Maybe it’s because my parents brought me home from the hospital in an ’84 GL wagon (in a snowstorm, of course) or because my first car was the same kind of Legacy that Colin McRae used to destroy rally stages, but I’ve always maintained a fondness for Subarus. At the top of the mountain sits the Subaru WRX STI. But it’s had a bit of a tough road lately—and not the usual kind Subarus take on.
The competition’s tougher than ever in the form of much newer metal like the Ford Focus RS and the Honda Civic Type R, to say nothing of perennial solid picks like the Audi S3 and Volkswagen Golf R. Compared to all of them, the WRX STI isn’t just old-school, it’s old. It’s even dead and buried in Great Britain as of this week.
Regardless of all that, my connection to Subaru is a deep and whenever I circle back around to driving one, I feel at home behind the wheel. And I wanted to see if this special machine still has what it takes to compete.
(Full Disclosure: I asked Subaru Of Canada if they’d be ok with me exploring Vancouver and the surrounding areas in a 2018 WRX STI and they said yes because it’s Subaru OF CANADA and they’re just the nicest folks.)
Once a quirky brand primarily associated with outdoorsy types who’ve been preaching about kale since before the dotcom bust and never met a bumper sticker they didn’t like, Subarus are now as common as caesar salads and much less likely to be plastered with cringe worthy one-liners. Despite being small and plucky, the automaker’s sales are through the roof these days.
Subarus aren’t niche anymore. They’re mainstream. They’re also larger, safer, quieter and more comfortable than the ones I grew up with. With the exception of them getting larger, I’m in favor of all that.
However when it comes to the WRX STI I prefer those of an older vintage, when it was spelled with a lowercase i and equipped with huge rally fog lights.
We never did get the first-gen Impreza WRX STi (or the lesser WRX for that matter) in the United States. The “GC” sedans will remain forbidden right-hand-drive fruit for two more years and the “GF” hatchback another five, though good luck finding them anyway. If you wanted an STi back in the ’90s you had to build it yourself, and many industrious tuners did.
In early 2008 Subaru finally did give us a five-door STI with a turbocharged 2.5-liter flat four under the hood and a glorious wide body. While I did certainly appreciate those “GR” cars, and it’s impressive what Pastrana, Lasek and Mirra have done in them—not to mention countless other rally teams—they never captured my imagination the way the first-gen STi did.
With all that in mind I approached the 2018 WRX STI with a healthy amount of skepticism. Sure, this is the platform that holds the world record for a car on the Isle of Mann TT circuit and yes, it routinely spanks new cars that are ostensibly “better” because they are are newer.
I was adamant about not letting my inner fanboy shine through during my time with the car. I would not gaze wistfully at the gigantic wing on the trunk, fawn over the tuning-fork BBS wheels or gleefully take advantage of the manually controllable center differential.
No, I would be ruthless in my assessment of what is essentially a decade-old EJ257 engine in a four-year-old package with creature comforts that should have been there at least since the current generation was introduced.
Well, the STI took my best shots, deflected them and countered with a combination of jabs to the heart and whacking me over the head.
On paper it lags behind some newer rivals, but 305 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque is nothing to sneeze at, especially in a package this small. Zero to 60 mph happens in under five seconds, power goes to all four wheels as it should, and the only transmission option is a six-speed manual. The steering is gloriously hydraulic, not electric, and there is an actual handbrake, not an electric switch. The car does not mess around.
The emotional appeal of the STI is undeniable. You can tell yourself you’ll be conservative all you want, but as soon as you look up and see that rear view mirror full of wing, it’s game over. The iconic red shift knob fits in your hand just-so, ready to be flung back and forth as you run through all six gears. All the sudden you’ve left the speed limit and reason behind.
A chunky semi-flat bottom steering wheel that the STI always deserved relays volumes of information to your hands. This is what steering feel is supposed to be like—it’s heavier than Black Sabbath playing at a funeral on Jupiter. It’s not for the faint of heart or noodly armed.
If you’re going to get after it in an STI you damn well better be engaged because as many a flat brim wearing, vape cloud blowing, Monster Energy schwilling, BRUH! has proven, all-wheel drive isn’t a safety blanket.
Like the driver I just described, Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive is a tool. When used correctly it makes for a seriously enjoyable driving experience and when thought of as a parachute to be deployed when things get hairy it usually ends with viral video or worse.
How many rich kids did you know in high school who wrecked their STI (or S4 if you went to private school) because they jumped in and assumed AWD was there to bail them out? I’m willing to bet more than a few, and while the illusion of teenage invincibility no doubt had a hand in those incidents, a lack of respect and understanding for the performance aspects of the car would be what I point to as the key contributing factor.
All of this to say, I the WRX STI is unfairly labeled as a hoon-tastic car for adolescents. It is a finely tuned machine that has proven time and again that in the right hands it is capable of accomplishing impressive feats. Is it old? Sure, but as I mentioned, it’s old school. And it still offers one of the most visceral driving experiences in its ever-crowded field.
Taking this into account, I believe the higher cost of entry for the STI vs. that of the WRX is totally warranted. In years past I laughed at the idea of spending more than $40,000 on a Subaru, but with the updated technology that’s been added to it, the STI now seems like a bargain. (For reference, the WRX starts at $26,995, and while on paper it’s closer to the STI than ever, in reality it just doesn’t have that raw edge.)
Factor in that after what seems like an eternity of the North American Subie faithful pleading for them in online forums, Recaro seats are an option, as are upgraded Brembo brakes, and the STI becomes even more attractive.
My test car had neither, but that didn’t bother me, much. A lockable center diff, yankable e-brake handle and the iconic rumbling exhaust note were present and accounted for.
Nothing is for certain, but this may not be the case with the next generation WRX STI. Performance will improve, likely comfort as well, but at what cost? Will the new car be worthy of wearing the STI badge or will it be a high-tech imposter? There are precious few cars like the STI left on the market these days, especially in North America.
I would be remiss in my duties if I did not urge you to look around and consider how good we have it right now. The twilight years of a model are often the best and it appears that such is the case for this generation of STI. It’s as rowdy and relevant as it ever was, a driver’s car that delivers more daily functionality in sedan form than many crossovers ever will.
No matter how old it is, the STI still one of the best raw-edged performance cars you can buy at any price. Let’s all enjoy how crazy it is, because none of us know how long that may last.
Andrew Maness is a creative type who is especially good with words and photography. Not much of a painter though. Contact him at email@example.com and follow his automotive exploits on Instagram @theroadlessdriven and worldly travels @andr3wmaness.