Jacks of all trades
With the 2018 WRX and STI, Subaru has built two automotive Swiss Army knives to give you everything you need for a little adventure
The Swiss Army knife was first produced in 1891, combining a blade, screwdriver and can opener into one do-anything package. Sometime later, presumably at the suggestion of a French conscript, they added a corkscrew. Then, about a century after that first knife was issued to troops, somebody stood up in a Subaru boardroom and said, "Hey! Why don't we build one of these as a car?"
That's the basic idea behind the WRX and the harder-edged STI: jack-of-all-trades tools for any driving eventuality. Family road trip? Sure – it's a useful compact sedan that can swallow child seats and a stroller. Winding tarmac backroad? Absolutely, just hit the throttle and call up the boost. Braking from 180 kilometres an hour into an off-camber left-hand turn? Brembo's gotcha covered. Gravel? Um, hello, ever heard of a little thing called the World Rally Championship?
For the 2018 model year, the WRX and STI both get a little more capable both dynamically and in real-world practicality. While a blade marked "hatchback" is still sadly missing from Subaru's Swiss Army car, you may think of this pair of sport sedans as getting to the point where they're adding tweezers, a pen and all sorts of useful little details.
Take, for instance, the addition of proper roof mounts for a factory crossbar. These will not make the car go faster and are unlikely to show up in advertising, but they'll instantly improve the lives of anyone who needs to strap bikes, boards, skis or a travel box to the roof of their car.
While the Impreza now benefits from a new platform, with the related Crosstrek following soon, you can expect the WRX and STI to remain largely unchanged until the 2020 model year. Subaru is a conservative company, and the cars are selling well as is. However, the engineers never quite stop tweaking and the tail end of production of any WRX/STI run is generally considered the best of the breed. The 2006/07 STI, for instance, is still sought-after for its improved gearing and the well-equipped Limited trim.
For the WRX, most of the upgrades make the car generally easier to live with as a daily driver. Increased sound-deadening brings wind noise down, there's a new rear armrest, improved power lumbar support and slight tweaks to the action of both the manual shifter and the CVT. The base model is a good value proposition, but the Sport model is worth the upgrade for the new LED headlights alone.
Combined with the 2.0-litre, direct-injection turbo engine, the WRX is utterly effortless at dispatching distance in comfort. Tire noise is still present, but the low-end torque means you don't always have to be working the shifter to extract power. For anyone who remembers the peaky power and rattly interior of the original Bugeye in '02, the new WRX will feel as if it were a Lexus product.
And happily, it's also still a great deal of fun. The wriggling road out to Kaslo, B.C., is a favourite of motorcycle tourers for its scenery and hundreds of corners, and the WRX bounded along it eagerly. In one day, we hit torrential rain, blistering sun and an unexpected 10-kilometre gravel detour. No problem.
Ten minutes into the return trip with the STI, I hit a rut and the steering wheel tried to rip itself out of my hands. Compared with the easy composure of the WRX, the STI is a far harsher road companion, although a more thrilling one. The hydraulic steering is livelier than the WRX's slightly numb helm and the shifter action has better feedback. The aging 2.5-litre, flat-four rates as venerable, but begs to be revved up past 4,000 rpm.
While the STI gets similar livability updates to the WRX, the real story here is in the new standard brakes. For track work, bigger brakes are far more important than a few extra horsepower and the new six-piston fronts and two-piston rear Brembos are resistant to heat. Repeated lapping on the long, fast course at Area 27 in the Okanagan resulted in almost no perceptible fade.
On the track, the STI roughly splits the difference between the Volkswagen Golf R and the Ford Focus RS. The latter has a nose like a slot car, with aggressive turn-in and plenty of boost coming out of a corner early. The Volkswagen product is more emphatically a street set-up, with its Haldex-supplied all-wheel-drive system revealing a pronounced front bias.
The STI's AWD system feels mechanical and adjusting the centre differential for a rear bias improves rotation. However, Subarus tend toward understeer and the STI will plow if you push too hard. To be more accurate: If the driver makes an error, there's a lot of protest from the tires. If you're patient with inputs and use a little left-foot braking to get the nose to bite, the STI is a faithful and predictable track companion.
In fact, the chassis is so well-sorted, it could really use a little more power to take the fight to the V-8-powered Mustangs and Camaros. The EJ-series 2.5 has been making around 300 horsepower for more than a decade now and Subaru's only tweaked things mildly over the years. Happily, the aftermarket understands the engine thoroughly and squeezing out an extra 50 hp to keep a Focus RS in sight shouldn't be too hard. Yes, reflashing your ECU for more boost voids your warranty and, yes, the EJ-series engine isn't exactly bulletproof when stressed. But hey, warranties are for wimps. And people who own Volkswagen products.
However, if the STI feels like a starting point for an ideal track car (hmm: stiffer rear sway bar, a set of the new Michelin Pilot Super Sports 4, extra boost and plenty of lapping time to tighten the nut behind the wheel), it's the WRX that charms the most. It doesn't feel like you need to mess with it at all. Like the Swiss Army knife, it's got everything you need for a little adventure. Get your map out.
- Base Price: $29,995 (WRX); $39,495 (STI)
- Engines: 2.0-litre, 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
- Transmission/drive: Six-speed manual, CVT (WRX only)
- Fuel economy (litres/100 kms; city/hwy): 11.3/8.5 (WRX); 14.1/10.5 (STI)
- Alternatives: Golf GTI/R, Focus ST/RS, Audi S3/RS3
- Looks: It is unlikely you’ll ever be able to talk your way out of a ticket in a car with a rear wing that looks as if a Cessna just crashed into your trunk. Happily, this year Subaru will let you delete the rear wing on the top-trim STI for no extra cost. Big wings for some, flying under the radar for others.
- Interior: Updated gauges are easier to read in both models and the new multifunction screen is slicker. There’s a new RS trim for the WRX, which adds the STI’s Recaro seats, as well as a light upgrade to the brakes. All models have plenty of bolstering and the STI now comes with red seatbelts, the better to elicit disapproving comments from your mother-in-law.
- Performance: The 268-hp, 2.0-litre turbo-four in the WRX is effortless at producing torque (258 lb-ft from 2000 rpm) and will reward a more laid-back driving style. It has plenty of punch when you need to pass and returns reasonable fuel economy. Partially owing to its frenetic nature and partially because of the older design of its 305-hp, 2.5-L engine, the STI can be a complete pig where real-world fuel economy is concerned.
- Technology: Both the WRX and the STI get an infotainment solution that is slightly slow but works. The new system in the updated Impreza won’t translate over until later. However, CVT-equipped WRXs can now be ordered with Subaru’s Eyesight camera-based auto-braking and safety system.
- Cargo: No pass-through, but both STI and WRX get a 60/40-split/folding rear seat, and the 340-L trunk space will be adequate for most small families.
A pair of all-weather, all-surface, all-wheel-drive sports sedans; ideal for whatever Canada throws at you.