When facing off against current hot-hatch royalty, is the WRX STi still relevant or living on former glories? We test it to find out.
What do we have here?
Is the Subaru WRX STi one of the most overlooked affordable performance cars that money can buy? That’s the question we’ve been asking ourselves at Driver’s Seat HQ for some time now.
It’s a distant memory since Subaru and Mitsubishi were ruling the world of rallying and traffic light Grand Prix alike.
In the face of brilliant hot hatch opposition like the Ford Focus RS and VW Golf R, the WRX STi rarely seems to get a mention these days, though.
On paper, the Subaru looks competitive. Its 2.5-litre 4-cylinder boxer engine complete with twin-scroll turbocharger develops a Golf R rivalling 296bhp but has more torque at 300lb ft (compared to 280lb ft).
It’ll sprint to 62mph in 5.2 seconds, 0.1 seconds faster than the German but 0.5 seconds slower than the Blue Oval car.
The Subaru is fitted with permanent symmetrical all-wheel drive, torque vectoring and a driver-controlled multi-mode central differential with a viscous coupling LSD.
It gets fully independent suspension with inverted MacPherson struts, coil springs, gas-filled shock absorbers and an anti-roll stabiliser bar.
On the outside, there is no mistaking the Scoobie means business. It looks downright mean, as though it’ll happily take on Floyd Mayweather in Conor McGregor’s stead. There’s a deep front bumper, dark mesh grille with STi badge and the unmissable bonnet air scoop.
Along the flanks, there are deep side skirts yet it maintains a decent 135mm of ground clearance. There’s another STi badge in the bulging squared-off wheel arches complete with wheel arch air vent.
The STi rides on 18in aluminium alloy wheels which house 17in Brembo brakes.
Round the back, it gets quad chrome exhaust pipes which are nestled into the integrated black rear diffuser while its pièce de résistance is the huge spoiler sitting on the boot lid like a London suburb kitchen extension.
The WRX gets: LED headlamps; LED tail lamps, rear privacy glass; leather & Alcantara sports seats; aluminium pedals; stainless steel sill plates; keyless access; dual-zone air con; Bluetooth; USB port and auxiliary jack; Thatcham Cat 1 security system; cruise control; hill start assist; three-mode SI-Drive system; torque vectoring; and a multi-mode centre differential.
The central diff can be changed manually using the control between the front seats, however, there are three pre-set modes; Auto, Auto+, and Auto-.
Auto mode provides the best balance between agility and traction for everyday driving conditions.
Auto+ mode limits torque in order to improve traction on slippery road surfaces and when stability is most important.
Auto- mode increases steering responsiveness and allows more torque to be distributed to the rear of the car, offering greater agility and throttle adjustability.
There’s a SI-Drive function which changes the engine mapping. Its three settings offer Intelligent (I), Sport (S), Sport Sharp (S#).
How does it drive?
The Scoobie has two very contrasting characteristics when accelerating.
The first is when pulling away hard from a standstill. The engine quickly spins up and due to short first and second gears ratios, you’ll need to be on guard to make surprisingly quick gear changes to maintain progress and avoid the rev limiter. The STi takes off like a scalded cat.
The second is when trundling along. If you’re out of the power band, say under 3,500rpm, there’s substantial turbo lag. It’s so surprising that you’ll be checking what gear you’re in, assuming you have dropped the lever into fifth instead of third by mistake.
This all means you’ll be paying a lot of attention to the gears you are in, engine speed and timing of the next cog change. Third gear is long, allowing the majority of driving to be done in that gear.
Torque is split 41:59 front to rear as standard while the viscous coupling adjusts torque distribution to optimise traction. Torque vectoring further improve traction and grip at the front and rear.
Despite the all-wheel drive system distributing torque between the four wheels, it surprisingly suffers from torque steering under hard acceleration, making it feel twitchy and frantic.
Changing gear is helped by a really short gear lever throw via the long-necked lever. It has a hugely mechanical action. The clutch is firm and is ready to spring back into position once you retract your left foot.
The STi has great body control and remains flat. It feels ready to pivot around the tightest of bends. It is, however, let down by mid-corner steering inputs on rougher roads that can unsettle the ride.
You can drive faster than in most cars through bends as it sticks to corners like it’s the capsule at the end of a centrifuge. However, accelerate mid-corner and you’ll end up straightening the curve as the WRX starts to understeer.
Steering weighting is heavy and it feels numb. It turns in sharply but is quick to want to self-centre, which can make it feel inconsistent requiring mid corner adjustments.
The ride is firm and often uncompromising, leaving little doubt that you’re in a highly-strung performance car. It’s also divorce inducing unless your other half shares your love and joy of the WRX.
Visibility is good to the front and side with thin a-pillars, while the sloping c-pillar isn’t too thick. There is an amazing view through the rear-view mirror with that spoiler perched on the boot lid.
Refinement could be better as there’s vibration through the gear knob most of the time while a rough road can have your light foot bouncing off the accelerator.
What's it like inside?
Inside is dominated by Alcantara that dresses the door lining and combines with leather on the sports seats. Red contrasting stitching adds a sporting edge.
STi badging is scattered around and features on the head rest, door sills and the leather trimmed flat-bottomed steering wheel.
Carbon fibre and aluminium effect trim inserts work along the red topped gear lever to further spell out the WRX’s sporting intentions.
The front sports seats are quite firm but get figuring hugging side bolsters. They are adjusted with two levers one for the height and the other for the back rest. In the lowest position, they provide plenty of head room. The driver also gets lumbar support.
Meanwhile, the steering wheel offers plenty of adjustment ensuring most should have enough room to get comfortable behind the wheel.
Between the red highlighted dials in the instrument cluster is a 3.5in colour LCD screen featuring a trip computer.
On the top of the dash is a separate 4.3in LCD screen featuring accelerator opening, current boost pressure and boost pressure peak value.
Ahead of the gear lever, you’ll find an anti-slip tray with USB and auxiliary ports. To prevent your mocha latte from spilling, there are two cupholders underneath a folding cover. Meanwhile, the Alcantara wrapped central arm rest has a cubby underneath it.
The door bins will take a bottle of water and there’s room for a few more items whilst the glovebox is a decent size.
In the back, leg and knee room is good and there should be sufficient head room for most. Foot room is constricted by the floor mounts for the front seats, though.
The floor is broken by a tall but narrow transmission tunnel meaning you’re unlikely to want to put three adults back there for longer journeys.
A flimsy drinks holder folds out from between the front seats, there’s space for a bottle in the door and the door is finished with Alcantara trim, contrasting red stitching and brushed chrome look inserts.
During testing, a few build quality issues arose such as the flimsy cupholder mentioned in the paragraph above while the rear electric windows wouldn’t work. Some of the trim on the doors flexed more than you’d expect while the central stack between the front seats was not firmly fixed in place.
Under the huge rear window is a boot that offers 460-litres of capacity. It has a flat floor that meanderingly takes the shape of boot wall, curving around wheel arches and the like. Loading and unloading is aided by a low boot lip and wide opening, and despite the big wing, the boot lid is light and springy.
This isn’t going to be a cheap car to run, which comes with the territory really.
On an official combined cycle, the WRX STi is claimed to return 27.2mpg, however, during testing we averaged 19mpg.
This model emits 242g/km of CO2 meaning a 27% BIK tax banding for company car users.
The WRX STi gets a group 40 insurance grouping.
It rides on custom-made 245/40 R18 high-performance Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres.
The Subaru gets a three-year 60,000-mile manufacturers warranty.
In many ways, the Subaru WRX STi is the best and worst of what the hot hatch/saloon world has to offer. It looks super menacing, sounds aggressive, handles well with epic grip and often landscape blurring pace.
It is, however, too firm, thirsty and has old-school turbo lag.
The problem for the WRX is that it simply can’t live with the brilliance demonstrated by the current batch of hot hatches that combine pace and grip with refinement and lower running costs.