Car Reviews First Tests

2018 Subaru WRX STI First Test Review: Old Dog, Same Tricks

Familiar formula maintains the status quo

Familiar formula maintains the status quo

Ten years ago I scored my first gig in the automotive media business as an intern for ex-TEN publication Sport Compact Car. One of my main duties was shuttling cars all across Southern California. Usually this meant schlepping a fickle, oftentimes barely running project car across town, but once in a while I was handed the keys to a brand-new press car. Such was the case when I was asked to deliver a just-released 2008 Subaru WRX STI to the track. I remember falling in love with the distinctive growl of its boxer engine, being surprised by its copious levels of grip in the corners, and being OK with its dressed-up economy car interior. When I got into a 2018 STI recently, it was like reconnecting with an old friend.

In many ways, this car isn’t that different from the one I drove all those years ago. The 2018 STI packs the same 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four that still makes 305 hp and 290 lb-ft of torque and still comes exclusively with a six-speed manual transmission. It also still has that characteristic boxer rumble, something the standard WRX’s 2.0-liter turbo lacks. Although the package is familiar, there are plenty of updates that help bring the STI into the modern era. For 2018, the STI gets a refresh that includes a subtly redesigned front end, new 19-inch wheels, a revised all-wheel-drive system, a new electronic center differential, new Brembo brakes, and a retuned suspension.

Unfortunately, the benefits of those upgrades weren’t all that apparent in testing. The 2018 STI completed our figure-eight course in 25.1 seconds at an average of 0.75 g, just about matching our previous long-term 2015 STI and falling short of another 2015 STI that did the deed in 24.9 seconds at 0.79 g. It’s also not much better than a cheaper, less powerful 2018 WRX we recently tested at 25.2 seconds at 0.72 g. The STI’s handling numbers slot it right in between its two all-wheel-drive competitors. We clocked a more powerful 2016 Ford Focus RS at 24.6 seconds and a 2016 Volkswagen Golf R at 25.4 seconds. Meanwhile, the just-as-extreme-looking but front-drive-only Honda Civic Type R can lap the figure eight in a mere 24.7 seconds at 0.78 g.

The new brakes, which include calipers painted in an eye-catching greenish yellow, did perform well in testing. The STI needed 109 feet to stop from 60 mph, and both road test editor Chris Walton and testing director Kim Reynolds praised the brake feel. Acceleration was a different story, however. The STI has always been notoriously difficult to launch, and this car was no different. But even after getting the differential settings just right, feeding the necessary high revs, successfully engaging the vague-until-suddenly-grabby clutch, and hustling through three gears (because second only takes you to 57 mph (92 km/h)) via the notchy shifter, the best we could manage was a 5.7-second 0–60 and a 14.1-second quarter mile at 98.5 mph (158 km/h). That’s about a second slower than our old long-termer in both tests and also slower than the Focus RS and Civic Type R. The STI matched the Golf R’s acceleration times exactly, but the VW had the higher trap speed at 102.7 mph (165 km/h).

Although it didn’t impress at the test track, the STI proved to be as fun to drive on the street as ever. If you think the regular WRX feels like a throwback to the turbo cars of old, then the STI will take you way back with its even greater turbo lag. This is an annoyance in most normal driving situations, except when you have enough open road to wind up the 2.5-liter and experience full boost. Monstrous all-wheel-drive grip is the WRX’s real party trick, and the STI variant has plenty of it. It never gets old coming out of a turn, putting the right pedal down sooner than you think you should, and rocketing out of it with ease (assuming you’re in the right gear). The optional Recaro seats do a great job holding you in place during such high-g maneuvers.

Because the clutch is on the heavy side, driving the STI in bumper-to-bumper traffic is a chore. The ride on the highway is stiff but not much stiffer than a regular WRX. Although Subaru says the 2018 model benefits from thicker door glass, new door seals, and a new foam-filled windshield header beam, cabin noise is still noticeable. The central multifunction display has increased in size from 4.3 to 5.9 inches, so your boost gauge will be easier to see.

The WRX and STI have been known for offering a lot of bang for your buck. Although that’s still true today, prices have crept upward, and the competition is much fiercer these days. Our tester was a base 2018 STI equipped with the aforementioned Recaro seats and hands-free keyless access and push-button start, which bump the price up to just under $40,000 USD. The 2018 Focus RS starts at $41,995 USD, and the 2017 Volkswagen Golf R starts at $40,195 USD. If front-wheel drive isn’t a deal-breaker, the 2018 Honda Civic Type R, arguably the most fun-to-drive compact on the market, starts at $34,990 USD—or $1,105 USD less than the STI’s starting price. Then, of course, there’s the standard WRX, which starts at $30,155 USD. You don’t get bells and whistles such as the STI’s fancy selectable all-wheel-drive system, but the regular WRX is nearly as quick and is just as much fun to drive on the street.

Driving the new STI still delivers the joy I remember from the last-generation car, but there are other options that deliver the same thrills and more. The old adage “to stand still is to go backward” is very true in the automotive world, and the STI feels like a car that hasn’t moved forward in some time. Here’s hoping the next-gen model due in a couple years brings with it significant changes. When meeting an old friend you haven’t seen in years and years, it’s nice to have new things to talk about.

2018 Subaru WRX STI
BASE PRICE $36,095
PRICE AS TESTED $39,455
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 2.5L/305-hp/290-lb-ft turbo DOHC -valve flat-4
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,444 lb (59/41%)
WHEELBASE 104.3 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 180.9 x 70.7 x 58.1 in
0-60 MPH 5.7 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.1 sec @ 98.5 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 109 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.93 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 25.1 sec @ 0.75 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 17/23/19 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 198/147 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 1.01 lb/mile