The Subaru WRX STI traditionally has had a spartan grit to it that sacrificed sophistication and comfort at the altar of speed. Consequently, it appealed almost entirely to young men unburdened by commitments and free to splurge on track weekends (and speeding tickets). Subaru tried to make the STI more livable to the masses when the softer, outgoing model debuted in 2008, but the Subie faithful howled in protest, which lead to a tauter, grippier car with a refresh in 2011.
Nonetheless, Subaru has been on a quest for a more buttoned up WRX STI, and the all-new 2015 model not only succeeds, but also delivers world-class rally-bred performance that has long defined the brand.
Initial attention inevitably goes to the styling, which I actually like in person, even if it doesn’t have the head-clipping C-pillar from the concept. The modest contours are almost Volvo-like in its restraint, and the immodest wing somehow blends in with its silhouette. Inside, the cabin’s pseudo-carbon fiber trim and stitched accents do give a more upscale air than the standard Impreza, even if it’s not to the level of a Volkswagen GTI. The biggest interior improvement is the steering wheel, which has a beefy diameter and a flat bottom for a racecar vibe.
Like the original bug-eye WRX, it may take time to warm up to the aesthetics, but the chassis garnered immediate praise. On the tight turns at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, it crisply turned in and transitioned with near-instantaneous response, feeling a couple hundred pounds lighter than its 3,386 lbs curb weight (up only 2 lbs. from the previous generation). The forest-canopy roads in Carmel Valley put the STI to the test with treacherous mid-corner dips, off-camber bends andlumpy tarmac, yet the jolts rarely transferred into the body—letting the suspension do all the work.
Subaru boldly proclaimed the car as the “best-handling STI,” and it easily lives up to that billing. The tires feel glued to the tarmac, and there’s minimal body roll whether in hard braking or cornering. The Brembo brakes showed only a hint of fade after multiple hard runs, though I wanted a more initial bite when stomping on the pedal.
With each successive lap I felt like I could become the next Kimi Raikkonen, because the STI never felt unsettled, even when doing all the wrong moves. I’d recklessly barrel into a corner and turn in hard, expecting understeer, only to find none, or I’d let off the gas mid-corner without any sense of the rear getting unhinged.
Even when not exploring the limits the STI feels good to drive. Although the suspension is stiffer than the 2015 WRX, it never got overwhelmed by kinks in the asphalt, and it softened the edges off the road enough to be livable on long drives. You also don’t need to blast the optional Harmon Kardon sound system to drown out road noise, because the cabin’s noticeably quieter. Although there’s no automatic option, the six-speed satisfyingly shifts with solid and slick throws (though I would have preferred the gas pedal extending lower for heel-toe gear changes). And unlike the regular WRX, the steering is hydraulically assisted, which provides decent road feedback.
While the STI surpasses its predecessor in almost every way, Subaru disappointingly went on cruise control when it came to the engine. Compared to the standard WRX’s new, direct-injected 2.0-liter powerplant that gets up to 28 mpg on the highway, the 17 city/23 highway mpg and 305-hp output from the STI feels like yesterday’s news. It’s a difference you can’t feel on manufacturer-hosted drives, where the gas tank is always filled when you hop back into the car. Not that the engine is bad; the flat torque curve means you don’t need to search for the right gear on the track, and the power arrives smoothly while still retaining that classic boxer burble. But for the geeky crowd that loves crunching numbers, the same 5.1-second 0-60 mph time (factory estimate) and a power-to-liter ratio lower than the regular WRX can be a turn off.
And you’d have to be a geek to fully appreciate the car, because learning the driving tech still feels like a crash course in Java. Count the choices: Subaru's SI Drive manages the throttle input, ranging from Intelligent (fuel economy), to Sport (the all-round mode), and Sport Sharp (which is too twitchy for subtle dabs of the throttle). Then there’s traction control, which you can toggle from normal to Traction Mode (which lets the car slip a bit before intervening), or turn the nannies completely off. Lastly there’s DCCD (Driver’s Control Center Differential), which manages the electronic/mechanic differentials and the 41:59 front/rear torque distribution; Auto [-] mode makes the STI more rear-biased for better rotation as opposed to the standard Auto mode (strangely the steering effort seemed lighter, too), while Auto [+] is used for slippery conditions such as snow. Or there’s manual DCCD mode, which I didn’t touch because my brain was already frying from information overload.
But one welcome carryover is the price tag, which at $34,595 makes a value argument that few cars can approach. Ironically, its biggest rival won’t be the nearly forgotten Mitsubishi Evolution, but the standard WRX. Starting at $27,090, the WRX closes the power gap to the STI with its 268 hp engine and shares similar chassis characteristics, yet with a more compliant ride, significantly better fuel economy, and styling that doesn’t scream “rev at me.”
So while the STI matured with its refined chassis and tenacious grip, the WRX ends up feeling like the more practical, grown-up choice between the two. How you want to earn those speeding tickets is a matter of taste, not engineering.
Editorial Disclosure: For this review, Subaru provided transportation, hotel accommodations and meals.