There’s simply nothing like the boxer engine rumble; the rough and mechanical hustle of the horizontally opposed cylinders firing, and the throbbing exhaust note that emanates from the back end of the car. It’s one of the things that makes the 2018 Subaru WRX STI spec.R so special.
What is the spec.R, you might be asking? Well, actually, there’s probably zero chance you don’t know what it is, because if you’re reading this review, you’re probably like me – a hardcore, long-term WRX fan. I’ve owned one WRX among five Subarus (15 cars, total), and it’s easily the car I miss most of all.
For those who aren’t across it, though, the spec.R is a newly added flagship offering that tops the WRX STI line-up, and has a bunch of extra goodies that help it stand out. Not to mention a price tag that’s a bit of a sore thumb in its own right…
The WRX STI spec.R (along with the STI Premium) sees the addition of a front-view camera and kerbside camera – great for avoiding gutter scuffs on those new 19-inch alloy wheels, which in this spec sit over the top of mutant green STI-branded Brembo brake calipers and cross-drilled rotors.
There has been a subtle facelift to the grille and bumper, and it has new active-bending LED headlights that are brilliant at night, not to mention LED fog lights.
Inside, the STI spec.R is fitted with shapely Recaro sports seats, the driver’s with eight-way electric adjustment – but unfortunately without memory settings or lumbar adjustment, and, to this driver’s tastes at least, the seating position is still too high.
Things like the new 5.9-inch instrument display on top of the dashboard (replacing a smaller 4.3-inch unit) that can show you things like boost pressure and fuel use, and extra black gloss elements – including a the centre console area, shifter surround and the bezel on the steering wheel – add to the ambience, and it feels more mature as a result, though it isn’t at the same level of the more refined and smarter Subaru Impreza and XV models, both of which have superb media systems and nicer trims and finishes.
That said, it’s still a practical offering, with easily enough space for four adults, clever interior storage options, a big boot for its size (460 litres) and a space-saver spare wheel – even a sunroof comes as standard.
There’s the requisite Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, sat-nav, a fully hectic eight-speaker-plus-subwoofer stereo from harman/kardon, and dual USB ports complementing a pair of 12-volt outlets. It’s all very logical and likeable, if not entirely special.
Now let’s consider the price: this version is $57,690 plus on-road costs, making it the equal-most expensive Subaru STI sedan model in this generation, alongside last year’s Hyper Blue STI. Check out the full 2018 Subaru WRX and WRX STI range pricing and specs.
Admittedly, you do get a fair bit of equipment for that money, including some elements that make this iteration of the WRX STI the safest yet: this model has blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and automated high-beam lights. All of that tech supplements the existing six airbags, stability control and kid-friendly seat attachment points (dual ISOFIX, three top-tether) – but there’s no forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance or autonomous emergency braking.
But because the type of buyer who’d consider a WRX STI is likely to be a competitive person, it’s best to also take heed of the vehicles against which the Subaru could should be measured.
If we’re talking about performance-oriented all-wheel-drive cars around the $55k mark, then there are superb models such as the Ford Focus RS and Volkswagen Golf R, neither of which can be ignored. The Golf even has the option of a dual-clutch auto, where the Ford and Subie are both manual-only affairs.
The STI spec.R retains the same pounding 2.5-litre four-cylinder boxer engine with 221kW of power at 6000rpm and 407Nm of torque at 4000rpm. Those outputs weren’t to be sneezed at when the STI came out back in 2013, but they’re only a few kilowatts up on the version that launched waaaaay back in 2005 (with 206kW/392Nm).
And I think it’s fair to say that – due to the raft of handling enhancements made to this 2018 model version – it feels like less power than ever before.
Let’s remember that the Focus RS has 257kW/440Nm from a smaller-capacity engine than the Subaru. And because it’s a competition, the RS can sprint from 0-100km/h in 4.7 seconds, which is half-a-second faster than the STI (5.2sec). Even the Golf R, with its relatively meagre 213kW/380Nm, has a superior sprint time (as low as 4.8sec).
Part of the reason behind the Subaru’s 0-100km/h sluggishness (too harsh?) is because there’s no launch control mode, and the clutch action takes some perfecting. It is strong lower in the rev range, and builds pace with vigour, but it isn’t the manic explosion of its closest competitor. It isn’t the edge of your seat, scruff of your neck experience it once was. The goal posts have moved for performance offerings in this space, that’s for sure, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had in the Suby.
With the reworked suspension and shocks of the 2018 model having been stiffened up to reduce body-roll and improve control an stability in the bends, this is now a chassis that feels like it could easily handle more – even in the most frantic drive mode, Sport#.
The Yokohama Advan Sport rubber, in 245/35 sizing, offers pretty good grip, though when you push it in tighter bends it can understeer – and the STI spec.R still has the clever diff controller that allows the driver to decide the bias of the torque delivery. There’s not much need for that on public roads, though, and the auto setting can adjust things if needed.
The six-pot front and two-pot rear Brembo brakes help pull it up honestly, but the pedal feel is a little dull. All WRX and WRX STI models have torque vectoring by braking, too, which helps keep the car in line in the twisty stuff.
While Subaru’s efforts with the car’s suspension has been rewarding in corners, there’s a price to pay around town. The ride is very stiff, and around Sydney’s back streets there was some complaints from my fellow testers, with road joins and potholes proving a little too jarring to live with. At higher speeds, the suspension offers great body control, despite a firm edge to the ride – I can forgive that, because the WRX I owned was lowered for more control.
There’s some exhaust rumble at speed, but it doesn’t drone (it does at idle, and that can be annoying in a garage or parking lot) – but on coarse-chip country roads there is an extreme amount of road noise.
Fuel use is rated at a realistic 11.2 litres per 100 kilometres, and on test I saw just over that, at 11.5L/100km. Not a bad average, considering I did a bit of hard driving (because it’s hard not to) along with some urban and highway stretches. Bear in mind that you have to shell out for 98RON premium fuel, though, so owning a WRX STI is not a cheap experience.
And on that topic, maintenance is due every six months or 12,500km, with a capped-price service plan spanning three years/75,000km. The average service cost over that period is $382, or $765 per annum. It has a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty plan, and 12 months roadside assist included.
While the review score here may be lower than it has been in the past, that’s not to suggest the STI is worse than it ever has been. In fact it's probably better than ever before – but the problem is, so are its competitors.
That doesn't make the Subaru WRX STI spec.R a bad option, but it does make it hard to suggest this is the best option in the marketplace where you have such strong competitors.
We’d reckon a regular old STI – or even a standard WRX with some mods thrown at it – would make more sense for the majority of buyers.
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