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Car reviews - Subaru - WRX - STI

Our Opinion

We like
Charismatic, superb control and compliance from revised suspension, sense of lightness and agility, all-weather grip and traction, race-bred cred
Room for improvement
Turbo lag, heavy clutch, brakes need a good shove, no parking sensors, thirsty, expensive, magnet for wannabe street racers and traffic police

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Subaru logo2 Nov 2017

By HAITHAM RAZAGUI

Overview

FOR the 2018 model year, Subaru applied some minor updates to the WRX STI performance flagship.

They left the EJ257 engine well alone, so all the noise, turbo lag and thirst for 98 RON Super Unleaded remain present and correct, with mostly cosmetic changes keeping this rally-bred bruiser fresh.

But what impressed us most were suspension tweaks that delivered a delightful blend of control and compliance during our week with the car.

More modern machinery still leaves the STI for dead in terms of outright performance, interior tech and everyday usability, but the mechanical feel and visceral experience this car delivers remain very special.

Price and equipment

In the face of heightened competition from VW’s cut-price Golf R Grid hyper hatch and Ford’s technology-packed Focus RS wild child, Subaru has seen fit to increase the starting cost of its WRX STI to $50,890 plus on-road costs for the 2018 model year.

In return are adaptive LED headlights with LED daytime running lights, helping address Subaru’s reputation for dimly lit driving in the hours of darkness (although high beam remains old-tech yellowy halogen). There is also a bigger and higher-resolution 5.9-inch widescreen infotainment unit, up from the tiny old 4.3-inch system, heated door mirrors and roof carrier brackets for those who need to haul things in a hurry.

Almost as bright as the new headlights are new fluorescent yellow Brembo callipers – with six pistons up front and two pistons at the rear – that clamp cross-drilled brake rotors and peep purposefully from behind the 19-inch forged alloy wheels. That’s an inch bigger than previously.

To go with the new wheels is revised suspension consisting of recalibrated springs and dampers all round plus a revised rear stabiliser bar.

Subaru also fitted a subtly redesigned front bumper and grille, added a bit of piano black interior trim and the performance car staple of red seatbelts.

The STI’s standard equipment list includes dual zone air-conditioning, satellite navigation, eight-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio system with Bluetooth audio streaming, auxiliary audio jack and two USB ports, keyless entry and start with engine immobiliser and security alarm, cruise control, automatic headlights and wipers, hill start assist in both forward and reverse, rear privacy glass and a limited-slip rear differential.

Our car was fitted with the huge STI rear wing, which costs $300, while the Premium variant costs $4750 more than the normal STI and includes an electric sunroof, front and side-view cameras, blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning and rear cross-traffic alert, leather upholstery, heated front seats, eight-way electric adjustment for the driver’s seat plus electric lumbar support adjustment and, especially for people who live in Ballarat and Canberra, a front wiper de-icer.

The STI spec.R flagship introduced with this update gets all the Premium gear plus for $1750 over the Premium and includes Recaro sports seats with eight-way electric adjustment on the driver’s side.

But at $57,690 before on-roads, the spec.R is not far off Audi S3 money, so it is really getting up there in terms of cost.

Interior

What you see is what you get with this hot Subaru and opening the door to look at the cabin carries few surprises. Grey Alcantara, red stitching, black leather and lots of black plastic.

For this running update, Subaru has mostly left the WRX STI interior alone.

There are now red seatbelts, high-gloss black trim on the electric window control surrounds, instrument panel, gearshift surround and steering wheel. And a bigger 5.9-inch touchscreen for the infotainment system.

Deeply bolstered front seats grip the body without giving the portlier among us bruises and remain comfortable for long journeys. The driving position is good and easy to adjust, with only the central armrest being located a little far back and low down for it to be usable when just cruising.

Rear passengers are also in for a good time, with comfy cushions and plenty of headroom, even in the slightly humped central position. There is just about enough legroom in the two outboard seats for tall people to sit behind a lofty driver, too. Shame, then, that there are no rear air-con vents or direct 12V or USB charging point access. A pair of cup-holders is located in the central fold-down armrest.

Isofix child seat anchorages are present and correct in the outer seats, with top tethers across all three. Subaru’s odd Velcro-attached Isofix shields are crude and look prone to easy damage but at least the connection points themselves are easily accessible. Unfortunately for those with really little kids, rear-facing infant capsules foul a large padded area on the upper of the seat-back, forcing occupants in front to have their seats positioned uncomfortably far forward.

Storage is average, with a couple of reasonably sized cup-holders, four bottle-holding door bins, a sizeable enough glove box and a fair bit of room under the central armrest. A grippy tray beneath the central stack can just about hold an iPhone SE while it is charging, but bigger phones will struggle.

Shame, as it is handy for the USB and 12V connection points above. Another pair of USB outlets is located in the central bin.

Apart from the much-needed increase in touchscreen size and clarity, the Starlink infotainment software has apparently not been updated much, which is a shame as the new version fitted to the latest Impreza and XV is excellent.

Those who have driven a Toyota will find much about the WRX system familiar, mostly in a bad way. Especially the useless and slow voice recognition.

As usual there are two more screens, one in the instrument panel that mainly performs trip computer functions including digital speed readout, currently selected gear and which of the three driving modes and many centre diff settings are enabled.

On top of the dash is a digital boost gauge, fuel consumption readout and all-wheel-drive system monitor with information about the vehicle’s current tilt angle, controlled using a little joystick between the central air-con vents.

Speaking of air-con, the dual-zone climate control system is simple to use via rotary controllers with currently selected cabin and outside temperatures shown on the dash-top readout. In traditional Japanese car fashion, the system is capable of blowing gales of ice-cold air, to the extent we regularly found ourselves setting the temperature a degree or two higher than usual.

In addition to hampering visibility in more ways than is obvious – and there are no parking sensors anywhere on this car – the big rear wing obviously weighs down the boot-lid release mechanism and there is no internal closing handle to avoid dirtying fingers.

The boot assembly also makes an awful clattering sound when closed. Inside the boot is free of any hooks, straps or recesses for securing shopping bags or small items but at least the space is well-proportioned and accessed through a decent-sized aperture.

Folding the 60:40 split-fold rear bench links the boot to the cabin through a completely flat loading floor, which is handy. And the boot lip itself is not so high that it makes adding or removing bulky items a chore.

All in all, it is a pretty practical package considering this car’s performance bent.

The main downside in this regard is the meatiness of the controls, which conspire to make the WRX STI difficult to drive smoothly enough round town to keep passengers happy.

Overly heavy steering that is also a little over-sensitive at low speeds, a strongly sprung clutch pedal with difficult to determine biting point and chunky gear selector feel are a chore. Of course, these attributes turn into a positive when fanging it, but the STI feels a little too compromised in this regard.

Noise is also an issue. Yes, the turbo flat-four makes a delightfully low, hollow burble that rises to an enthusiastic chatter at high revs that is impossible to get bored of but the road noise and often boomy cruising exhaust note do get a bit tiring.

We concluded that the WRX STI is like living close to a bar and nightclub precinct. Great fun when you want to get amongst it, but the noise and constant temptation to party wears on your nerves when it is chill-out time.

Engine and transmission

The WRX STI gets the same 2.5-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder turbo-petrol as it seems to have done forever. Its outputs of 221kW and 407Nm remain unchanged, as do the thirst and turbo lag.

It is the last Subaru engine to emit the trademark off-beat thump and when the company finally updates the STI drivetrain, we fear this sound will be consigned to the history books.

Just compare it to the comparatively characterless, much more modern 2.0-litre unit fitted to a standard WRX, or the hairdryer-like 1.6-litre turbo recently added to the Levorg wagon, to listen to what could be a much more boring future.

When the STI’s iconic, almost decade-old EJ257 powerplant inevitably succumbs to emissions regulations – as it just did in Europe – the most interesting-sounding Subaru engine could be a diesel.

For now, Subaru has ensured the STI sounds good from inside or out, the engine announcing itself with a loud throat-clearing blast from the quad exhaust exits that settles into a busy, burbling idle before gargling its way up through the gears once in motion.

Above 4000rpm with the accelerator pinned, the pulsating bass soundtrack is overlaid with an addictively manic trumpeting tone from the tailpipes. It sounds great at any speed, but the noise can get a bit monotonous on the motorway.

Like the engine, the clutch and gearshift are decidedly old-school as alluded to earlier. It is far from a pleasure to heave the STI around town, its heavy left pedal and aggressive clutch take-up making smooth low-speed progress a chore. Thankfully there is a hill-start assist function that grabs the brakes momentarily when accelerating away on an incline. Similarly, the gear lever action is meaty, clunky and doesn’t like being hurried between second and third.

Apart from the latter, both work much better and feel happier when driving quickly. Which is what this car is all about.

The STI weighs a considerable 1508kg, but even from standstill and at low urban crawling speeds the engine makes easy work of moving the mass while off-boost, provided hard acceleration is not instantly required.

We mentioned the turbo lag and the STI’s engine certainly shows its age in this regard by lacking the linear power delivery of more modern engines in rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf R or Ford Focus RS.

It can be fun feeling that boost come on strong and it is a large part of the raw, visceral character that makes this car so charismatic. But the bogged-down feeling really frustrates through a set of second-gear hairpins, where all too often the turbo is only just waking up just before the next braking point.

The answer is to go faster than you dare – without invoking a bit of troubling understeer – which is essentially what the STI is all about. So many aspects of this car compel you, as one observer put it, to drive like a yobbo.

But a yobbo with plenty of petrol money. This thing chews through 98 RON Super Unleaded faster than the massive, six-cylinder petrol-only Toyota Kluger SUV.

Combined-cycle consumption of 10.4 litres per 100 kilometres would require a decidedly un-yobbo driving style.

Despite plenty of long runs, we were much closer to the frankly astonishing official urban cycle figure of 14.0L/100km. And with a CO2 emissions figure of 242 grams per kilometre, you’d better be planting plenty of trees in your back yard.

Still, you’ll be buying this car with your eyes and heart wide open with regard to running costs and power delivery.

Ride and handling

Subaru has tweaked the springs and shocks of this latest STI and has delivered something of a magical result. Yes of course it is firm, but it is never crashy and at higher speeds it ironed out a stretch of broken bitumen better than many luxury cars we have tested. We could not believe our buttocks, especially given the new 19-inch wheels are an inch larger than before.

We had custody of this car during what meteorologists were describing as a “rain event”. Soaked bitumen, large expanses of standing water and severely damaged gravel roads truly tested the STI’s abilities.

Its abilities to keep the wheels down and an excellent, tried-and-trusted all-wheel-drive setup got the power down beautifully. Even in the challenging conditions, keeping things safe and legal precluded any discernible difference when adjusting the centre diff bias control.

The main handling flaw was a bit of understeer when piling into tight corners quickly enough to avoid turbo lag on the way out, without resorting to selecting first gear instead of the more natural choice of second. On faster corners the front end had deep grip reserves, even in the sopping wet.

Otherwise, unless on gravel, we had to really abuse this car to get it scrabbling. And when it did, it was such a mechanical-feeling thing that it is possible to sense the differentials apportioning power across the axles and front-to-back.

Few cars, least of all those in financial reach of average Australians, deliver this sense of mechanical connection with the driver any more. It makes the STI feel really quite special and provides yet another layer of charisma and character.

Although it is a hefty thing to turn, the steering wheel is not as great a source of information as the seat of the pants but it tells the driver enough to predict and control impending losses of grip and traction – as well as exploit them for fun.

Steering is one of the few parts of the car that isn’t shouting to the driver constantly during regular driving, which is just as well as it would be a bit exhausting otherwise.

Unfortunately, the steering becomes a little too lively on rippled corner surfaces, tugging to-and-fro while rattling hard enough to require a firmer grip on the wheel.

It stands out sorely due to the car otherwise feeling so controlled and composed, even in the challenging conditions of our test. Perhaps the suspension tune is now too good for the rest of the car?Brakes were a mixed bag, the impressive looking luminous yellow six-pot Brembo callipers (two-pot at the rear) and cross-drilled rotors all round disappointing with a resistive, wooden initial pedal feel that is disconcerting and confidence sapping.

Hefty leg muscle is required to push through this sensation and find a more progressive, powerful part of its travel, at which point it is not hard to summon enough deceleration to activate the hazard lights, even in the wet, again and again.

But no, the brakes never lost that initial resistance – similar to the sensation of some carbon-ceramic setups – even once we warmed them up.

It’s a flawed beast, the STI, and one that requires some learning to drive well. By comparison a Golf R is very much plug-and-play, and the better daily driver, but also probably targeting a different audience.

The Subaru WRX STI remains one of a kind. And we’re glad that it does.

Safety and servicing

Using Subaru-supplied test data under ANCAP’s Niche Vehicle Policy, the WRX range has achieved a maximum five-star safety rating, scoring 35.85 out of a maximum 37 points based on 14.85 out of 16 in the frontal offset test, a perfect 16 in the side impact test and the full two points in the pole test.

Whiplash and pedestrian protection were both considered ‘good’.

Dual frontal, side chest and curtain airbags plus one for the driver’s knee are standard, as are anti-lock brakes with electronic brake distribution, electronic stability control, traction control and advanced seat belt reminders on all five seats.

A three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty is provided with one year of roadside assistance and three years sat-nav map updates.

Service intervals are six months or 12,500km, with a three-year capped-price servicing program priced at $302.49 for the first two maintenance visits, $389.92 for the third, $604.53 for the fourth, $305.02 for the fifth and $392.17 for the sixth (correct at time of writing).

Verdict

The WRX STI is like a reverse resto-mod, with its ancient drivetrain wrapped in modern – relatively speaking – design and technology.

As a daily driver it’s not great, with the standard but rather less charming WRX an objectively superior all-rounder that is still plenty quick enough to get your kicks at legal speeds. In fact, the boggo WRX is a bit of a performance bargain, especially considering the size of the premium Subaru charges for an STI these days.

We agree that for the money it is difficult to justify the WRX STI over a VW Golf R or Ford Focus RS, especially now VW has the announced the Golf R Grid will cost $3400 less than the least expensive STI.

But only the STI can genuinely claim race-bred tech and real competition heritage. And putting aside the competition from other brands for a moment, if you’re going to take your Subaru on track or mainly use it for weekend blasts the STI is a no-brainer.

Plus, it’s the only way to get that EJ257 engine, which sounds all the better now that other performance rivals use exhaust valves, ignition cut and other trickery that deliver aural drama in ways that feel too synthetic, contrived and predictable for true enthusiasts to get excited about.

Apart from the obvious downsides we already mentioned, we found that everyone driving anything vaguely fast tried challenging us to a street race and that traffic cops seemed to take a very keen interest, even looking up at us from behind their notepads – on two occasions – while dealing with other road users they had pulled over.

It could be said that’s part of the STI’s flawed charm. And that’s something this visceral, raw and exciting car has in spades.

Rivals

Volkswagen Golf R from $47,490 plus on-road costsWith the new stripped-back Grid variant, the definitive performance all-rounder from Volkswagen stays classy but gets even more attainable. Goes harder than the bare figures suggest, yet remains a lovely way to travel when you’re not thrashing it. It’s not possible to go faster for less cash.

Ford Focus RS from $50,990 plus on-road costsIf the WRX was the iconic car of the PlayStation generation, the Focus RS is very much one for the YouTube generation courtesy of a certain Kenneth Block.

Like the WRX STI it has that blue-collar boy racer appeal and is manual only, but many more tricks up its sleeve and almost otherworldly levels of capability. As a result, it makes the $100-cheaper STI look a bit expensive.

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