The trope of the Black Sheep is a common one in popular culture, the idiomatic notion of a family member who just doesn’t fit in. This refusal to conform can be natural or the reflection of an outright rejection of convention; it can also reflect an active rebellion of not only a familiar norm but a societal one. Inevitably the black sheep is the one you most really want to party with.
Automobile manufacturers inevitably breed their own black sheep. For Chevy, it might be the raucous Corvette; for Ford, the zany Raptor or hooligan Focus RS. But the Japanese seem to take the notion to the extreme. For every bland-as-tapioca Nissan Altima, there’s Godzilla’s own GT-R spewing fire out of its tailpipes. For every appliance-like Toyota Camry, there’s an FJ Cruiser crawling up the side of boulder mountains. And for every Honda Accord destined for the parking garage of some mid-level manager’s office, there’s an NSX or Civic Type-R gracing the fever-dreams of the sports car obsessed.
Which brings me to the Subaru WRX STi. Because for every utilitarian, sensible-shoes Subaru Outback that pulls into the faculty lot of a liberal arts college, there’s a WRX STi pulling up to a skate park, thinking about its plain-vanilla stablemates: “How lame.”
The WRX STi is built in Ōta, Japan, in a plant that once housed the Nakajima Aircraft Company (the ancestor of today’s Fuji Heavy Industries). In the late-1980’s, Subaru partnered with the British firm Prodrive to begin its factory rally program and began an extraordinary period where its team won the constructor’s and driver’s championship three times each over the next two decades. The WRC WRX is legendary in rally racing circles as the car Scottish legend Colin McRae drove to the WRC Championships in 1995, his legacy sealed as one of the all-time greats (before he was tragically killed in a helicopter crash in 2007). Subaru wound down its factory team in 2008, but in car circles the WRX STi is still entirely synonymous with WRC.
The WRC spawned many objects of road-going desire but because we’re Americans and thus rarely get the coolest of cars, the US-market WRX STi only really ever had one competitive evil-twin to terrorize backroads and suburban parking lots alike: The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. And when the Evo left the playing field, the WRX STi was left to soldier on alone, its nemesis retired and gone home.
The car tested here had a base price of $35,192, with an as-tested price of $40,104, and was painted Dark Gray Metallic with a lovely black-and-red interior scheme. It was loaded up with an electronics package that included a surprisingly muddy Harmon/Kardon stereo (more on that later) and all manner of entry-level electronic gizmos (keyless access, lane departure warning, SirusXM and HD radio, Homelink). The one box that was happily checked was the STi short-throw shifter. (Of note on the Monroney sticker: “Full Tank of Gas: INCLD.” Gee, thanks, Subaru!)
(Thanks to fine folks at Van Subaru for the extended test drive.)
The WRX STi is powered by a 2.5-liter, turbocharged and intercooled DOHC flat-4, with aluminum blocks and heads, and port fuel injection. It makes 305-hp at 6000rpm and 290 lb/ft of torque at 4000rpm. It’s an old-school turbocharged car, where general lack-of-refinement is overcome by massive amounts of boost, in this case up to 21psi in overboost. This is turbo-lag like they used to do it: nothing, nothing, nothing, then…everything! The engine bay itself is largely taken over by a massive intercooler fed by an equally massive hood scoop. Faux it’s most certainly not, a great scalloped wound on the hood that greedily slurps in atmosphere to feed the intercooler directly underneath. No fancy cooling plumbing needed; it’s a straight shot from outside air to scoop to intercooler. Old school.
It’s clearly a powerplant that tries hard, and works hard, and the results are competent and entertaining. But it’s an old engine, almost ancient compared to its peers, in fact. Specs like the WRX STi’s were once world-leading, but in the current era direct competitors like the Ford Focus RS make 350-hp (and 350 lb/ft of torque) and the Volkswagen Golf R matches the WRX STi’s numbers with even less displacement (and about 50% more refinement). The Subbie’s motor feels more than a bit long in the tooth, though it still moves the car with verve. 0-60mph comes by at roughly 4.8 seconds, plenty quick by any standard, though MPG is a little old-school (and not in a good way this time) at 17/23 mpg in city/highway according to the EPA. Given the exuberance with which this car will likely be driven by its intended audience, I could see a city average of 12/13 mpg being common.
Power is routed through twin differentials by a snappy 6-speed manual transmission whose clutch-pack feels like it’s about the size of a reasonably-sized orange. The clutch throw itself is about as long as the space between the wall and the wallpaper; smooth takeoffs require some practice. The shifter itself has a level of precision that says, “well, yeah buddy, the gears are all in here somewhere and good luck figuring them out.” Which is to say it’s not exactly Honda-esque in the precision of the shift gate. The shifter itself is a thing of beauty, a perfectly sized golf-ball with fetching red enamel poured onto the top that feels just right in your hand. Which is a good thing because given the gearing and the relatively high rev-range at which the car really starts to make big power, you’ll be doing a lot of shifting. The differentials certainly let you know they’re working, with transmission whine drowned out only by the sound of the turbochargers spinning and spooling and dumping excess pressure through the turbo’s wastegate.
The interior is all glammed-up Imprezza, but the materials by and large are of reasonable quality with the controls in logical spots. There’s a lot of design elements and gizmos that seem to be trying really hard, but overall, it’s a pleasant place to live. As you’d expect in a WRC homage car, the parking break is perfectly positioned for you to practice your Scandinavian flick on snowy Home Depot parking lot chicanes. The seats are a distinct letdown. While they’re well positioned and adjustable, they’ve got all the cushioning of a mid-century modern fiberglass chair and have basically no lateral bolsters for support. Given the intended sideways nature of this car, it’s a miss.
On the outside, the styling of the WRX STi is so chunky and clunky as to be irresistibly charming. Take one garden-variety, humble road car as a base, weld on a bunch of boxy wide fenders, attack the hood with the Jaws of Life to create the aforementioned-scoop, and slap on some fetching anthracite rally wheels. Voila!
And about that wing…
The WRX STi’s wing is unavoidable, obtrusive, rather obnoxious, and as much a part of the character of the car as the gap between Lauren Hutton’s front teeth. Essential. The wing is an entire Aerodrome of faux-downforce. It’s the backward baseball cap of automobile affectations. The Mother of All Wings. Porsche GT3’s and BMW M4 GTS’s blush in humble modesty when a WRX STi arrives on the scene. You get my point. (And please no flames from the fanboys. Yes, it looks rad. Yes, it’s part of the WRX STi’s charm. Yes, if you’re above the age of 25 it makes you look like a douche. No, you’re not Petter Solberg at the Acropolis Rally.)
Fire up the engine and the noise that fills the cabin is initially modest and tepid, with little hint of the mechanical fury that’s just under the surface. Stab the throttle and the mood changes immediately. The exhaust booms and shudders, drowning out the optional Harmon/Kardon stereo at anything about 2500rpm. The cabin turns into the inner bowl of a timpani drum mid-performance by some exceptionally exuberant percussionist. Stereo clarity just ain’t gonna happen, nor is conversation at anything close to normal speaking levels.
The WRX STi is not a particularly sophisticated or refined car, but I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. It has a distinctly agricultural vibe, with the ever-present sound and feel of metal bits rubbing together in varying states of tension and lubrication. This car is all about visceral experience.
But for all the WRX STi’s rough edges, the chassis tuning and exuberant handling is such that all else is forgiven. This car is about grip, neutral, tunable grip. The turbo lag of the engine makes progressive power delivery a challenge, and when the big juice kicks in the car tends to understeer, but a little lift of the throttle rotates the rear end in predictable and controllable fashion. The torque vectoring diffs shift power from wheel to wheel in an altogether noticeable way; you can always feel them doing their thing, and it’s almost a game to see how you can momentarily upset the car just to see how the diffs will react. Which they do, always at the right time, with just enough stick and grab. If you get a WRX STi out of shape, you’ve really done something (likely either really good or really bad, but I won’t judge). The steering is precise, well-weighted, and direct. And the Brembos at all four corners are fabulous and trick, able to adjust brake pressure at the rear wheels while cornering, a kind of off-throttle torque vectoring without the fancy eDiff of, say, BMW M-cars.
That said, the ride quality is harsh in the extreme. All that grip is transferred into the cabin with little-to-no delicacy, which is great for a driver playing hooligan but not so much for anyone riding along. As my wife, she of trenchant powers of observation, said after a short ride: "This seems like one of those cars that might be really fun to drive but isn't any fun at all to ride in." Nailed it.
I have no doubt that the next generation WRX STi will be a much more modern car. Subaru is on a massive roll and turns out quality, interesting products in great volumes and with great affection from their loyal owners. So R&D budget is not a worry. This current version is a throw-back car in that it’s frankly in need of updating. But all those rough edges translate to actual personality, and it’s wonderful when a car so honestly and obviously embraces its own anachronisms. It’s not subtle; it’s not casual. It’s proudly in-your-face. For the skate punk in all of us.