The 2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA executes exactly what we’ve fallen in love with Japanese performance cars for: Spider-Man cornering grip, endearingly immature looks and a ridiculous turbo surge. This is easily one of the most fun things I’ve driven and it’s absolutely worthy of its exclusive status.
Now, 500 people willing to spend $50,000 at a Subaru dealership will be able to have something in the spirit of that super fast setup in a car they can take snowboarding.
The WRX STI Type RA is part halo car, part fan service and all awesome.
(Full disclosure: Subaru allowed me to borrow a non-serialized WRX STI Type RA for testing purposes. Don’t worry, the ones being thrashed by journalists will not be among the 500-vehicle run of vehicles offered to consumers.)
I spent an entire day lapping Angeles Crest Highway in the Type RA and I’ll never forget it. On a spirited ride it makes you feel safe and scared at the same time, without forcing you to chase ridiculously dangerous speeds to experience its personality.
The car spits and swells and slingshots around turns, fulfilling your JDM all-wheel drive turbo fantasies. I wasn’t a Subaru fanboy before putting a few hundred miles on the WRX STI Type RA, but now I’m at high risk for running off and joining the boxer engine cult.
The Subaru WRX is, and has been for some time, one of the best performance-car bargains you can get. For less than $30,000 you can have a car with four viable seats, AWD, a manual transmission and a lively 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. What’s not to like?
Step up to the STI for another $10,000 or so and you get a bigger engine plus more control of the car’s all-wheel drive system.
The Type RA stands for “Record Attempt,” referring to Subaru’s 2017 Nürburgring run and the wicked fierce 6:57.5-minute lap time it laid down. Granted, that was a special race-prepped model with 600 horsepower, but it’s still within 10 seconds of a Porsche 911 GT2 RS—and that is worth commemorating, if you ask me.
The WRX STI Type RA has the same 2.5-liter boxer engine that’s featured in the standard STI but gets a unique intake, high-flow exhaust, retuned ECU and stronger pistons for a modest power increase to 310 horsepower (the regular STI rates at 305 HP) and 290 lb-ft of torque. And it’s worth noting that Subaru’s HP figure is made on 93 octane gas, while I was limited to California’s 91 octane pee-water.
But the RA has a few more tricks to make it feel faster than the regular car: The package also comes with weight reductions including a carbon fiber roof and spare tire delete along with a more acceleration-biased third gear and a short-throw shifter.
Bilstein STI Sport Suspension unique to the RA keeps the car flat and planted in corners, and a retuned electronic stability control system is supposedly optimized for more aggressive driving. Other parts unique to the RA include a beautiful set of 19-inch BBS wheels, red accent trim on the exterior, vents behind the rear wheels and a picnic bench-sized carbon fiber wing.
Like all STIs, the RA’s all-wheel drive system is controlled electronically with a nominal 41:59 power split. A series of sensors reading steering angle, throttle position, RPM, lateral G, yaw, brake, ABS and wheel speed optimize which wheels should get the most power, but a driver can override the car’s decision making there with a control next to the manual handbrake. In very slippery conditions, you can lock the power split 50:50 if you so desire.
The traction control system itself has three settings: Normal, which just tries to keep you from crashing at all costs, Traction, which pulls the computerized torque-limiting function to let you step the car out a little, and full-off for when you really want to get yourself into trouble.
Handling is the main standout, and we’ll talk more about that shortly. But before you even push the big red button to power the boxer up, there’s a lot to appreciate here. Particularly, in my opinion, in the interior design.
My colleague Mike Ballaban gave the most recently updated WRX’s cockpit the perfunctory praise of “less tragic,” but I have to say I think that’s a huge undersell.
The interior has an elegance of simplicity, which feels like a distinctly Japanese aesthetic. The dash is logically laid out with a few fun gauges you don’t need but help make the thing feel more like a race car: throttle position, body tilt. Red stitching helps there too, and the Recaro seats are very comfortable for aggressive driving.
I love the way this car looks on the outside, too. The lights, grille and silhouette are classically handsome while the wheels and wing let you know the thing’s got attitude.
The WRX STI may be billed as a practical enthusiast car, but the Type RA is not really well suited to daily driving. You can fit four people and a family’s groceries in it easily enough but the ride is bone-jarringly stiff and the seats that are great at holding you in place around corners are a little tiresome to sit in for hours on end.
But the Type RA’s most annoying offense is its exhaust note. It’s oddly quiet when you’re hard charging, yet manages to fill your skull with a mind-numbing hum at idle.
And while the car is supposed to have three drive modes: Intelligent, Sport and Sport Sharp to control the car’s throttle response, I have to admit I had a hard time telling the difference despite the cute graphic Subaru uses to indicate the throttle curve on the dash.
It’s easy to drive slowly, maneuverable, and no trouble to park. But like we just went over, it’s also rigid and rumbly and gets old when you’re just doing daily driving duty.
The car’s geared so aggressively for acceleration that I dare say fifth and sixth gear are almost of pointless. By the time you’re at highway passing speed in top gear, the engine is screaming at 3,500 rpm. Sure merging is fun, but you’re not going to want to sit listening to that for a long ride to a ski hill or grandma’s house.
I did appreciate the expansive visibility afforded by the tall greenhouse and big windows, but I also found myself slouching a little on busy streets when I realized how embarrassed I was to be towing that parasail-sized wing around.
Look, anyone who can afford this car is going to have a complicated relationship with its styling. The wing and scoop are cool and fun to anyone who knows what they’re looking at, but most members of the general public are going to think you’re an underdeveloped dingus. Maybe just spec some tint or use another car for cruising Main Street.
The Type RA makes an ominous wa-wa-wa-wa-wa while the car idles. High in the mountains of Angeles Crest National Forest, it drowns out the errant bird noises and your heavy breathing. Much of the famous State Route 2 is over a mile above sea level, after all.
Roll into the throttle up there and you’d know you’re up high, too. Initial acceleration is lousy with turbo lag: 2,000 rpm, nothing. 3,000 rpm... nothing.
But you damn well better be hanging on when the tachometer needle passes 3,500, because that’s right about where the Type RA reaches its boost threshold and explodes into action like a superhero coming off the couch to save New York.
With a resoundingly satisfying whoosh the car is suddenly sprinting, forcing your right hand to race to second, third and fourth. Gear shifts come easily though. And rev-matching your way back down feels natural in no time, too.
Everything about taking turns in this car is pure, unadulterated joy. The Ultrasuede wrap on the compact flat-bottomed steering wheel is comfortable even as your paws get sweaty, and the responsiveness of this vehicle as you link corners together is just astounding. Steering is heavy, direct and purposeful.
The Type RA is fierce and forgiving at the same time, offering loads of grip that feels fun even before you approach dangerous speeds—the true mark of an entertaining driver’s car.
At my safe but spirited pace with traction control on duty, there was no trace of understeer to be found as I whipped the Subaru from one turn to the next for hours and hours.
There are two ways to look at the Type RA’s value proposition. Is it a “good deal?” Not really! You could easily buy an older WRX STI for half the price (believe me, I’ve been looking) and let the aftermarket build you an exciting AWD monster. Even then you’d still have a bunch left over for fuel and tires.
But if you ask if I think the car is worth $50,000? Absolutely. This is a limited-production run of a well-known and well-loved enthusiast car. On top of that, it genuinely has significant enough upgrades over the standard version to really stand out.
The WRX STI Type RA is a future classic for sure, and well deserving of a serial number. If you buy one, do yourself a favor and keep it stock and keep your service books.
Real “special edition” cars require a few key attributes to be worth our attention. Or at least, to be remembered fondly by history. A good place to start is a basis in a platform that’s popular to begin with (check) then you’ve got to have limited production numbers (also check) and of course, it’s actually got to be good to drive.
The Subaru exhibited such a thrilling mastery of balancing power and control that driving it became addictive; more so even than some much more expensive and powerful supercars I’ve been lucky enough to wield on the same roads.
So let the WRX STI Type RA ascend to legend. I know I’ll be singing about it for some time.
Correction: This article has been updated to make clear that the Nürburgring car is a race-prepped variant, not the same car as tested here.