The WRX STI is back, but is this generation of Subaru's hot saloon a match for the all-paw Ford Focus RS and Volkswagen Golf R?

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After a long time in a wilderness of exchange rate-induced irrelevance, the Subaru WRX STI is back – and at a price that demands the sort of full appraisal that only an Autocar road test can provide.

Fuji Heavy Industries set up its motorsport division, Subaru Tecnica International, in 1988. The first Impreza WRX STI was launched in 1994, based on the 247bhp Japanese-market ‘GC8B’ Impreza. Power grew to 271bhp later that year.

There's no mention of the word 'Impreza' on the bootlid

The most famous STI remains the 22B coupé of 1998, just 16 of which came to the UK officially — although many more were imported via other channels. Highlights since include the UK-only Prodrive-tuned P1 of 2000, the 2004 WR1 and the 2006 RB320.

What car new buying red 308

With a retuned chassis, a new bodyshell, new steering and an improved cabin, this STI is a whole new prospect. And yet it’s so familiar.

To an extent, it’s the same fast 4x4 saloon that won such an enthusiastic following off the back of the WRC success of McRae, Burns and Solberg.

But all that was more than a decade ago, and since then times have been tough for this rally refugee. So can a price cut and an injection of stiffness, sharpness, plushness and practicality make an ageing performance concept appealing again?

We’ve seen hot hatches grow in stature and sophistication, to the point where some now set a very high standard indeed on performance, handling and value for money. In fact, since the last WRX STI departed and this gen arrived the market has evolved and changed so much, even today the Subaru finds itself up against a wealth of all-wheel drive equivalents, including: the Volkswagen Golf R, Ford Focus RS, Audi RS3 and the Mercedes-AMG A45, not to mention the latest Honda Civic Type R, BMW M140i or the newest addition to the clan - the Hyundai i30 N.

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So we have to see what has this renewed and renowned old stager has to say about all that?


Subaru WRX STI rear

The Impreza WRX STI is no longer an Impreza. Subaru UK dropped the prefix three years ago in an effort to distance the turbocharged 4x4 from the more ordinary Impreza hatches it was trying to sell at the time.

The passage of those three years hasn’t, however, made the idea of an Impreza STI that isn’t an Impreza at all seem any less strange to us. Subaru stops short of calling this a ground-up new car, but there’s not a lot that has been left untouched.

The engine's boxer configuration makes it hard to get a good response from a single turbocharger

The new bodyshell is wider, lower, longer of wheelbase and 140 percent stiffer than that of the last STI saloon, giving notable improvements in ride and handling, they say. The bodywork, too, is all new, and to our eyes it’s a marked improvement on the bland amorphousness that went before.

The suspension has been modified rather than replaced. Stiffer cross-members and bushings feature front and rear, as well as thicker anti-roll bars and slightly altered mounting points that increase toe-in at the back and ground contact under load at the front. The hydraulic power steering has also been replaced, with a stiffer column and quicker gearing fitted.

The engine and drivetrain remain largely unaltered. That means you get 2.5 litres of burbling flat four driving all four wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox (with a shorter throw and new scissor springs and detent profiles) and through a viscous limited-slip centre differential with driver-selectable front or rear bias.

The ‘EJ257’ 2.5-litre flat four gets a revised ECU, a bigger intercooler and exhaust gas recirculation for this new STI, helping it to pass Euro 6 emissions tests. The engine is mounted low in a boxer configuration, so it gives the car a low roll axis, but the layout also causes some problems.

There’s no direct injection or variable-geometry turbo technology here. Neither has Subaru found a way to shorten the inlet tracts between the cylinder heads and centrally mounted turbocharger, which would help engine response.

Subaru also runs up against a packaging problem that forces it to run oversquare cylinders in a big-capacity engine. A slightly undersquare, longer-stroke design (such as most of the rest of the industry use for better low-end torque) would force the cylinder heads even further from the turbo and might not even fit between the suspension turrets.

Porsche’s answer to all this, for the 996 Turbo, was parallel twin turbos and intercoolers, but that might not be an answer cheap enough for a sub-£30,000 Subaru.

Peak outputs are 296bhp at 6000rpm and 300lb ft at 4000rpm, which is plenty for your money. Years ago, however, those outputs would have been enough to create clear air between this car and the chasing hot hatch pack. These days many two-wheel drive variants are approaching and surpassing this mark, you only have to look at the latest versions of the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Hyundai i30 N, Seat Leon Cupra 300 and Honda Civic Type R to see how far the segment has come. Let alone consider the four-wheel-drive cars that the WRX STI would line up against, with the new Audi RS3 approaching the 400bhp mark.

Subaru could certainly have done more to give this car something akin to the superior position it used to occupy on outright grunt. We’ll have to see if the car can distinguish itself by other means.


Subaru WRX STI interior

An unusual mix of changes have filtered into this STI’s cabin. An extra 25mm of wheelbase has created useful additional kneeroom in the back, while pushing the side sills down and outwards has delivered extra width.

Occupant space is as good as you’ll find in most full-size hot hatchbacks, while boot space is competitive at 460 litres and split-folding back seats are standard.

The wheel and pedal alignment is good and there's plenty of adjustment in the steering column

In the front, Subaru has made limited efforts to add richness to the STI’s cabin by fitting soft-touch mouldings on the tops of the door cards and on parts of the dashboard. The new Alcantara steering wheel is handsome and tactile enough, and the bolstered sports seats are nice and comfortable.

The 4.3in colour multi-function display might have made a useful addition to the dashboard, feeding information back about turbo boost and drivetrain operation, but it looks like an afterthought, placed high on the dash in the centre of the cabin and controlled by a dedicated toggle button shoehorned between the central air vents. In our experience, these systems are next to useless when placed so far from your eyeline.

This is a driving environment in dire need of a rationalising redesign. Mixed material quality is something you might be inclined to forgive the WRX STI, given its new price and performance level. But it’s harder to overlook such poor systems usability and such a dire ergonomic layout.  

Thankfully, Subaru has replaced the STI’s archaic-looking ‘double-DIN’ audio system, with its latest generation of its Starlink infotainment system complete with a 7.0in touchscreen, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, voice recognition, but crucially no sat nav. The system as a whole is fairly intuitive and simple to use, but it lacks the finesse that some others in this segment have, namely from BMW and the Volkswagen Group.

As for the rest of the standard equipment, the WRX STI is fairly well equipped, with LED head and tail lights, electrically folding wing mirrors, 18in alloy wheels, a Brembo braking system, tinted rear windows and a dual-exhaust system fitted on the exterior. Inside there is sports seats, a leather and Alcantara upholstery, keyless entry and ignition, dual-zone climate control, cruise control and a security tracker.


2.5-litre Subaru WRX STI boxer engine

The STI’s powertrain will feel immediately familiar to anyone who’s driven a highly strung Impreza: big on traction and robust and substantial through the gearlever and clutch pedal but not exactly straightforward to interact with.

Given the work put in to overhaul it, the new gear linkage should be slicker. As it is, it feels notchy and ponderous. But it’s only one constituent part of an engine and transmission combination that’s a bit of a monster: potent, sure – but demanding to use and generally unwilling to yield to your efforts to bring it to heel.

Subaru's engine gets a new ECU and bigger intercooler in the STI

Subaru’s turbocharged flat four might as well be a 1980s turbocharged F1 engine, given how peaky it feels compared with an equivalent modern turbocharged in-line engine.

Bury the pedal with less than 3000rpm showing and embarrassingly little happens; there’s a fair bit of turbo lag to push through, followed by a separate wait for the crankshaft to spin fast enough for the turbo boost to peak.

At 3500rpm the car begins to pick up; at 4000rpm it’s finally hauling. But that only gives you a 2500rpm sweet spot in which to aim to keep the crankshaft spinning in order to keep the car surging on.

Doing that means concentrating and timing your shifts with careful precision. And there will be lots of shifts, so short are the STI’s intermediate gear ratios.

That’s certainly an engrossing process, and we wouldn’t argue that the STI isn’t an involving drive. It’s characterful, too; seldom do you find modern performance cars in which you can feel the turbo boost building so vividly.

But if all of that sounds like we’re making excuses for the car, it’s because we are. Frankly, in this era of direct fuel injection and variable-geometry turbos, a £30,000 performance saloon should be more flexible, more responsive and just plain easier to drive quickly.

If the STI were all of those things, it would probably have broken the 5.0sec-to-60mph barrier – which is all it needed to do in order to be competitive with its current rivals. Instead, it languishes at least half a second off the required pace.


Subaru WRX STI cornering

No mention is made of higher spring rates in the press material for the WRX STI. So you’ll have to take our word for it that this is a much more stiffly suspended machine than the last STI – and a much, much stiffer one than the slightly soft, roll-affected STI hatch that came before.

On the face of it, Subaru has over-compensated massively in response to criticisms of that car (and perhaps the STI saloon that followed it) by ramping up chassis rates to almost anti-social levels. It has introduced both grip and enhanced directional responses into the car’s handling, but at disproportionate expense.

The Subaru WRX STI has loads of grip, a crisp turn-in and great body control

The STI’s ride is very poor. In fact, it will be intolerable to all but the most committed. Mercifully, it isn’t too noisy or crashy as much as it is unnecessarily unyielding. It’s twice as firm as it needs to be at an estimate, and more so than a lot of 600bhp supercars we could mention.

Suspension travel feels uncharacteristically short for a fast 4x4, so the car’s dampers are rarely given the chance to soak up shocks in one cycle of movement. Every bump in the road seems to cause two or three more bodily disturbances than it should; every one is exacerbated by the chassis rather than absorbed.

The firmer load paths through the front suspension also cause a bit of torque steer, bump steer and general unwanted interference through the steering wheel, all of which makes guiding the car quite trying at times.

Grip levels are high, though, and the steering itself is very direct and responsive – but it’s an unsatisfying helm, mostly because the weighting is inconsistent and there’s a nasty elasticity to the feel, while little sense for what the front contact patches are doing is actually conveyed.

Assistance levels are necessarily high, however, due to the lateral forces that must be overcome, the reduced diameter of the wheel you’ve got to overcome them with and the extra directness of the steering gear.

Sheer lateral grip puts the STI within two-tenths of the VW Golf R around our dry handling circuit. The Subaru clings on to the track very hard indeed, turns in much more cleanly and keenly than any STI has before and keeps its body upright at all times. There’s still quite a bit of dive and pitch to contend with — a pay-off for those stiff anti-roll bars — but not so much as to corrupt braking stability.

The disappointment is that, in the dry, there’s not quite enough neutrality to the car’s cornering attitude. Once you’ve grown used to the entry speed you can carry, you inevitably look to pick the throttle up as early as you can mid-corner and steer the car on the rear axle as you exit. But no dice.

There’s no limited-slip diff for the rear axle here and understeer only intrudes if you harry the car too hard. So unlike a car with a 4WD system that can push its power rearwards when the front starts to slip (which is most good ones), in the STI you have to play a waiting game until the road opens out. Pity.


Subaru WRX STI

The STI’s price tag of just under £30k should be low enough to make British enthusiasts look again at buying one. Although, the Golf R, Focus RS, Ford Mustang and Civic Type R are in close attendance.

Subaru is offering plenty of car and plenty of power for the money, and while servicing costs may not be as cheap as those of some European performance options, residual values should be pleasantly surprising.

If you don't opt for your WRX STI in WR Blue, you probably need to have a quiet word with yourself

Insurance won’t be quite so pleasant, though, but insuring a fast Subaru has never been cheap. The STI has been classed 11 groups higher than a Golf R.

Fuel economy isn’t as bad as you might think. On a touring run, the car will return better than 30mpg, but that will sink to single figures on a track – a situation caused, we suspect, by the engine’s tendency to run hot when exercised and to inject excess fuel to cool itself down.

The WRX STI's residual values are quietly impressive too, and not far off a Volkswagen Golf R.

Only one trim level is offered, so it's just a case of choosing your desired paint finish.

What car new buying red 308


3 star Subaru WRX STI

Three stars out of five and no place among our class top five. Sounds harsh for a car that brought a smile from everyone who took the keys.

The Subaru WRX STI remains a charismatic, exciting driver’s car with enough attitude and aggression to whet anyone’s appetite.

The Subaru WRX STI really needs an optional limited-slip differential at the rear

But next to the highly developed hot hatches, the Subaru’s old-school performance routine isn’t cutting it. Its rivals now deliver driveability, accessibility and ease of use hand in hand with speed and thrills, making this Subaru not nearly rounded enough or quite fast enough.

Nor is it as precise or rewarding on the limit as the best fast hatches that Europe offers, such as the Ford Focus RS or the Volkswagen Golf R.

What the STI needs is an up-to-date, intuitive cabin and a complete technical and mechanical overhaul. Subaru needs the confidence to charge at least 50 percent more for this car – to dare to rule the roost once more.

As things stand, the Impreza STI is being left behind.

What car new buying red 308

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Subaru WRX STI 2014-2017 First drives