THE REFRESHED Subaru WRX and WRX STI line-up lobbed Down Under in July boasting a raft of key improvements to the front-end, safety (EyeSight added to CVT-equipped WRX) and comfort… as well as tweaks to the suspension (for WRX STI).
What is the WRX STI?
Subaru’s design hits and misses with the WRX and WRX STI are well documented but I’m glad to say the tweaked snout on the refreshed WRX STI is not a miss.
Like the bulldog swallowing a bee face from the early 1990s WRX, this refreshed model features a similarly aggressive looking front end.
And, don’t worry, as you can see in the images, it’s still got a ridiculously large rear wing, but the bonnet scoop, which for a long time was getting bigger and bigger is now very understated.
The WRX STI is only available with a six-speed manual and so misses out on some of the active safety features its CVT-equipped WRX siblings get, like EyeSight proper but still features bling-spot monitoring and lane change assist as well as automatic high beam.
So, from a safety standpoint, the WRX STI is not on the same level as some WRX variants, but from a performance point of view, Subaru’s engineers have turned the dial up to 11.
The new WRX STI gets larger 19-inch alloys, the first time 19s have been fitted to the STI, bright yellow 6-pot front and 2-pot rear brake calipers clamping cross-drilled brake rotors.
The new STI also gets red seatbelts, a front-view camera to keep you from kerbing your giant 19-inch alloys, adjustable Recaro front seats, and revised suspension.
The engineers have tweaked the roll rigidity, coil springs and shock absorbers, they’ve upped the damper force at the front and rear and embiggened the diameter of the rear stabilisers.
According to Subaru, these tweaks make for a better ride and improved agility… we’ll unpack that claim later in the review.
Pricing for the WRX STI starts at $50,890+ORC and jumps to $51,190+ORC for the same car with the rear wing, and then to $55,640+ORC for the STI Premium and $55,940+ORC for one with the wing, and finally to our test car, the STI Spec.R which lists at $57,690+ORC.
What’s the interior of the WRX STI Spec.R like?
Subaru said its intention for the refreshed WRX and WRX STI was to create a cabin that adds to the driver’s excitement. While I haven’t driven a revised WRX yet, I’d have to suggest that the only model likely to meet that brief is this Spec.R variant.
And that’s only really because of the electric-adjustable Recaro bucket seats.
Sure, the rest of the interior is well put together, in typical Subaru fashion, and there’s greater use of soft touch and high quality plastics than ever before.
It’s not quite as classy feeling as the new-generation Impreza’s but it doesn’t feel dated and the brushed alloy air vent surrounds lift the interior beyond basic.
But the lack of Apple Car Play and Android Auto connectivity through the infotainment system (something Impreza and XV have) is disappointing.
But then, this machine isn’t about whether you can seamlessly sync up your phone, it’s about how it goes, stops and corners.
But let’s dwell on the infotainment system for a moment longer; it’s a generation behind the system in the Impreza and XV so it offers Bluetooth or wired connectivity.
There’s plenty of functionality but working through the screens just to play a podcast can be tedious and mean you end up just grabbing your phone and hitting play from it, which kind of defeats the purpose of connecting to the car.
That said, once connected, the system works quite well and generally re-connects quickly once the car has been turned off and then on again.
There are hard shortcut buttons around the edge of the screen allowing you to dive straight into a specific area. Usability is best described as being okay.
The climate control is below the infotainment screen and is super easy to use; if you’ve owned a Subaru in the last 10 years then you’ll be fine.
There are no vents in the back but there are outlets under the front seats that pipe warm or cool air into the back seats.
What’s the passenger space like in the WRX STI Spec.R?
The space is much like it was before in that you’ll fit four adults inside the car, a fifth in a pinch. But let’s start with the front seats as they’re the big differentiator compared with other WRX STI variants.
The seats look great and the fact they offer electric adjustment (eight-way on the driver’s seat) mean it’s easy to get into a good driving position.
But, for taller drivers, like me, the seat base might feel a little too short which could lead to discomfort on longer drives.
The seats are filled with a high-density urethane foam which on first acquaintance feels a little hard but like a latex pillow you tend to mould into the seat and it’s quite comfortable.
Vision right around is good, although the large rear wing does throw you off with shoulder checks and it does take up a fair old chink of the rear window.
That said, it doesn’t get in the way when reversing, which is part of Subaru’s commitment to the driver being able to see something, out of the rear window, that stands around 1m tall.
And you can… up until that object is about 2m away from the back of the car. But then, that’s what the reversing camera is for.
Unfortunately, there are no reversing sensors to sound an audible warning, which almost caught me out until I remembered that was the case. Moving on.
There are a handful of storage areas strewn around the cabin, from the deep centre console storage bin (with a 12V outlet), to the cup holders by the gear shifter and a small bin forward of that with a 12V outlet and USB point. The door bins will hold a 500ml bottle and the glovebox is of a reasonable size.
In the back, wide-opening rear doors reveal a continuation of the red and black theme from the front. Even with a small sunroof fitted there’s good headroom in the back for taller passengers, and there’s a reasonable amount of leg, knee and foot room even for an adult.
I set the front seat to suit me and had more than enough room in the back. The shape of the back seats is good, well, at least it is for the two outboard seats, which offer ISOFIX points; the middle seat is a perch more than anything else, although it could be used in a pinch.
What’s the boot space like?
The boot space is as it was back in 2016 in that you still get a decent 460 litres of space and a space saver spare beneath the floor. The back seats are 60:40 split fold which means you can carry bigger items if you need, although you can’t fold the seats from the boot.
The shape of the boot is wide and deep and of a reasonable height and it’s been nicely trimmed. There are no power outlets in the boot.
What’s the WRX STI Spec.R like to drive?
There’s been no change to the WRX STI’s engine and that means it’s a 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine making 221kW at 6000rpm and 407Nm of torque at 4000rpm. It drinks 11.2L/100km combined.
The engine is mated to a six-speed manual transmission and all there’s permanent all-wheel drive. The driver can specify a 50:50 split via the Multi-Mode Driver-Controlled Differential (DCCD) and up to 41:59 for a rear bias set-up. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
In general driving, the WRX STI doesn’t exactly try and snap your head off unless, that is, you’re in a low gear and pin the throttle to the floor; do that and you’ll be in the next town before you know what’s happened. Drive it normally, though, and you’ll need to stay away from sixth-gear if you’re travelling at less than 80km/h.
See, the WRX STI is still an old-school turbo car in the way it works, meaning, there’s lag until the turbo makes its presence felt from 2800rpm.
While the gearshift is easily the best of any WRX STI before it, that’s not necessarily saying much. There’s still a touch of notchiness to the shift and you will stall it at least once, but the throw is nice and direct and there’s good pedal feel through the clutch to help you balance the shift.
Like most go-fast cars, the gear shift is easier once you’re up and moving.
Despite more than 400Nm of torque, the WRX STI is not a car that you can lazily lope along in too high a gear and hope to rest on all that torque, nope, this is a machine where you’ve got to use the gearbox.
The WRX STI has always been known for its ability to dig its tyres into the road and grip on for dear life. And this refreshed model is a continuation of the theme and then some. See, the tweaks to the suspension have taken what was already a very firm riding car and made it a little firmer again, but there’s enough yield that you won’t rattle loose your fillings on a rough road.
My test loop takes is a 33km-long section of tarmac and dirt that is perfect for pulling apart a vehicle’s chassis, insulation, brakes and steering. On this loop there’s a section of road that is pock-marked with filled pot-hole upon filled pot-hole; I was expecting the STI to rattle and buck its way along this road but it didn’t.
I could hear the suspension working, but I couldn’t really feel it. There was no shudder through the wheel and even when I gave it a boot-full of throttle across this road to see how the thing would behave it was all very civil and controlled. So, yes, the suspension is firm but it’s not hard. There’s a difference.
The WRX STI was already a flat cornering car but the tweaked suspension has made it even more resistant to bodyroll than before. And the grip; I ran out of courage long before this thing would have run out of grip. Although that’s not the case on dirt…
Drive the WRX STI like a normal person and it’s all nice and controlled, but all-wheel drive doesn’t mean you can just hurl the thing into a corner and expect it to grip and go. Nope, it’ll slip, but the good thing is the slip is progressive and telegraphed; lift off the throttle slightly and it’ll gather itself back up, or stay on the throttle and you’ll be able to hold a drift… but not on a public road.
That slip is what makes the WRX STI such a great driver’s car, there’s enough lee-way in the traction and stability control tune that you’re allowed a touch of slip before the system cuts in, and even when it does its subtle and aimed at keeping you moving forwards rather than killing your progress.
The WRX STI still features its genius multi-mode driver-controlled differential (DCCD) which allows you to manually vary the drive split and play with the speed in which the front and rear driveshafts are locked together via the differential lock function. You can read more about that here.
Probably my only gripe with the WRX STI is its steering. Sure, the steering is direct but the weighting remains inconsistent and that’s an issue we noticed when we tested the non-refreshed WRX STI last year.
Off-centre the thing feels fine but on-centre there’s a touch of sponginess that last for a couple of degrees only. It’s worth noting that in any other car you wouldn’t notice this but because everything else about the WRX STI is so direct and fast these minor blemishes tend to stand out.
What safety features does the WRX STI get?
Well, it gets a five-star ANCAP safety rating and while it doesn’t get Subaru’s EyeSight system it does get the brand’s Vision Assist system which features blind spot monitoring, high beam assist, lane change assist, rear cross traffic alert and both front and side view monitors.
It also offers hill start assist and a reversing camera but there are no front or rear parking sensors. Beyond this, the STI also gets the usual airbags, traction and stability controls, ABS, all-wheel drive, brake assist, and active torque vectoring to help minimize understeer.
So, what do we think of the WRX STI Spec.R?
Well, in the end I’m not sure I’d pay extra for the Recaros, as good as they are. Beyond those seats there’s just not enough to differentiate the top-spec model from the STI Premium, and then I’d choose the one without the wing…
As for the drive experience, well, the tweaks to the suspension have given the STI a renewed feeling of vigor and agility.
The cabin’s nice, but it’s all about how the STI grips and goes, and I’m glad to say this thing still grips like a limpet and goes like a scalded cat.
2018 Subaru WRX STI Spec. R
Pricing: From $57,690+ORC
Warranty: three years, unlimited kilometres
Safety: five star ANCAP
Engine: 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder Boxer engine
Power/Torque: 221kW and 407Nm
Transmission: six-speed manual
Body: 4595mm (L); 1795mm (W); 1475mm (H)
Spare: Space saver
Boot Space: 460 litres
Fuel Tank: 60 litres