The 2015 Subaru WRX STI may satisfy a core group of performance purists, but others will see a tarted-up sport compact that burns more cash than rubber.
Subaru finally redesigned its bat-out-of-hell performance compact, the WRX STI, along the lines of the fourth-gen Impreza that's been in dealerships since late 2011. Like before, however, this is one pricey creature. The toned-down WRX starts at $8,200 less, and unless you spend weekends at the racetrack, the STI's extra performance doesn't seem worthwhile.
Like the WRX, the WRX STI comes only as a sedan even though there's also an Impreza hatchback. Click here to stack them up or here to compare the WRX STI with its predecessor. Click here to read our review of the WRX, which we cover separately in the Research section.
The WRX STI comes in base, Launch Edition and Limited trims; compare them here. All-wheel drive and a turbocharged four-cylinder are standard; a six-speed manual is the sole transmission. We tested a well-optioned WRX STI Limited.
Exterior & Styling
LED headlights, optional on the WRX, are standard on the STI, which also gets side-mirror turn signals. Apart from that, differences between the WRX and WRX STI are few up front. Both have functional hood scoops and a pulled-forward nose, with squared-off bumpers and aggressive fog light portals — clear differentiators against the Impreza's cheerier expression.
In back, the STI's hulking rear wing remains. Save a toned-down spoiler option in 2007, it's been on the STI sedan since the car showed up in the U.S. 11 model years and two generations ago. Subaru needs to bring back 2007; this wing is just silly.
The automaker could also borrow some tailpipe restraint from the STI's earlier days. Impreza tailpipes have multiplied like rabbits, and today's WRX and WRX STI both have four pipes apiece. They dangle in a sea of unconvincing faux carbon fiber, with the wing towering above on the STI. Hey, Subaru: The '90s called, and my high school wants its cars back.
STIs have 18-inch BBS alloy wheels and P245/40R18 summer tires, versus the WRX's P234/45R17s. In our hands at the tail end of a rough winter around our Chicago offices, our STI had winter tires.
How It Drives
I hate to break it to you, but the WRX STI doesn't feel that much quicker than the WRX. Fire up the STI's 305-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder, and the car hurtles ahead once you pound past some serious turbo lag. The six-speed manual has a tallish shifter I'd trade for the rear-drive BRZ's shorter unit, but the throws are short and gears feel evenly spaced all the way through 6th. (Launch Editions have an even shorter-throw shifter.) An SI-Drive controller — Subaru Intelligent Drive — offers three switchable modes of accelerator progression, but even in the sharpest mode the STI retains the old-school lag of yesterday's turbos. So does the turbo four-cylinder in the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, which is perhaps the only direct STI competitor. But that car hasn't been updated since the 2008 model year. Hint, hint.
Why? Consider the hardware. The STI's 2.5-liter engine carries over from the last STI but for a reprogrammed engine control unit that Subaru says quickens accelerator response. It's still a port-injected four-cylinder and single-scroll turbocharger, and though it beats the WRX by 37 hp and 32 pounds-feet of torque, the torque peaks at a comparatively zingy 4,000 rpm versus the WRX's fat 2,000-5,200 plateau. The WRX, by contrast, uses a direct-injected 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a twin-scroll turbo — a combination that delivers more boost and higher compression.
The results are clear. Pound through the gears and the STI has more absolute power; our friends at "MotorWeek" hit 60 mph in 4.7 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.2 with their STI, versus 5.4 and 13.9 seconds, respectively, in a stick-shift WRX. But in everyday driving — even for lead foots — the extra oomph is less usable than the numbers suggest.
Subaru's all-wheel-drive system gets a driver-adjustable center differential in the STI, which can divert power from a 50/50 percent (front/rear) split to a heavy rear bias, with three automatic and six manual settings that affect power apportionment and intervention levels for the locking center diff. Full-auto mode introduces hints of understeer, but the tail comes into play if you tromp on the gas midcorner. It's easier to drift the STI in the rear-biased modes, particularly with those manual settings. Driven in the most manual setting (which dials back center differential intervention the most), the STI's driftability evokes a rear-drive car. The steering plays into the fun; turn it a few degrees, and the nose darts that way with instinctive precision. Indeed, the steering ratio is 13.0:1 versus the WRX's slower 14.5:1 ratio; it's 2.5 turns lock-to-lock versus the WRX's 2.8 turns, and (performance purists rejoice) eschews the electric power steering in the Impreza and WRX for an old-fashioned hydraulic setup. It all pays off in excellent feedback.
Body roll, which is noticeable in the WRX, is quelled here — a result of the STI's unique, inverted-strut suspension, which Subaru says improves cornering. It's a similar setup to the prior STI, albeit with thicker strut tubes and new bushings.
Our tester's winter tires held decent lateral traction, but heavy braking introduced early intervention from the antilock brakes. Those brakes employ Brembo four-piston calipers and 13-inch front discs; the rears are 12.4 inches and use two-piston calipers, and all four are ventilated.
Ride quality is good — a crucial difference from the Lancer Evolution GSR. (Compare the cars here.) The STI rides much like regular WRXs, with the sort of highway isolation you wouldn't expect from a high-performance compact. Manhole covers and other ruts introduce some chop, but the overall setup suits daily driving.
The STI's bolstered seats have red and black leather bolsters with Alcantara center inserts; Launch Editions get blue bolsters, while the Limited has full leather. Our tester's seats proved comfortable and supportive, and cabin materials are mostly impressive for this class. The backseat has sufficient room for adults, and the Impreza's low dashboard and tall windows carry over for excellent visibility — save the STI's rear wing, which bisects the view out back.
The WRX's flat-bottom steering wheel carries over to the STI, but controls for Subaru's SI-Drive move from the wheel to just behind the gearshift; I liked the wheel location better. Dual-zone automatic climate control is exclusive to the WRX STI, so if that helps you justify the purchase to a temperature-fussy spouse, go nuts.
Ergonomics & Electronics
A CD stereo with HD radio, USB/iPod connectivity and Bluetooth phone/audio streaming is standard. Harman Kardon premium audio is optional, as is a navigation system with a 6.1-inch screen. Avoid the navigation system, which ditches the head unit's tuning knob and physical presets for tiny on-screen buttons and outdated graphics.
Cargo & Storage
Trunk volume improves to 12 cubic feet from last year's 11.3 cubic feet. Still, that's on the small side for a class where some small-car trunks exceed 15 cubic feet. A 60/40-split folding rear seat is standard.
With top scores in all Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the WRX STI is an IIHS Top Safety Pick. A backup camera is standard, but lane departure, blind spot and forward collision warning systems — fast becoming available among compacts — are MIA. That's odd, given that Subaru's EyeSight system (available on the Forester, Outback and Legacy) packages most of those features and ranks among the best active-safety systems available.
Value in Its Class
There's a stick-shift, turbocharged Subaru sedan out there with stout power, drift-happy handling and a compliant ride. It's EPA-rated at 24 mpg combined. It recommends premium gas and starts right around $27,000 with destination.
It's the 2015 Subaru WRX.
The STI is 119 pounds heavier, gets a miserable 19 mpg, requires premium gas and starts north of $35,000. Subaru throws in a few extra creature comforts — heated partial-leather seats, dual-zone climate, LED headlights — but the sum total does little to narrow the gap. Add full leather, a moonroof, navigation and keyless access, and the car tops out near $41,000 — luxury-car money for a performance-modified compact with an absurd rear wing.
Most of the STI's premium goes toward performance. A better suspension and the trick center differential add incremental driftability and crisper cornering; the drivetrain packs extra thrust if you push the car hard. If you plan to take your Subie to the track, the STI makes a case. Apart from that, we'd stick with a WRX.
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