outstanding performance car, and virtually unbeatable bang for buck. Not as grunty in a straight line, and front-drive as opposed to the STI's Symmetrical AWD, but the i30 N is simply more fun than anyone deserves to have with their pants on.
The i30 N has insane pre-apex power-down capability thanks to a brilliant electronically controlled differential - you have to be brave to use it, but it's awesome, and the auto-rev matching is better than any human could ever be at downshifting like a pro. It even has crackle on over-run... Full i30 N road and track test >>
If, despite these caveats, you are still gagging for the gimp suit, your new STi will be delighted to tell you how pathetic and inadequate you are, no matter how hard you strive to please it.
If you have a refined car for regular use, and the STi is a mere indulgence - I get that. Driving an STi like you mean it - safely, prudently, but also making it perform as intended, is exactly that rolling self improvement challenge that many real drivers embrace every time they start the car. That doesn't necessarily mean driving balls-to-the-wall - it can be as simple as getting the steering inputs smooth as silk, and the gear shifts, ditto.
Check out WRX & WRX STI at Subaru Australia >>