by Gabe Beita Kiser
Rather than try to be all things to all people, the Subaru WRX - and especially the STI - offers driving thrills in a package that's a lot more practical than the average sports coupe. All-wheel-drive and over 300 horsepower are also impressive in this class. If you want your performance to be combined with a quiet cabin, posh materials, and a smooth ride, it's best you look elsewhere because the no-compromise STI is all about an unfiltered driving experience. The flat-four engine burbles along noisily and the ride can be punishing, and not much has changed in 2020 besides a few added features and a redesigned front bumper. Competitors include the equally angry, front-wheel-drive Honda Civic and the much more polished, outgoing Volkswagen Golf R - while an almost-new 2019 Golf R will bring its price more in line with the STI while offering far better refinement. But if what you want is a frill-free compact sedan with tons of performance, the old-school WRX STI remains one of the most entertaining drives.
Subaru hasn't made too many changes for 2020, but there are a few enhancements for the WRX STI, which now gets push-button start, a new design for the engine bay cooling ducts in the front bumper, and 19-inch alloy wheels in a new dark gray finish. Last year's limited-edition Series.Gray also gets replaced this year by the Series.White - it features Recaro seats, a Bilstein high-performance suspension, and unique alloy wheels. This model is limited to just 500 units.
The WRX STI continues to flaunt its performance potential from every angle. A massive hood-intake scoop, an even bigger rear wing, LED headlights, and 19-inch alloy wheels combine for an in-your-face package that some will love and some will hate. A limited-edition WRX STI Series.White has its own 19-inch BBS alloy wheels with a matte bronze finish, a silver finish for the Brembo brake calipers, and matte-black exterior badging. The WRX STI Limited also gets a power moonroof.
The WRX STI measures 180.9 inches in length, 58.1 inches in height, and 70.7 inches in width - this makes it taller and quite a bit longer than the outgoing 2019 Golf R, obviously because of the STI's trunk. The wheelbase is 104.3 inches and ground clearance is 4.9 inches. Curb weight varies by trim, with the limited-run Series.White being the lightest at 3,415 pounds, the WRX STI tipping the scales at 3,450 lbs, and the better-equipped WRX STI Limited being the heaviest at 3,514 lbs.
A seven-strong color palette is available for the STI range. Your choices range from more conservative shades like Crystal White Pearl, Ice Silver Metallic, Magnetite Gray Metallic, and Crystal Black Silica to louder colors like WR Blue Pearl, Lapis Blue Pearl, and Pure Red. The limited-edition Series.White gets exclusive Ceramic White paint.
The WRX STI is all about eager performance and it's thanks to the turbocharged boxer engine's 310 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque. Coupled with Subaru's symmetrical all-wheel-drive system and a six-speed manual transmission, the WRX STI begins hauling at a rapid rate once the turbo kicks in, and it'll cover 0-60 mph in comfortably under six seconds. There is some turbo lag to contend with lower down, but the noisy engine always feels exciting. Plus, with the security of all-wheel-drive, the STI never battles to put its power down like some front-wheel-drive competitors. For maximum acceleration off the line, be prepared to drop the clutch at high revs and to grit your teeth as the STI launches with fury.
Last year, the WRX STI's already powerful engine received some revisions which included a revised air intake, strengthened pistons, and a tweaked ECU to take power output up to 310 hp. Along with 290 lb-ft, the 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four retains its unmistakable acoustics and provides impressive thrust, although power delivery isn't particularly linear - the turbo's sudden arrival provides a significant boost in power, but outside of this optimum range, the engine can feel a tad flat-footed. While a six-speed manual transmission is appreciated, regular shifts are necessary to keep the WRX STI within its optimum powerband. It's also the sole transmission option, limiting the STI's appeal. So, although the power is there, the Subaru asks a lot of its driver to extract it and while the result is engaging, it can also prove wearisome after an extended period behind the wheel. Rivals such as the outgoing VW Golf R provide more accessible performance, more of the time.
If it were to be judged solely by its ability to go around corners, the WRX STI would rate as one of the best sedans on the market. There's a lot of technology built into the suspension package, with the multi-mode vehicle dynamics control system making it possible to choose the amount of traction control intervention, along with standard active torque vectoring. The adjustable central differential allows you to vary the front/rear torque split. Combined with a direct electrically-assisted steering system that offers some welcome feedback, the firmly-sprung STI can be hustled at high speeds with exemplary body control. Excessive understeer, the bane of older fast Subarus, has been appreciably eradicated when planting the throttle. Choose Sport Sharp for the quickest reactions and, on smooth roads, the STI is a joy to drive fast. On wet or slippery surfaces, the STI also exhibits a high level of control.
The price to pay for these excellent responses is a ride that is a lot less comfortable and forgiving than in the regular WRX. The STI simply feels too firm too much of the time and many bumps will find their way into the cabin. Refinement isn't a high point either, with lots of noise, so driving the STI is a rather taxing experience when you aren't in the mood to wring its neck. On a more positive note, the Brembo performance brakes with six-piston front calipers and dual-piston rear calipers not only provide good feedback but strong stopping power. Well-spaced pedals are essential for a manual car and the STI impresses in this aspect as well.
The WRX STI's disdain for the practical concerns of everyday motoring continues with its rather poor fuel consumption. This isn't a huge surprise considering the age of that 2.5-liter under the hood. EPA-rated figures work out to 16/22/19 mpg on the city/highway/combined cycles. With a 15.9-gallon gas tank, the STI's combined cruising range works out to around 302 miles. By comparison, the outgoing VW Golf R will travel around 111 miles further (combined) on the same amount of fuel. Expect the STI's economy to take a dive if you exploit its performance potential with regularity.
There's nothing about the STI's cabin that speaks to anything more than fast, focused driving. You're not going to find glossy trim, plush seats, or even interesting design here. The layout is logical and some red bits of trim/stitching do indicate that this is a performance car, but otherwise, you get a rather puny infotainment screen and a generally dark environment. Sporty front seats with leather trim look good and offer enough support under hard cornering, and the interior is also reasonably spacious considering that this is a compact sedan. You also get standard features like dual-zone climate control, a flat-bottom leather-wrapped steering wheel, the Subaru Starlink infotainment system with Bluetooth, and heated exterior mirrors. The STI Limited also gets driver aids like blind-spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert. Overall, you won't be buying a Subaru WRX STI for its interior appointments, and if you can make peace with that, you'll be just fine.
The WRX's sedan body is an advantage over hatchback rivals as there's a good amount of leg- and headroom front and rear. Five passengers can be accommodated in a reasonable degree of comfort, and the front seats have good side bolstering for the hard cornering this car was designed to do. You'll need to upgrade to the Limited model to get power-adjustment for the driver's seat, though. The rear-side windows are large enough to make them easy to see out of when executing a lane change, although that gigantic rear wing can make rearward visibility a bit of an annoyance. All occupants shouldn't have trouble getting into and out of the WRX.
The standard WRX STI is fitted with black Ultrasuede/carbon black leather upholstery which suits the car's personality. The seat bolsters are in red and this, together with red stitching, brightens up the cabin. The STI Limited adds eight-way power Recaro front seats which also have red accents - these seats are optional on the base WRX STI. Other sporty touches include a leather-wrapped flat-bottom steering wheel and aluminum-alloy pedal covers. Other than these major touchpoints, the WRX STI's materials are of only average quality.
The spacious passenger accommodations aren't quite matched by the trunk's capacity, which is limited to 12 cubic feet. Although this is only enough for three peoples' suitcases, at least there is a low liftover height which makes loading heavier items a bit less strenuous. For carrying larger items, the back seat is a 60/40-split-folding design, although it doesn't have the benefit of a completely flat floor when the seats are folded. Still, at least this does increase the car's overall versatility. A reasonably well-sized center console helps with small-item storage and also has the benefit of an illuminated storage tray. This console also features dual cupholders to go along with the single bottle holder in each door panel. An illuminated and lockable glovebox provides more space for stashing valuables out of sight.
With the focus on the oily bits, Subaru has equipped the WRX STI modestly, including only the essentials. The standard model gets dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless access with push-button start, cruise control, a tilt/telescoping steering column, STI-specific instrumentation, a rearview camera, heated front seats and mirrors, welcome lighting, and incline start assist. The limited-edition STI White.Series gets an eight-way power driver's seat, while the WRX STI Limited adds blind-spot detection, lane-change assist, rear cross-traffic alert, and a power moonroof. An auto-dimming rearview mirror and a footwell illumination kit are available options.
Subaru's Starlink system comprises a seven-inch central color touchscreen display with integrated Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Pandora and Aha compatibility, HD radio with iTunes tagging capability, dual USB ports, Bluetooth audio streaming and hands-free text, and SiriusXM all-access radio plus Travel Link. Subaru also still includes a CD player (even though many manufacturers are dispensing with them) that somehow fits the WRX's image as a throwback, no-frills driver's car. Upgrade to the WRX STI Limited, and the setup gains navigation with voice activation. The standard model uses a six-speaker sound system and the Limited gets a nine-speaker 440-watt Harman Kardon premium audio system.
The 2020 WRX STI holds an overall J.D. Power rating of 80 out of 100, although it's specific rating for quality and reliability is a more middling 72 out of 100. At the time of writing, the still-fresh 2020 model hadn't been recalled for any issues by the NHTSA, and the same goes for last year's model. In the event that anything goes wrong, Subaru's limited warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles, whichever comes first. There's also a five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty and rust perforation coverage for five years regardless of miles covered.
Although the 2020 STI has not been tested by the IIHS or the NHTSA, the regular Subaru WRX was named a Top Safety Pick+ in 2019, indicating a superior level of crash protection. With the same basic structure as the WRX, the STI should keep occupants well-protected in the event of an accident.
Bizarrely, Subaru's available driver aids, which fall under the EyeSight moniker, are available on lesser WRX models, but not on the STI. This means that features like adaptive cruise control and pre-collision braking can't be had on the STI. You do, however, get blind-spot detection, lane-change assist, and rear cross-traffic alert, but these are restricted to the STI Limited. All models get front, front-side, and side-curtain airbags (plus a driver's knee airbag), along with a rearview camera, daytime running lights, brake assist, traction control, and a tire pressure monitoring system.
There aren't many other compact sedans that provide the WRX STI's hyper-focused driving experience and all-wheel-drive handling capabilities. Along with its brazen styling features, manual-only transmission, and distinctive flat-four engine, there's no doubt that the STI will appeal to the true enthusiast. But for everything this car does well, there's something else it doesn't. The great handling is let down by a ride that's simply too stiff. The driver-focused cabin lacks the luxurious and classy details of some competitors. And while space for occupants is good, the trunk's size isn't. That's a lot of compromise for a sporty compact sedan that isn't exactly cheap. The Volkswagen Golf R is an immensely appealing second-hand buy, and you can get a nearly new one that comprehensively outguns the STI for comfort and quality, while still offering top-notch performance. There's also Honda's brilliant Civic Type-R. Still, it's hard to find a direct competitor to the WRX STI's performance, rally-car persona, and sedan body, and it's this uniqueness that continues to set it apart.
The range starts with the WRX STI at an MSRP of $36,995, a price that excludes tax, licensing, registration, and the brand's destination/delivery charge of $900. At $41,695, you can get the STI Limited with its added safety and luxury features. If you're lucky enough to get hold of the limited-run WRX STI Series.White (only 500 are to be produced), it will cost you $42,695.
Subaru's WRX STI range comprises three trims: the standard STI, the STI Limited, and the limited-edition STI Series.White. All are powered by the familiar 2.5-liter flat-four turbo with 310 hp and 290 lb-ft of torque, symmetrical all-wheel-drive, and a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission.
The WRX STI gets 19-inch alloy wheels in a new dark gray machined finish, daytime running lights, LED headlights, and a gigantic rear wing as standard. In the cabin, there are manually-adjustable performance-design seats in Ultrasuede/leather, dual-zone automatic climate control, STI sport design gauges, keyless access with push-button start, and a six-speaker audio system linked to the Starlink infotainment system with its seven-inch color touchscreen. The STI Limited adds Recaro performance design seats with eight-way power adjustment for the driver, navigation, a nine-speaker Harman Kardon premium sound system, a power moonroof, and driver aids including blind-spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert.
The limited-edition STI White.Series (just 500 are to be built) gets its own Ceramic White paint, 19-inch BBS alloy wheels with a matte bronze finish, a high-performance Bilstein sport-tuned suspension, matte-black exterior badges, and a few other extras such as the STI Limited's Recaro front seats.
On the WRX STI, you can get the STI Limited's Recaro performance-design front seats for an additional $2,250. That is essentially it for packages, with all other extras being standalone options. Among them are an Ultrasuede steering wheel at $499, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with a compass and HomeLink for $359, and an STI short-throw shifter for $483. If the rear wing is a bit too much for you to stomach, you can replace it with a low profile trunk spoiler (on the STI Limited) at no cost. Other than that, Subaru doesn't offer much in the way of extra features to improve the STI's livability. This remains a car that's all about its performance, not pampering its occupants.
If you can get your hands on the STI Series-White before they're all sold out, this model is the one to get as it has exclusivity on its side. Otherwise, there's no significant difference between each version. The WRX STI will save you some cash, but the STI Limited will get you more driver aids and a couple of other desirable extras if you're willing to pay extra to get them.
The fundamental difference between these two cars is that the Honda sends its considerable power to the front wheels only. Yet, the Civic is far from outclassed dynamically and is one of the most electrifying drives in the segment. With over 300 horsepower, it will also outperform the WRX STI, the Type-R completing the 0-60 mph run in just five seconds. Both look properly mean with their outlandish bodywork, but where the Subaru feels a bit old-fashioned inside, the Civic has a thoroughly modern cabin built with smart materials. Space utilization is similar despite the different body styles, but the Civic has a much bigger trunk. You'd have to be a pretty hardcore Subaru fanatic to consider the WRX STI over the Type-R, which is truly one of the finest hot hatchbacks on the market.
Until the arrival of the all-new Golf R, the 2019 model represents the final iteration of the most powerful Golf 7. Even pricier than the standard WRX STI, should you consider an almost-new Golf R over a brand new STI? Yes, you should. The Golf 7 was such a brilliantly capable hatchback that even right at the end of its life, it remains competitive thanks to a classy and sophisticated cabin, a fine blend of performance and comfort, and good passenger space. The Golf R delivers 288 horsepower and, like the WRX STI, is all-wheel-drive. It comprehensively out-accelerates the STI, though, blasting to 60 mph in under five seconds. While the STI has the edge for thrilling dynamics, the Golf R is a far more comfortable and refined car to live with, while still being great to drive. The VW's cabin is also in an entirely different league, with premium materials and more standard features than the Subaru. If you can find one with just a few miles on the clock, it's a much more polished product than the WRX STI.