PlayStation is no longer a byword for those interested in driving games, and likewise the 2017 Subaru WRX STI is these days not alone in all-wheel drive sporting circles.
In the 1990s the rise of Colin McRae Rally discs ran alongside Subaru’s world rally championship (WRC) wins. With the sole exception of the now-dead Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, the Rex was in a class of its own.
These days the Ford Focus RS is hogging the all-paw performance lineup, while the Audi S3 and Volkswagen Golf R are other popular picks.
While the current-generation WRX STI largely remains true to the gritty mechanicity of generations past, this lightly facelifted Model Year 2018 (MY18) update has indeed changed its (chassis) tune to compete with fiercer rivals.
Vehicle Style: Sports sedan
Price: $55,940 (driveaway)
Engine/trans: 221kW/407Nm 2.5 four-cylinder turbo petrol | six-speed manual
Fuel Economy Claimed: 11.2 l/100km | Tested: 12.4 l/100km
While the Impreza sedan switched to an all-new generation last year, this lightly facelifted WRX STI – and the regular WRX below it – continues with the body, chassis and interior from the now previous-generation that emerged back in 2012.
On the outside it delivers a new, slimmer six-point grille, fresh LED headlights that move the indicators from a front-bumper-insert position to inside the bezel, a new front bumper that gains more aggressive outboard recesses, and wire-mesh alloys.
Inside the souped-up Subaru also gains new gloss-black detailing and a larger screen, plus Recaro bucket seats for the newly added Spec.R flagship. But as before the likes of autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and active cruise control remain restricted to the more affordable WRX Premium automatic model only.
Mechanical changes are headlined by Brembo brakes that move from a front four- to six-piston calliper setup painted yellow, with 340mm discs up 10mm, while the unchanged twin-piston rears now get 11mm-larger 326mm rotors. Engineers have also changed the diameter of the rear stabiliser bar, and tweaked both the spring and damper setup front and rear to improve ride comfort and enhance control.
- Standard Equipment: Keyless auto-entry with push-button start, power windows and mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel, dual-zone climate control air-conditioning, leather trim with electrically adjustable driver’s seat and heated front seats, cruise control, automatic on/off wipers and LED headlights with auto high-beam and electric sunroof.
- Infotainment: 7.0-inch colour touchscreen with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB input, satellite navigation, voice control and Harman Kardon eight-speaker sound system.
- Options Fitted: Rear spoiler ($300).
- Cargo Volume: 460 litres.
The WRX STI Premium tested here is priced from $55,640 plus on-road costs, with the only option fitted being the $300-optional high-deck rear spoiler that depending on the perspective is either a showy affectation or is a ‘Rex’ trademark.
When a Focus RS costs $50,990 (plus orc) that might seem expensive, but the standard WRX STI costs $50,890 (plus orc).
Even the standard model now scores 19-inch alloy wheels on the outside and an eight-speaker Harman Kardon audio system inside, while the $4750 premium to this WRX STI Premium continues to buy an electric sunroof, leather trim, electrically adjustable driver’s seat, heated front seats, and safety technology such as a blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, and both front and side-view camera.
For the first time with this generation another $2050 extra can be spent on the $57,690 (plus orc) WRX STI Spec.R that only further adds Recaro sports buckets.
This rapidly dating cabin design is best at its clean and simple base, however. Specifically, it is fine in the WRX at $39,240 (plus orc) with its lack of tinsel.
In these lofty pricing regions the thin-plastic door trims with pleated-leather inserts, mismatched displays and the plasticky, random switchgear grate – there is a dashboard display toggle mounted between the centre vents, trip computer buttons on the lower part of the steering wheel, and audio switchgear higher up on it.
The 7.0-inch infotainment system is also yesterday’s hero, with errant iPod connectivity and a lack of digital radio or decent voice control intuition. Newer Imprezas, at half the price, soundly beat the effort made here.
Generally that’s okay, however, because few will buy a WRX STI Premium for its creature comforts. On the upside the four-door sedan is quite roomy, even if rear air-vents are lacking. The 460-litre boot volume rivals a medium-sized sedan too.
Given the fine-sounding Harman Kardon audio system is now standard on the base WRX STI model grade, however, that would seem to be where the best value equation lies. The only caveat to this is that the electrically adjustable driver’s seat hugely improves the driving position, and it’s reserved for this WRX STI Premium.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 221kW/407Nm 2.5 4cyl turbo petrol
- Transmission: Six-speed manual, AWD
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front and independent rear
- Brake: Ventilated front and rear disc brakes
- Steering: Hydraulically assisted mechanical steering
Old-school mechanicity has these days become a rarefied niche market, with the WRX STI the only contender.
Thumb the starter button and the 2.5-litre turbocharged flat four-cylinder engine fires slowly to life. Australia misses the newer 2.0-litre turbo used in Japan’s WRX STI, as well as the direct injection unit used in the WRX sold here, for fuel quality reasons.
Although the WRX STI’s 221kW of power at 6000rpm isn’t that much higher than the WRX’s 197kW, its 407Nm of torque at 4000rpm thumps its sibling’s 350Nm. It can’t beat the 440Nm of the Focus RS, though it still trumps the 380Nm S3 and Golf R.
Unlike those models, and the regular WRX, it also uses old-school hydraulically – rather than electrically – assisted steering, and it sides only with the Ford by offering a six-speed manual only.
However, it departs from that rival by including a mechanical centre differential that can be altered in ‘lock-up’ stages via a centre console-mounted toggle switch.
There is also an Auto mode that juggles torque between the axles, while Auto+ prioritises a 50:50 front/rear split, and Auto- that shifts to a 41:59 rear bias. Meanwhile the WRX STI also gets a limited-slip differential (LSD) for the front axle.
The WRX STI is raw and engaging to drive, but it’s difficult to extract its best and even at its peak the results are no better than the above hot hatchback.
The clutch is also heavy and sticky, and ride quality can be brutal at low speeds despite the revisions made to the suspension. Manual shift quality is, however, slick and precise. It will need to be used often, because there’s perilous turbo lag below 3000rpm and it can quickly feel slow if the right gear is missed. Fuel consumption can be terrifying, too.
Of course a WRX STI would long put up with such downsides because of its dynamic rewards and character.
On certain roads Subaru still makes a brilliant connection with its driver, and as speeds rise the level of comfort and control does as well. The meaty steering is fluent, the close-ratio manual makes swapping between third and fourth gear through corners easy, and the turbo pulls forcefully between 4000rpm and 6500rpm.
The front-end grips well, although not nearly as well as a Focus RS on Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres that comfortably best the Yokohama Advan Sport rubber used here, while the all-wheel drive system can be relied upon to avoid, rather than induce, power-understeer when using throttle early to exit corners.
At least not on the road there’s no lairy oversteer to be found here, as per Focus RS, but work hard and get everything right and on smooth surfaces in particular the Subaru can be enthralling to drive. We say ‘smooth’ because on country roads the mid-corner rack-rattle from the steering is appalling, and really undulating surfaces can expose the slightest of chinks with the otherwise excellent suspension.
ANCAP rating: N/A
Safety Features: Dual front, front-side, full-length curtain and driver’s knee airbags, ABS and ESC, front/side/rear-view camera, lane-departure alert, blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/unlimited km.
Servicing: Below-average six-month or 12,500km servicing at a higher-than-average cost of $302.39 for the first two, $389.02 for the third and $604.53 for the fourth.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The S3 is a posh Golf R, and while both lack the driver connection found here, they deliver with similar performance and handling, while being of far higher quality and with far greater polish.
Only the Focus RS can challenge the ‘hardcore’ nature of this WRX STI for this price, and it really does blitz Subaru’s efforts in almost every tangible way.
- Audi S3
- Ford Focus RS
- Volkswagen Golf R
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Now more than ever the WRX STI appeals to a very particular kind of sports sedan buyer – one who values rawness over sophistication, toughness over smoothness.
However just as a Porsche 911 GT3 demands more from its driver but delivers greater thrills than a Carrera S below it, the compromises this Subaru makes should result in greater thrills than more cohesive rivals.
In this way this rally-bred sports sedan is stuck in the past, where an engine with lightswitch power delivery, steering that rattles, and suspension that bruises at low speeds doesn’t actually result in a better on-road performance than others.
Moreover, the WRX STI struggles to justify its ask over the WRX, which remains highly recommended for the price. The loftier Subaru remains a good drive, but those who – and we can’t argue with this – value the mechanical over the electronic should also be prepared for several downsides.
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