Time has moved on since the WRX’s glory days, but the WRX hasn’t
Back in the day, rally-proven Japanese cars like the turbocharged 4WD Subaru WRX STI were a genuinely accessible all-weather alternative to European hot hatches.
Their appeal began to dwindle as tougher emissions laws ramped up their running costs and unfavourable exchange rates ramped up their list prices. On top of that, European manufacturers upped their game by producing fine four-wheel drive hot hatches of their own, such as the excellent Volkswagen Golf R and Ford Focus RS.
Nonetheless, you can still buy a WRX STI for around the same price as those two Euro hatches. On paper, it looks like an interesting option with 297bhp, a truly permanent four-wheel drive system, and lots of equipment. But what’s it like in practice?
There’s no choice on drivetrains. You get a 2.5-litre turbocharged ‘flat’ four and a six-speed manual gearbox. That 297bhp puts it on a par with the Golf R, but the Subaru doesn’t have the Golf’s devastatingly effective low-rpm thrust. Instead, it feels pretty dilatory below 3,000rpm, at which point all the power seems to arrive in one sudden burst.
When you’re pressing on, the short gearing means you’ll find yourself constantly hitting the rev limiter. Wrong-shifting isn’t uncommon either if you try to rush the gearbox. Even if you do get everything right, the Golf R or Focus RS still feel quicker.
The WRX STI’s appeal begins to grow when you reach a nice stretch of B-road, where you’ll start to experience a mixture of grip, rapid-fire gearchanges and a squirming steering wheel.
Unfortunately there isn’t much usable feedback or consistency in that steering. Step on the throttle and you’ll sense the power moving between the wheels to keep the nose tight, but again the Golf R beats it on agility and the Focus RS beats it on excitement. If you like retro, you might like the Subaru – or you might just think it feels old and straight from the 1990s.
Try and take it easy and the chances are that your enjoyment of the WRX STI will drop away in line with the reduced effort you’re putting in. Even on smooth roads the car is unsettled and the ride is relentlessly firm. The aural accompaniment is a mix of road and (not especially appealing) mechanical noise.
That old-school driving feel is reflected in the cabin. There are some soft touch plastics on the dash and door tops, but the design is only just peering into the 21st century. The heater controls are straightforward enough, but the dashtop information screen giving data on fuel economy and turbo boost is hard to view and awkward to operate via a weirdly located joystick between the centre air vents. The infotainment screen itself is quite low-mounted and again looks outdated against more modern systems. Pairing a phone isn’t too onerous though, and nor is navigating the system. Apple CarPlay or Android Auto mirroring functions aren’t available and sat nav is a pricey dealer-fit option.
The seats and wheel are nicely adjustable, but the seat’s overall positioning is high. The upside of that is good visibility, despite the huge rear wing. The new WRX STI’s wheels are nearer to the car’s corners than those of earlier models, which boosts interior space. There’s more room in the back than in a Golf R or Focus RS and the boot is large as well. It’s a saloon rather than a hatch though, which limits the kind of cargo you can carry, but the standard 60/40 split rear seats do make up for that to a certain extent. Keyless access is standard too, which is a useful help when shopping.
A big cubby under the centre armrest, two cupholders and a smartphone sized shelf under the heater controls provide decent storage space, and the front door pockets are surprisingly roomy too, but anything shooting rearwards under the covered sections will need to be groped around for.
At first sight the WRX STI looks like reasonable value. It’s about the same price as a Golf R, but you get much more metal for your money, not to mention lots of standard equipment and determined performance.
The problems crop up when you look at running costs. With a staggering CO2 figure of 242g/km, the WRX STI’s carbon dioxide emissions are higher than those of a Porsche 911 Turbo S. Private buyers will face a higher than expected purchase price because of the £1,700 first-year charge, while business users will straightaway be in the top 37 per cent BIK (benefit-in-kind) bracket. To compare, the faster Golf R is £500 in the first year and will require a 32 per cent BIK payment.
Brake assist and various electronic driver assist systems augment the seven airbags. All WRX STIs also get LED headlights and rear lights, 18-inch alloys, four exhaust pipes, that massive rear wing, 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.
Drive the Subaru gently and you might manage 30mpg. Drive it like you’ve stolen it, which is at least one Subaru default mode, and you’ll be spending plenty of time on filling station forecourts.
The Subaru WRX STI feels at least ten years old and is very expensive to run. The far more sensible choice would be a VW Golf R – but sometimes only a Scooby-doo will do.