by Gerhard Horn
The Subaru WRX STI is a bit of a dinosaur but in a good way. In a world where most performance sedans and hatches also have to be refined enough to handle the daily grind, there's something oddly satisfying about an unashamedly brutal car without the more premium, refined gloss of something like the Volkswagen Golf R. The WRX STI is practical, for sure. But when you drive it, you get the idea that the practicality is just a bonus because of the bodyshell Subaru wrapped over the hardcore underpinnings. More than anything, the Subaru is an unfiltered, all-wheel-drive, flat-four monster. Designed and built to offer a thrilling driving experience above all else, that's exactly what it does.
Nothing has changed between 2020 and 2021. Subaru added some specifications to the lesser WRX range, but the STI lineup remains the same. You get the base STI and STI Limited. Subaru's main bragging point is the fact that the price increase over the 2020 model is just $250. Oddly, there's no limited-edition model this year, as Subaru breaks a two-year tradition. In 2019 it introduced the Series.Gray model, and in 2020 it launched the Series.White. Both were produced in limited numbers and included Recaro seats, a Bilstein high-performance suspension, and unique alloys. It's a pity there's no limited model included in this year's line-up.
See trim levels and configurations:
Subaru still brags about its rally prowess on its website, even though it has been more than 12 years since it has competed in a WRC event. While we think Subaru should update its marketing strategy, it's worth pointing out that the STI's inherited rally car traits do make it a highly entertaining car to drive. To find the limits of its adhesion, you have to be a very brave person. In addition to the symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, Subaru has built a lot of technology into the underpinnings. This includes the Multi-Mode Driver Controlled Center Differential, Active Torque Vectoring, and Multi-Mode Vehicle Dynamics Control.
The adjustable center differential allows you to vary the torque split between the front and rear axles. When you're feeling brave, you can feed most of the torque to the rear axle, while a more equal split is perfect for amateur drivers. The active torque vectoring helps it turn in with a bit more verve by braking the inside wheel. The Multi-Mode Dynamics Control allows you to dial things back a bit, but never to the point where the Subaru could be called relaxing.
On the plus side, the Subaru provides loads of feedback via the electrically-assisted steering, while the all-wheel drive ensures that it remains relatively quick, even in less than ideal conditions. When the roads are wet, few rear-wheel-drive sports cars can keep up with this thing. The AWD also allows for a quick zero to 60 mph sprint time. It is possible to get it below six seconds, but as an owner, you most likely won't ever try the methods needed to match such times. You have to be prepared to dump the clutch at high revs, while you cringe at the amount of abuse the powertrain is going through. The downside is that there's very little in the way of refinement, as you'll quickly see in any test drive review. Every bump, no matter how small, works its way up from the wheels and through the cabin. It's a stiff setup, and it can be taxing on the body. It also doesn't have an active exhaust system, so it's always noisy, whether or not you're hurtling along at the top legal speed. Perfect for a sprint on a quiet road, but less so when you just want to drive home in comfort and silence after a long, busy day at the office. The Brembo brakes are superb. Feedback is plentiful and the braking power provided by the six-piston calipers is strong.
To a specific group of people, this car is everything. It's unapologetically hardcore. A true driving tool that never settles down. It has over-the-top design elements and is only available with a manual transmission. It doesn't nestle or comfort you. It demands your attention. And it's attention worth giving because it is an intoxicating driving experience. The turbocharged flat-four growls majestically as you bomb around, knowing that the all-wheel drive system is there in the background to save you if you get slightly overenthusiastic. It feels like an old-school driving experience that's slowly dying out. This unique experience is certainly one of the reasons it continues to sell.
But there's a reason it's dying out. A similarly-priced hatchback is better in several areas. The outgoing Golf R is a magnificent all-rounder, and the new model will likely be even better. The Civic Type R is a brilliant hatch, which not only offers similar performance but also a quirky, divisive design. To love this car, you have to be a serious Subaru fan. There are plenty of sacrifices you have to make to live with it - sacrifices that you don't have to make if you buy one of the hatches.
Nearly two years after it left the local market, the Volkswagen Golf R remains one of the WRX STI's most fierce rivals. When it was new in 2019, it had a retail price of $40,395. The bad news is that depreciation never hit the Golf R that hard. A nice 2018/2019 example with very low mileage still retails for nearly $40,000. Should a defunct car be considered a rival? Most definitely, yes. The Golf R will still feel advanced compared to the STI. It was one of the most complete all-around performance cars ever sold, offering blistering performance, a comfortable interior, exemplary build quality, and space. It was the classy option, but it could run circles around an STI when the mood struck. By comparison, the sprint to 60 mph is dealt with in less than five seconds, making it easily quicker than the STI. It doesn't offer the same level of drama as the STI, but the interior is in a different league. If you're willing to go used rather than brand new, the Golf R beats the STI convincingly.
The Honda Civic Type R (starting at $37,895) should appeal to the same sort of buyer who would be interested in the STI. The two of them do have a lot in common such as an extrovert exterior (it's possibly even more flamboyant) with a massive rear wing, a turbocharged engine with over 300 horsepower, and only a six-speed manual option. That's where the similarities end, however. The Honda is only front-wheel drive, but thanks to advancements in technology, it's even faster than the WRX STI. It sprints to 60 mph in five seconds dead. It also outclasses the STI dynamically, and it has a much better interior with more advanced comfort and safety features. It even has a much bigger boot. The only department where the WRX STI has the upper hand is noise. A flat-four engine has a very distinctive sound. The only reason you'd choose an STI over this is that you're a massive fan of the brand. The Civic Type R is one of the best all-round performance hatches of all time, and one of the best cars on sale today.
The most popular competitors of 2021 Subaru WRX STI: