The 2014 Subaru WRX STI has a lot of weight on its shoulders. The Japanese brand has been fighting a war it started more than two decades ago when it launched the WRX and took the market by surprise.
Before then, a small all-wheel-drive performance car wasn’t nearly as affordable or fun to drive. But in recent years the competition has not only caught up, but mostly surpassed Subaru - if not always in performance, certainly the kind of refinement that makes a car easier to live with.
You can read our Subaru WRX STI technical guide for details on the changes to the performance sedan; here, our review is focused on how those changes affect the drive.
From the outside the new model is instantly recognisable as an STI, particularly from the rear where it’s host to a giant in-your-face racing spoiler that has for so long been the dream of any wannabe boy-racer and grown-up men who dare to admit it.
Then there’s the front end, which in appearance is not dissimilar to the look of one of its famous rivals, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X – with its sharp headlights and aggressive stance. It particularly resembles its most direct competitor when viewed side on. It’s perhaps ironic, given the Evo X is almost a decade old.
In its traditional blue and gold designation, it’s almost as if nothing has changed and that, in many ways, is one way to look at the new STI as a whole. It’s not that new and could easily be mistaken more for a mid-life update.
The ‘EJ25’ 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine has remained basically unchanged from the previous model, with 227kW and 392Nm of torque in its American form (Australian specifications are likely to match the current model but will be confirmed in April when the car goes on sale).
Subaru says this is because the EJ25 engine is at its peak and is an ideal choice for motor sport enthusiasts, and hence the company focused on improving the STI in other areas.
The six-speed manual (the only transmission choice available), too, is basically the same unit that has existed in the STI for the greater part of the last decade. Thankfully then, it has stood the test of time and been the subject of significantly more power than stock form from tuners and remained – by most accounts (including that of the author’s) – bulletproof.
Subaru has changed the way in which the gearbox shifts, so it’s smoother and easier to use at lower speeds. The ratios are unchanged so you’ll still have to be in third before hitting 100km/h, something the lesser WRX previously had as advantage with its long second gear but that is no longer the case given the new WRX also has a (different) six-speed manual.
Jump inside and all those previous reports and rumours of the WRX and STI being separated from the Impreza family seem completely absurd. It’s essentially an Impreza/XV inside with some carbonfibre-like inserts and sports seats, which in their American trim are actually a bit big and unlike the hugging Recaros of the past.
The centre console carries a double din stereo unit below a tiny screen that sits too far away to be useful as a reversing camera – though good enough for temperature and boost gauge readings. That’s for the base model STI – with the top-spec getting a proper satellite navigation unit – but even then, it’s almost embarrassing for a company’s halo car to come with such an ancient stereo system regardless of variant. Particularly given you get a better unit in a base model Volkswagen Golf at about a third of the price.
So the Subaru WRX STI is still short on creature comforts, but it also remains a motor sport warrior that is just at home as a daily as it is on a race track.
We flew to San Fransisco and made our way to Laguna Seca raceway, one of the world’s most iconic tracks. Here we took the new STI for a proper track session and understood all that makes the car what it is.
But before that, we drove it around twisty mountainous roads and found the new STI is more compliant than ever. It rides surprisingly well, with a firmness that is by no means unbearable and is a worthy compromise for the grip you get.
The steering, too – which has seen its ratio go from 15:1 to 13:1 – is far quicker, with Subaru claiming it’s not only better than the previous-generation STI’s or gokart-like Evo’s but also matches the steering response of a 911.
The changes are pretty evident: it’s super agile on its feet and the slightest steering input changes the STI’s direction. The steering weight is artificially heavy – something that may be criticised elsewhere but was liked by this tester.
Flat out, the WRX STI gains speed rapidly, and if you bother to do a proper launch, it will do the 0-100km/h in well under five seconds, though no official figures currently exists.
Around bends it’s finally a match for the Evo X, cornering in a physics-defying manner that puts a smile on your face. The more direct steering and more compliant ride provide an extra sense of confidence that the wheels are going to remain planted and pointed in the right direction.
Unlike the Evo, it does it without breaking your back. And it makes a much sweeter sound in the process, even if it does feel a little muffled inside.
Laps of Laguna Seca proved the Subaru WRX STI will provide plenty of entertainment for track day fans.
The Brembo brakes are a delight, as always, showing little fade even after four hours of constant laps around the track. Measuring 13.0 and 12.4 inches for the front and rear brakes respectively, they will only need to be modified for serious motorsport enthusiasts, but will give problem-free performance for most owners for many years.
At high speed on the main straight the STI is stable and unwavering in its enthusiasm. Squeeze on the brakes hard and turn left on to turn one, miss the first apex to get the better exit on the second apex and that usual understeer that so disappointingly haunted the previous model seems all but gone.
It comes out of bends with plenty of go, and even with all electronic aides turned completely off it never feels out of shape.
This is without doubt the best STI both on road and track.
The STI’s problem, though, it that it hasn’t changed the game; it’s merely moved its own personal bar forward.
It still lacks a proper automatic transmission and it fails to inspire inside the cabin. And that’s before you consider it has a smaller brother called the Subaru WRX. With 199kW of power and 343Nm of torque, it’s not far behind in the power game and now that it has a six-speed manual (though not nearly as strong) it’s also not heavily disadvantaged.
For an expected $20,000 saving over the STI – set to continue to start around the $60,000 mark and be available in two specifications (more expensive spec R likely) – there would be scope for some performance modifications and still saving some cash.
If you’re after a useable, family-friendly high-performance sedan that can also go on track for $60,000, however, choices are extremely limited. The upcoming Volkswagen Golf R is hatch only, has less power and hasn’t previously inspired as a track car, while the Evo X is now a whole generation behind. Not exactly a hard question then, is it?
Check out our Subaru Impreza WRX STI Gallery for hundreds of photos.