New & Used Subaru WRX: In Depth
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The Subaru WRX and STI models are the bad-boy siblings of Subaru's sensible, quiet Impreza compact sedan. Fitted with turbocharged engines and a more performance-oriented version of the brand's characteristic all-wheel-drive system, they're small hot rods that come from the factory ready to compete with the handful of "hot hatches" and performance sedans based on front-wheel-drive economy cars.
The models delineate two very different levels of performance, though. While the WRX is an exciting daily driver, the more extreme STI is closer to a real race car straight out of the factory. Rivals include, most directly, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, another compact sedan with a high-performance turbo four and all-wheel drive. The two cars are legendary arch-rivals--think of the long-running duel between the Camaro and the Mustang, but with more of a rally flavor.
MORE: Read our 2015 Subaru WRX and STI review
Only a handful of other rivals are offered in North America, including the Ford Focus ST and the original hot hatch, the Volkswagen Golf GTI, which is new for 2015. But neither of those cars offers all-wheel drive, leaving the WRX and STI to compete against the Mitsubishi Evo for a small but very passionate audience of drivers. Some also consider the new Mercedes-Benz CLA45 as a worthy competitor, but it is in a price category one or two notches above these cars, and the GTI-based Golf R can also be lumped in, however it too is rather expensive.
The current Subaru WRX and STI
New versions of the WRX and WRX STI arrived for the 2015 model year. Both are based on the Impreza sedan, adding the right reinforcements and upgrades to transform the feeling and meld well with the all-wheel-drive system and turbocharged flat-four engines. Though they may not be beautiful, both models are plenty of fun behind the wheel.
The WRX takes the Impreza shell and stuffs it with a lovely 2.0-liter turbo four, with twin-scroll turbocharging and an intercooler, for a net 268 horsepower. It's coupled to either a six-speed manual or a CVT, and with different flavors of all-wheel drive, depending on the transmission. The CVT has programming to let it behave like an automatic transmission or a quick-shifting dual-clutch gearbox. The WRX also gets electric power steering and a sport-tuned suspension, all riding on 17-inch, 45-series tires.
WRX STI models get their own engine, a 2.5-liter turbocharged four that puts out 305 horsepower. There are also additional chassis upgrades, with a unique suspension tune, more powerful brakes, and a more intelligent and complex all-wheel-drive system. As in past versions, the STI has a Driver Controlled Center Differential (DCCD), which lets you fine-tune the torque split among the helical front and Torsen rear limited-slip differentials.
The latest WRX has a wheelbase about an inch longer than its predecessor's, so interior space is better, and the dash is more nicely finished than before. Versus the last WRX, the new car gains almost two inches of rear-seat legroom, plus a bit more trunk space. There's no mistaking it for an Audi S4--either inside, or in sticker price.
Among standard features, the WRX has a flat-bottomed steering wheel that tilts and telescopes; automatic climate control; Bluetooth; and steering-wheel audio and phone controls. The WRX STI adds suede-insert seats and LED-equipped headlamps.
Earlier WRX and STI generations
The WRX first arrived in 2002, and the STI followed two years later as a 2004 model. They were originally offered as two- or four-door sedans, and the current five-door hatchback version arrived in the 2008 model year. Many running changes were made over the first few models years, including fender flares for 2005 and new front-end styling in 2006. In the last year of the former generation, a WRX STI Limited model was also launched to add a bit of luxury to the severe standard model. Its amenities included leather upholstery, an optional moonroof, trunk spoiler, and fog lights.
The second-generation WRX, which arrived in 2008, wasn't well received by its fans in the first model year. They viewed it as underpowered and too softly sprung. Subaru listened to its buyers, and for 2009, the WRX's 2.5-liter turbocharged flat four engine got a boost of 41 horsepower, to 265 hp--and the STI was boosted to 305 hp. A five-speed manual gearbox remains standard, with an optional (and somewhat outdated) four-speed automatic offered as well. Maximum performance requires revving the engines, as both models exhibit a fair degree of turbo lag.
They may be compact cars, but neither the WRX nor the STI is a fuel sipper. For many years, the STI has only ranked at an EPA 17 mpg city, 23 highway. Still, fuel efficiency is the job of the base Impreza; the WRX and STI are bought for performance. The current generation gets high marks for ride and roominess, as well as its acceleration and roadholding. Downsides are a high level of cabin noise and an occasionally balky shift linkage on the manual.
For 2011, Subaru gave the WRX a new look, with flared fenders and a widened track to match the STI, which helped the whole design "pop," while sound systems were also all-new that year, adding standard USB and iPod connectors plus available satellite radio. While the rest of the Impreza lineup was thoroughly updated for 2012, the WRX and STI continued essentially unchanged into 2013.