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For the first few minutes you drive it, the Subaru WRX STI can be kind of a pain in the ass. The clutch is really heavy. The suspension is super stiff. You definitely won't master a smooth one-two shift. But as soon as you open it up and crest 4,000 rpm in third gear, all is forgiven. Sure, it's rough around the edges, but driving the STI just warms my cynical old heart. It's certainly getting on in years, but the STI is the same little firecracker it's always been. And in this time of increasingly refined sports cars, its visceral quality arguably stands out even more than it did initially.
The current WRX STI launched in 2014, meaning it's been around so long that I've had the privilege of writing about it at three different jobs. What's new for 2020? Not much, save for standard pushbutton start and some redesigned gray wheels -- unless you're one of the 500 lucky ducks who manage to pick up the limited-run Series White version seen here. All of these special STIs are painted Ceramic White, complemented by a set of 19-inch matte-bronze BBS rollers. Overall, I really love the way the Series White looks. Don't tell 14-year-old me, but 34-year-old me might prefer this white-and-bronze scheme to the STI's classic blue-and-gold WRC livery.
The STI continues to use Subaru's 2.5-liter turbocharged boxer-four engine, with 310 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque. That latter doesn't completely hit until the aforementioned 4,000 rpm, which is when this car really wakes up. A lot of turbo fours are happy to do their business at the bottom of the tach, delivering healthy low-rpm thrust that's perfect for moseying around town. The STI, on the other hand, just feels like a stiff Impreza until you really get it going. Above 3,500 or 4,000 rpm, it's a totally different animal. It's just a shame these high-strung flat-fours still don't sound great when revved high. Don't believe me? Just ask a Porsche 718 Boxster or Cayman owner.
A dial on the center console lets you switch between the Intelligent, Sport and Sport Sharp settings of Subaru's SI-Drive tech, which adjusts throttle response and torque delivery. Sport Sharp makes the STI a real eager beaver, but not so much that it feels twitchy or darty in the city. Sport strikes me as the best balance for 90% of driving, whether you're on winding backroads or just running around town trying to find a store that still has some toilet paper.
Like most Subarus, all-wheel drive is standard, and the STI has a few extra tricks up its sleeve. In addition to limited-slip front and rear differentials, the center diff has six different lock settings, so you can adjust the front-to-rear power split to your liking, while the car automatically torque-vectors laterally. The automatic mode will be fine for most people most of the time, but if you're on a track and you'd like your all-wheel-drive STI to have a slightly more rear-wheel-drive character, that's totally doable.
While you can order the regular WRX with a continuously variable automatic transmission, the top-shelf STI is an exclusively manual affair. The six-speed stick is notchy and precise, and while the clutch pedal is heavy around town (this is not a car for rush hour), it provides lots of feedback and a solid take-up point that I appreciate during fast runs on great roads.
This transmission demands to be downshifted -- and downshifted often. The high-end pull of second and third gears is intoxicating. The downside, of course, is lousy fuel economy. Subaru says the STI should return 16 miles per gallon in the city, 22 mpg highway and 19 mpg combined, and if you drive this car the way it's meant to be driven, you'll be playing in the mid-high teens the whole time. A Honda Civic Type R, meanwhile, delivers a totally achievable 22 mpg city, 28 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined.
I wouldn't call the ride quality of any STI supple, but that's especially true of the Series White, which has a sportier Bilstein suspension setup. It's not like anyone buys an STI thinking it's a luxury car, so I can forgive the fact that it's a little bouncy over highway expansion joints. The upside to all this is incredible body control, with very little in the way of dive under braking, as well as flat and stable cornering. This means you can carry more speed in and out of turns with more confidence. It also helps that the Series White rides on absolutely fantastic 245/35R19 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 summer tires.
There's a decidedly old-school feeling to the way the STI drives, and I find it rather refreshing. Its hydraulic power steering is weighty and communicative, with a quick 13.3:1 ratio that provides instant response. There's no automatic rev-matching. No adaptive suspension. No feedback-sapping "by-wire" BS. Of course, that also means you do without any advanced driver-assistance systems. No adaptive cruise control. No blind-spot monitoring. No lane-departure warning. You make do with a low-resolution backup camera and automatic LED headlights. Enjoy.
As for multimedia tech, it's average at best. All STIs come with Subaru's Starlink infotainment software on a 7-inch touchscreen. This generation of Starlink is kind of clunky to use and the graphics aren't great, so you're better off letting your smartphone do the heavy lifting. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are thankfully standard.
Living with the STI is an exercise in function over form. The interior has certainly aged, with lots of reminders that this cabin was first introduced in 2011 on the 2012 Impreza. Hard plastic abounds, but it's at least broken up by a few nice accoutrements, including suede-like door inserts, a thick-rimmed steering wheel and a pair of comfy, supportive and heated Recaro front seats. Visibility is good, too, thanks to a low belt line and good seating position. Even with all those dark materials, the STI's cabin is airy, and the back seats don't make you feel cramped or claustrophobic. It does get pretty loud, however, especially with the added roar of those grippy-grippy tires.
Personally, I can live with a lot of these little gripes -- the loud interior, the stiff ride -- simply because the STI is just so freaking entertaining to drive. Its price, on the other hand, is really tough to reconcile. A base STI comes in at $37,895 including $900 for destination, and the higher-end STI Limited hikes that up to $42,595. Want one of the 500 Series White cars? That'll be $43,595.
Then there's the competition, which has only gotten better throughout the current STI's lifespan. The Honda Civic Type R is a hoot, and it has a more comfortable and tech-savvy interior, all for $37,950 -- and it even has a bigger wing! If you want something a little more luxurious that's still plenty rowdy, the Volkswagen Golf R can be had for $41,290. Want the most bang for your buck? The beastly little Hyundai Veloster N comes in at $30,655, including its optional performance package. To be fair, neither the Honda or the Hyundai come with all-wheel drive, but that doesn't really matter to me, and it's nothing a set of good winter tires can't largely fix in colder climates.
I get the appeal of the STI, but for me, the standard WRX remains my sporty Subaru of choice. A fully loaded one costs $35,095, and that's a much easier pill to swallow. It's not quite as sharp as the STI, but it's not nearly as raucous either. Day to day, the WRX is simply easier to live with. And it still makes me giggle when I rev it in third gear.