Once upon a time, World Rally Championship fans would squabble between two towering mechanical legends of the sport, and spectators to this squabble would know the Subaru WRX STI was one of the combatants. The other was the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo. It was like the age-old Holden vs Ford stoush, but scaled down. With turbos. And AWD. And giant-killing performance potential.
Both STI and Evo were aspirational halo models for car enthusiasts getting into the performance vehicle segment for the first time, and both delivered blistering performance on a budget. As such, their shadow loomed large and both vehicles went on to become modern legends. Which brings us to this, the latest iteration of the revered Subaru, the 2015 Subaru WRX STI.
The expectations of the buying public have changed significantly from those heady days of the late 90s and early 2000s however. As a result the WRX STI has matured, and perhaps even been softened off a little. The guy or girl who might have loved the STI in their early 20s can now afford one, but they might not want it as garish as it used to be. They might want their performance sedan a little more understated. The question now is, can the Subaru WRX STI still get the heart racing like it always did?
You can read our original launch review here to sample the additions to the standard equipment list and the surprising reduction in cost that came with the launch of this new model.
You can read our pricing and specification breakdown here.
The price reduction widened eyes when it was announced, given the potency of the WRX STI. For the first time, buyers of this model can order an STI without the rear wing. Some love it, some hate it, but if you’re in the latter camp, you can now have your STI with a smaller serving of ponce. Funnily enough, from our own observations we haven’t seen too many running around without the wing.
The Subaru WRX STI Premium we have here starts from $55,390 plus on road costs. Our test vehicle has no options apart from floor mats. In short, you’re going to get a lot of performance potential for the money, whichever way you slice the numbers. The 2.5-litre turbocharged boxer engine is a powerhouse, delivering a rock solid 221kW at 6000rpm and 407Nm at 4000rpm, pushing the STI from 0-100km/h in 5.2-seconds. With a kerb weight of 1537kg, the STI is positioned right where it needs to be.
The six speed manual gearbox is paired to a meaty clutch that takes a little getting used to if you’ve been cruising round in the laziness that comes with a modern auto. But if you’ve ever driven a WRX or STI before though, the weight of the clutch pedal is exactly what you expect.
This model’s cabin is a step forward from previous versions. It retains the signature STI rally-bred sense of occasion, but still suffers a little from what we think is not enough differentiation from the WRX. Perhaps it’s the lift in the WRX cabin that has brought it closer to the STI, but we’d like to see the STI looking and feeling a little more premium than the model below it on the Subaru food chain.
There is a race-inspired feel to the cabin, though. The flat bottomed steering wheel adds to that sensation and you always feel like you can get into a purposeful driving position behind the wheel – a factor for anyone wanting to head off to regular track days. There’s no doubt this is the most refined, well put together STI ever, which helps the cabin match the exterior styling’s more mature approach. As we noted in our first drive, the extra 25mm that’s been added to the wheelbase provides more second row space for day-to-day tasks, and if you need to carry passengers around often, they will appreciate the room.
When rolling around town, you get the sense that the STI is an elastic band stretched right out to breaking point, waiting to be fired. It’s not so much that the car is hard work at low speed, but more that you’re denying it what it was designed to do. The clutch take up point and general heft doesn’t lend itself to on/off urban traffic, leaving the AWD system feeling like a guard dog straining at its leash. The gear ratios aren’t really tailored to city speeds and the engine is desperate to be let loose.
Ownership of a WRX STI should come with a contract that specifies that you take your car to regular track days to give it a solid workout. It almost demands that treatment. There’s a particular technique that STI owners – and indeed most boxer engine owners – will know regarding takeoff. It’s almost impossible to get away smoothly from a standstill in the conventional manner. In fact, you might find yourself stalling the engine if you try a conventional launch. The STI requires a slight throttle blip before you start to release the clutch pedal. It might make you sound like a bit of a try-hard, but it is the smoothest way to get the STI rolling. Not ideal in stop/start traffic.
The STI’s ride in the city, as you’d expect, errs on the side of firm. It can be harsh if the road surface is extremely poor, but most of the time it’s just firm. This is another factor that anyone who has previously owned an STI will take as a given, but if you’re new to the model it might be a shock. There’s a payoff though, which we’ll get to in a minute. Apart from the taut ride, the STI makes a lot of sense as a city car; it’s not too big, making it easy to manoeuvre and park, and it’s compact external dimensions bely the amount of interior space.
On the subject of agility, anyone pining over the apparent loss of steering "feel" that comes with the switch to electrically assisted power steering might want to execute a few low speed three point turns in an STI. The old-school system feels heavy and hard work at low speeds, but rewards enthusiastically as speed rises. Personally, I don’t have an issue with the heavy turning at low speeds, but if you spend most of your time in the CBD, you possibly might.
Head for the hills and the STI almost relaxes into the punishment you’re dealing out. The engine pulls hard to redline, only interrupted by the need to shift gears, which you can do quite rapidly once you get a feel for the gearbox’s subtleties. Spend some time on track, and you’ll be able to sharpen your shift speed up even more.
The mechanical grip the AWD system offers up is remarkable. It has always been the case with STI that you feel as if you can drive it right to the limit safely, and that continues to be the case with this new model. You'll need to be trying pretty hard to induce any kind of panic, as the Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres do an admirable job of translating that theoretical grip to the tarmac. We didn’t spend much time messing round with the active centre diff, but you can dial in more or less electronic nannying as you see fit, which is a factor more STI owners will probably love.
While we don’t love the more muted engine note (especially from outside the STI), it does open up as the revs rise. The typical associated theatrics are only an exhaust upgrade away too, if you so desire. The engine certainly sounds the part from the cabin as you close in on redline, and that’s the main thing.
As mentioned earlier, the ride quality was a little hard around town, but that is more than counteracted with incredibly flat cornering at speed. This is the payoff for that firm ride. The STI’s balance is supreme and particularly difficult to upset, regardless of how fast you’re hurtling into or out of corners. Even mid corner bumps do little to annoy the chassis, the precision aided by the aforementioned heavy steering, which makes positioning the STI exactly where you want it ridiculously easy.
A rapid B-road thrash leaves you feeling exhilarated, which is exactly what vehicles like the STI should achieve. If Subaru has KPIs (and we hate that modern business jargon at CarAdvice) on delivering what the buyer expects, the new STI nails every single one of them. This is a performance car that loves being driven near its maximum and rewards the driver skilled enough to do so. Put it in the hands of a track specialist and it astounds at how fast it can be. At CarAdvice, we rejoice in the mechanical simplicity of the STi without necessarily wearing rose-tinted glasses. but lovers of automatic transmissions need not apply. It’s a vehicle for a driving purist.
To find a point to criticise with the Subaru, it would be that the motoring world has moved a long way since a vehicle like the STI could have been considered bang up to date. The infotainment system still doesn’t feel as current as it should, there’s no stop/start system to interrupt your drive and the whole experience feels a little last generation.
That said, the WRX STI is a brilliant performance sedan when you lean on it and make it work for you. Its grip is astonishing, balance supreme, and engine performance as strong as it ever was. The fact it can so easily be tuned and massaged to liberate even more power and torque is purely a bonus. Few road cars will give you as much performance potential for as little money.
The STI is as appealing as it has always been and for mostly the same reasons. Subaru might have exited the WRC some time back, but the imprinted rally DNA remains lurking under the skin. STi owners can continue to dish out smackdowns to drivers of vastly more expensive European machinery – and isn’t that the reason we’ve always loved them?
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