What Car? says...
Once upon a time, rally-bred Japanese performance cars like the Subaru WRX STI had a comfortable little niche all to themselves. With turbocharged engines, four-wheel drive and affordable prices, they were an all-weather alternative to conventional European road rockets.
But over time, the popularity of cars like the WRX STI has waned. Tighter emissions laws made them more expensive to run, they kept getting more expensive to buy and then the Europeans started making more and more four-wheel drive hot hatches like the Volkswagen Golf R and Ford Focus RS.
Even so, the WRX STI is still with us and now costs a similar amount to the aforementioned Golf and Focus. For the asking price, you get plenty of equipment, 297bhp and a truly permanent four-wheel drive system that promises to make the WRX STI even more capable.
Keep reading for our verdict on how the WRX STI drives, how spacious it is and what it’s like to live with.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
There’s only one engine and gearbox combination available; a 2.5-litre turbocharged ‘flat’ four with a healthy 297bhp connected to a six-speed manual gearbox. It may have a similar power output to a Golf R, but the WRX STI has none of the low-end flexibility that makes the Golf feel so quick in any situation.
Instead, the WRX feels very sluggish below around 3000rpm before delivering all of its power in one big dollop. To make matters worse, you quickly find yourself hitting the rev limiter thanks to short gearing. Try and change gear quickly and its easy to select the wrong ratio, too. Even if you time everything perfectly, it still doesn’t feel as quick as a Golf R or Focus RS.
You’d hope that the WRX STI would start to appeal more once you’ve found your favourite stretch of B road, something it does to a point. There’s lots of grip and you certainly feel involved thanks to the constant gearchanges and writhing from the steering wheel as you accelerate.
What you won’t find is a great deal of usable feedback or consistent weighting from the steering. Get on the power hard and you can feel the power shuffling around to keep the nose from running wide, but it’s not as agile as a Golf R or as exciting as a Focus RS. The only thing it does feel is old – like it was made in the 1990s.
Relax a little and the WRX STI makes even less sense. The ride is always unrelentingly firm with even smooth surfaces causing the car to move about under you. While it’s never crashy, it does get tiresome after a while. There’s also plenty of road noise and the engine is pretty loud without being overly tuneful.
The interior layout, fit and finish
If the WRX STI felt old school in the way it drives, it feels positively ancient inside. Although there are soft touch plastics on the dashboard and tops of the doors, the overall design looks at least a decade old. The seats feel like they’re mounted too high although there is at least plenty of adjustment for them and the steering wheel. Visibility is pretty good, even with that giant wing on the back.
While the heating controls are easy enough to navigate, some of WRX STI’s controls can be more than a little confusing. Slapped on the top of the dash is an information screen that can display fuel economy, turbo boost and other information. Not only is it hard to see due to its location, it’s tricky to navigate thanks to an oddly positioned joystick between the central air vents.
The infotainment screen itself is mounted a little low in the dash and looks old compared to the best systems out there. It is at least easy enough to pair a phone and navigating the system isn’t too much of a chore. There’s no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto while sat nav is an expensive dealer-fit option.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
The current WRX STI gets wheels pushed out further to the corners of the car than its predecessors, something that helps with interior space. Rear space is better than you’d find in a Golf R or Focus RS and the boot impresses, too. There’s plenty of room but the lack of a hatchback opening limits practicality.
That said, you do get a standard 60/40 split rear seats so although you might not be able to squeeze in a built chest of drawers, a flatpack one will be fine. Standard keyless access also helps if you’ve got your hands full.
There’s even more storage up front with a big cubbyhole under the centre armrest, a couple of cupholders and a smartphone sized shelf under the heater controls. The front door pockets can swallow a surprising amount of stuff but are half covered, making it hard to reach any items that shoot rearwards.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
At first glance the WRX STI seems decent value. For a price similar to a Golf R, you get a larger car with plenty of standard equipment and impressive performance. The problem is with running costs; the WRX STI emits a staggering 242g/km of carbon – more than a Porsche 911 Turbo S.
For private buyers, that means a purchase price higher than it could be due to a £1700 first year charge. For business users, you’ll be in the top 37% BIK (benefit-in-kind) bracket immediately. In comparison, the faster Golf R costs £500 in the first year and attracts a 32% BIK payment.
With carbon emissions that high, you won’t be surprised to read that the WRX STI is rather thirsty. Drive very carefully and you might just about see 30mpg. Drive how you’re likely to drive a 297bhp performance car and you’ll drain the petrol tank alarmingly quickly.
All WRX STIs get LED headlights and rear lights, 18in alloys, quad exhaust pipes, a rear wing big enough to eat dinner off of, leather and Alcantara sports seats, keyless entry and start, dual-zone climate control, split folding rear seats, two USB charging points, cruise control and a touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth connectivity.
As for safety kit, you get seven airbags, brake assist and various electronic assistants.
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