Subaru WRX STI: Rally on repeat

How does the new Subaru WRX STI Type RA compare against its forefathers, including the America's first STI? We hit the road in three generations to find out.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
9 min read

It's been said that rabid Star Wars fans are the worst because they're impossible to please. They'll line up in costume hours early to see every film, only to spend the following weeks and months ranting to anyone who will listen -- and plenty who won't.

If those fans are the worst, hardcore fans might be a close second. Spend any time in a Subaru enthusiast forum or group or subreddit and you'll see plenty of people lamenting their decision to buy yet another Impreza, berating the "glass" transmissions for shattering after just a couple (dozen) clutch drops or swearing at their EJ25 that randomly spun a bearing right after they added that manual boost controller.

I know a lot about that side of the Subaru fandom because I've owned four Imprezas. And, for reasons I myself struggle to explain at times, I still have a pair of STIs. While I don't consider myself a Subi fanatic, I'm close enough to that group to have seen the origin of many of those memes.

The evolution of the American Subaru WRX STI

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So, suffice to say I was plenty intrigued when Subaru announced a $49,855 Impreza, the WRX STI Type RA, inspired by the car that set a blistering 6:57.5 time around the epic Nurburgring -- with only twice as much horsepower as the road-going car.

I recently spent a week getting familiar with an RA, pitting it directly against some very stiff competition: my two STIs. Specifically, a 2004 STI, the first version of that car to come to the US, and a 2012 STI wagon, which is my daily. How'd the new kid fare? Join me for the ride.

Subaru STI

Believe it or not, the '04's wing is even bigger than the RA's.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

2004 STI

The 2004 Subaru WRX STI ushered in a lot of changes. This was to be the first STI released on North American shores, following just two years after the WRX finally arrived. It introduced a new nose (hello, blobeye) and, more importantly, a new engine with 25 percent more displacement -- because of course, there's no replacement.

The 2.5-liter, flat-four EJ257 offered a beautifully round 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. That was a huge upgrade over the 227 ponies the WRX offered, but the upgrades didn't stop there. Suspension and transmission components were beefed up in a major way and, for the first time, Americans got a taste of DCCD: the Driver's Control Center Differential. Thanks to a little wheel situated down by the handbrake, the driver could adjust the amount of lock in the center diff, theoretically optimizing the car for high- or low-traction conditions.

If that weren't enough, the 2004 STI featured a number of seriously racy components, like an intercooler sprayer to alleviate heat soak in the top-mount and an AP Racing Suretrac front differential, items that would eventually disappear as later generations of the car became more focused on the road and less on racing.

But racing is exactly what I do with my STI, and the '04 was exactly the car I wanted, specifically for that front differential. That Suretrac diff has a reputation as being better in low-grip situations, like the ice where I race.

Sadly, that motor also has a bit of a reputation, one for spun bearings. I'm sorry to say that's exactly what I experienced early in my relationship with this car, which I purchased in late 2016 with about 140,000 miles on the clock. For an EJ25, that's a lot. Just a few months later, under hard acceleration, the motor in my new-to-me STI developed a nasty knock. Game over.

Subaru STI

Steering wheel, pedals and manual shifter is all you need -- plus a sweet six-disc changer.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

A new short block from IAG was inserted, along with all the fixin's. Those upgrades, combined with a Cobb turbo-back exhaust and a custom tune, mean my STI delivers its power in a very different way than it did stock. So, I can't compare that aspect to the new STI, but it's still fascinating to see how much has changed in the following 14 years.

You need only shut the door for proof. The 2004 Impreza has lightweight, frameless doors. Pulling the driver's side closed sounds a little bit like slamming an overloaded dishwasher shut. This doesn't inspire much confidence for side-impact protection, but then this thing weighs 130 pounds less than the lightweight Type RA. A general buzziness in the cabin points to other weight savings, as do the many aluminum components and the lack of fog lights up front.

The Alcantara on my car is showing its wear, but still these manual seats offer perfect hold for spirited driving yet decent comfort for those long trips up to the lake. Once seated, a quick look around the interior is all you'll need: there's not much to see. A six-disc changer is where I keep all my greatest period CDR mixes. It's surrounded by acres of cheap plastic, much of it wrapped in some of the worst faux carbon fiber I've ever seen. Amazingly, it came from the dealership like this.

The car starts with a twist of a custom, blue STI-embossed key, another special touch that would get left behind in future generations of the car. After that, there's no silly throttle mode to engage or stability control to disable, just throw it into first gear and away you go.

The shifter is loose in the space between gears yet offers a sharp, defined feel from each gear's engagement. You know exactly when you're rushing these synchros, which are holding up reasonably well after about 150,000 hard miles.

Once properly warmed up -- and you should always let a performance Subaru get thoroughly heated before romping on it -- my '04 STI is ferociously quick with admirably low turbo lag. Remember, though, that it is putting down a fair bit more power than stock. It sounds the business, too. The car has no turbo gauge, but anybody within earshot can tell when I'm on-boost.

Despite the lack of fancy modern driver assists, it oozes confidence on questionable surfaces. My 225/45 ZR17 BFGoodrich g-Force Rival tires have seen a few too many miles and don't offer the quickest turn-in feel, but the car is remarkably poised, handling really only let down by a somewhat murky, 14-year-old steering rack that's showing its age.

Still, this is an incredibly engaging car to drive on any surface, wet or dry or, indeed, frozen, and just looking at its squat shape with the gold wheels and that giant wing hanging off the back makes me want to go find a gravel road and do my best Richard Burns impression. That's a huge contrast from my other STI...

Subaru STI

The RA's blue is better, but the 2012's got that hatch going for it.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

2012 STI

A lot can change in 8 years, but for Subarus a lot can stay the same. On the outside, my 2012 STI looks decidedly middle-aged compared to the boy-racer looks of the 2004. Mechanically, however, they're remarkably similar.

I bought this car new back in 2012. A new car isn't something I typically indulge in, but I had a bad feeling that wagon-based STIs wouldn't last long in the US market and I really, really wanted one. (Indeed they wouldn't, disappearing after the following model year.) Since then, the only changes I've made were the overpriced, rally style mudflaps and some gratuitous carbon fiber bumper vents, purchased only because one of the stock ones fell off.

This, then, is a rare, unmodified STI, and it remains among the best wagons I have ever driven. The car still starts with a twist of the key, but now you need to twist a silly knob down between the seats to sharpen up the throttle response. Then, a button press on the dash to turn off the traction control, too.

With its stock exhaust this STI is actually a little too quiet for my tastes, but the bigger problem is its power delivery. The torque curve on a stock EJ25 of this era is about as smooth as Bitcoin's valuation chart, with a particularly big dip around 3,500 RPM. This STI isn't the most rewarding car to rev out, then, but it still offers strong power if you stay on-boost.

It's a great handler, too, offering a revised suspension over previous STIs. The steering feel on this generation is remarkably light and sharp; too light for many but I really enjoy it. The lower-profile 245/40 ZR18 Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires I've fitted offer more grip than I've ever needed on the street.

There's actually a bit more road noise here than in my 2004, thanks largely to the open cabin in the rear. The sound of grit and gravel kicked up by the tires is accompanied by a cacophony of cabin rattles and creaks. The interior here looks miles better than that in the 2004, but material quality is still low and someone had the bright idea of putting a fuel economy display right next to the clock in the center of the dash. It's perfect for reminding your passenger that this practical, performance wagon is barely managing to stay above 20 miles-per-gallon.

Despite its foibles, after six years and 35,000 miles I still love this car. I've had it loaded up with two dogs, two sea kayaks and a bicycle plus enough luggage for a two-week road trip and it was still fun to drive. It doesn't bring the hooligan out in me quite like my 2004, and frankly it's way less special, but still always ready to play.

2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA

Gold wheels: very necessary.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

2018 STI Type RA

Now, back to the present. The 2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA is a limited-edition flavor of the 2018 STI, outfitted with a number of niceties like a carbon roof and spoiler to reduce weight. Despite that, its 3,395-pound curb weight actually comes in about 10 pounds greater than the rated weight of a base 2012 STI. So, maybe don't buy it for the weight savings, but still it's not hard to see the appeal here.

While that big wing is actually slightly smaller than that on my 2004, this one actually generates some real downforce. The way the horizontal element on the '04 wing flops and swings and bounces in the breeze it's pretty clear that thing offers little more than WRC aesthetics.

Shut the rigid door and press the start button and you're greeted by a rush of displays that is frankly a little overwhelming. 2004's humble clock recessed in the middle of the dashboard has evolved into a proper, multifunction display showing lots of flashy but mostly useless information. Much more useful is the proper infotainment system, though the lack of Android Auto is a major disappointment.

It's really hard to state how much tighter the interior feels than my other two cars, but that's more of an indicator of just how terrible the others were, even in their day. Compare the interior of the $49,855 Type RA to, say, a $34,700 Civic Type R, and you'd be hard pressed to find the extra $15k. But then the Civic won't hustle across a gravel road like the STI.

Or, really, any road. The Type RA is a monster in the real world, carrying you over every unexpected crest and through each decreasing-radius corner with confidence. Its 245/35 ZR19 Yokohama Advan Sport tires bite immediately and feel incredibly sharp, but that low-profile rubber combined with the racier damper setup here does not exactly make for a compliant ride when you're just commuting.

2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA is sharper than your average STI

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I also found the steering overly tight, the polar opposite from my 2012, and the shifter is surprisingly reluctant, though I'd guess that will loosen up with age. The biggest disappointment, however, is the engine. This is basically the same 2.5-liter flat-four that had a starring role way back when my 2004 STI rolled off the showroom floor. The Type RA has a revised intake, exhaust, ECU and pistons, bumping it up to 310 horsepower. But, thanks to the intricacies of SAE power ratings changing around 2006, the STI actually makes 17 more horsepower and has the same amount of torque. 

While the power delivery feels far smoother than in my 2012, that motor is still spinning basically the same six-speed transmission and once-fancy DCCD. It's remarkable how little has changed mechanically in 14 years, and whether or not you're a rabid Subaru fan it's really hard to not be at least a little disappointed at that. However, the Type RA offers the kind of pure, physical driving experience that's increasingly difficult to find today, with even a proper handbrake!

It's not for everyone, and that's good because Subaru will only make 500 of the things. If you count yourself among the Subaru faithful and have been blessed with enough disposable income to add a $50,000 toy to your stable, the new STI Type RA comes close to capturing the special feel Subaru brought to the US market way back in '04 in a package that's far more refined and, of course, infinitely safer. But for me, I'm pretty happy to stick with the original. 

Update: Thanks to nighvsn in comments for pointing out that SAE ratings changed in 2006, meaning direct comparisons of power and torque between the 2004 STI and the new one are a bit more complicated. The text above has been updated to reflect that.