The Subaru WRX STI is one of the most entertaining sedans on the market, at any price.
What is it?
The rally-bred WRX STI is based on the Subaru Impreza. It shares the Impreza’s basic virtues – all-wheel drive, tight structure and excellent visibility – and then it stuffs in a 305-horsepower turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine.
Underneath the WRX STI is a driver-controlled center differential, and out back is a prominent wing.
Pricing and trims
If you’re OK with the WRX’s 268 horsepower instead of the tested WRX STI’s 305 hp, then you’d pay $8,500 less in 2017 pricing for the WRX than the WRX STI’s $35,195 entry fee.
The WRX STI is available in the tested base version and the $39,995 Limited. The Limited adds niceties such as moonroof, leather seating and BBS wheels. The Limited also gives buyers the opportunity to replace the hoop spoiler with one that’s “low profile.”
Our tested base 2016 WRX STI had no options. Once the $795 destination charge was added, it rang in at $35,490. The 2017 raises that by $525 to $36,015.
Since the WRX STI is a performance car, we’d want to try one with the $1,154 STI Performance Exhaust, and the $202 Footwell Illumination Kit looks fun.
As of this writing, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not yet done a full crash test of a WRX. The WRX series is based on the Impreza, which aced the IIHS’s tests to become a Top Safety Pick Plus, and we’d expect the WRX and WRX STI to crash similarly well.
Just be aware that to get a WRX eligible for the Top Safety Pick Plus rating, you’d need to equip it with the $1,200 CVT automatic transmission. That means you’d have to forgo the WRX’s manual transmission, and you’d be excluded from the WRX STI altogether, because it’s manual-only. You’d have to get either the WRX Premium and WRX Limited (the only WRXs available with a CVT) to get the full EyeSight active safety suite.
And, getting EyeSight on a WRX is pricey – you must add the $4,095 Code 23 option, which lumps in active safety with navigation and a Harmon Kardon audio system and other luxuries, along with blind spot detection and a rear cross traffic alert.
Performance is what we’re all here for with this hairiest of Subarus, and the WRX STI delivers in two big ways.
First, this 2.5-liter, turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder provides big thrust. Initial throttle response is razor-sharp, and then it’s around 2,000 rpm that all 305 horses come on strong. At that point, you’d better have the WRX STI aimed right, because that’s where you’re headed in a serious hurry.
And second, this good ol’ Subaru “Boxer” flat four has all of the endearingly thrummy character of the WRXs we’ve come to know and love. The way the entire car seems to tingle when the WRX STI finds its voice creates a sensory experience that goes beyond simply going fast; you feel more involved in process than you do in some competitors. Others may have delicious exhaust notes, but none allow you to feel the engine’s pulse the way a WRX STI does.
The WRX STI’s six-speed manual transmission – again, no automatics for the STI – is beefed up for duty here, and throws are short and direct. The clutch is firm, and if you’re new to the WRX, the clutch may seem to take up too abruptly, to the point where you may stall the engine on the test drive.
If this is your impression, then just give it a little time, and you’ll find that the clutch’s firmness allows you to engage it in subtly different ways, depending on how explosive you want your acceleration to be.
Ride and handling
The WRX STI’s performance suspension and is the fruit of years of Subaru rally-car development, and it can make a beginner look like a pro. Part of the benefit of all-wheel drive is the expanded margin of error it gives, and you’d typically have to be double the legal speed on public roads to approach the STI’s ultimate limits.
Fortunately, the WRX STI is fun from the minute you turn the key. The steering has wonderful directness along with its high-effort feel, and the brake pedal has not one centimeter of slop. Few cars have this kind of clean and clear connection to its driver.
Throttle response can be further sharpened by dialing in Sport or Sport Sharp. Sport launches the WRX STI with more intensity, with a bigger initial power bubble. The hair-trigger Sport Sharp is a little extreme for the street, but it’ll be your best friend on track day. The center differential control is there to help you power-slide through whatever terrain you’re on.
The WRX STI’s front seats are tall, beefy and supportive. Shoulder support is ample, and thigh support for tall drivers is plentiful. They give a true buckety feel, and the grippy Alcantara inserts keep you locked in without feeling trapped.
The rear seat is about what you’d expect from a compact sedan, with a nominal 35.4 inches of legroom. The seat is firm, and there are tall windows for viewing the scenery.
The WRX STI’s trunk is on the small side, with a capacity of only 12 cubic feet. In a compartment this size, we’d like to see Subaru replace the long gooseneck hinges with a more compact design, as the gooseneck’s housings take up the space of two small bags.
On the other hand, at least Subaru has provided an enclosure for the goosenecks – some cars let the hinges smush your groceries when you lower the lid.
Infotainment and controls
The tested base WRX STI comes standard with a 6.2-inch touchscreen, and there’s a secondary 4.3-inch LCD screen above it with readouts for climate controls and the trip computer. The touchscreen is relatively small, but responds quickly to your taps and has an uncluttered interface.
However, Subaru is one of the few carmakers that continues to deny the existence of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, with the mistaken belief that its Starlink smartphone integration is just as good. You won’t miss it if you’re a Pandora fan, because Starlink seamlessly ties it in. But we’d like to see Subaru join the Apple and Android connectivity club.
The flat-bottomed wheel is another STI upgrade over the WRX.
If you’re looking for a performance sedan and a WRX STI fits the budget, then a stop at the Subaru dealer is practically mandatory. Ford and Volkswagen both field strong STI competitors, but neither has the Subaru’s rugged charm. The WRX STI’s thrummy engine and direct responses give their own unique experiences, and taken as a whole, the WRX STI has a way of clearing your head that’s like none other.
WRX STI complaints are few. We’d like to see an uptick in the quality of the interior plastics, which we’d also say about the WRX STI’s Impreza progenitor. A bigger trunk would be nice, and the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto would certainly expand this Subaru’s appeal.
Otherwise, the WRX STI stands as one of the most engaging and endearing new cars you can buy.
2016 Subaru WRX STI
Base price: $34,695
Price as tested, including $795 destination charge: $35,490
- Torquey turbo engine response
- Athletic handling
- Elemental feel
- Fairly basic non-Limited WRX STI spec
- Small trunk
- Budget interior plastics