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2021 Subaru WRX STI Test Drive Review
The harsh ride of the WRX STI requires commitment, but drivers are rewarded with a fantastically focused machine.
A performance sedan is an ideal blend of fun and functionality. It’s similar to hot hatchbacks, like the Volkswagen GTI, Volkswagen Golf R, or Hyundai Veloster N. They offer performance and practicality, and do it at a relatively affordable price. But there’s not just one tier of performance. Like selecting fuel at the pump, there are levels. And for every level you go up in performance, it becomes more of a commitment. Such is the way of the 2021 Subaru WRX STI, a performance sedan that will put a smile on your face, but it’s also a bit of a lifestyle choice.
The WRX STI was last redesigned for the 2015 model year, and though it received some infotainment updates for the 2019 model year, it is a somewhat dated car. It's still based on the previous-generation Subaru Impreza platform, in fact.
Automakers tend to let their performance offerings linger a bit longer before a redesign, however. And just as the Golf R is to the VW GTI or the Type R is to the Civic Si, the STI is a level up from the Subaru WRX. So does the STI offer enough performance to warranty selecting it over the standard WRX, or other sporty compacts for that matter? Read on to find out.
Look and Feel
Within this segment of performance compact cars, some vehicles err on the side of restraint when it comes to styling. The VW GTI has some red accent touches, but the more powerful Golf R is the definition of a sleeper. If you didn’t know what to look for, you’d think the Golf R is just any other Golf hatchback. Subaru takes a different approach. The WRX STI looks like a video game car come to life. It has aggressive aerodynamic bodywork, a (functional) hood scoop, and a large rear wing. Paired with the telltale burble from the exhaust, and the WRX STI will always attract attention—for better or worse.
Inside, the WRX STI shows signs of age. It looks like a Subaru sedan that was introduced more than seven years ago, which is what it is, after all. There are plenty of hard plastics and a pretty basic layout. The upside is everything is easy to use, and you’ll be less distracted in hard driving.
STI models also have more aggressive interior accents compared to the standard WRX. Where the base WRX has some subtle red stitching in the seats, the STI goes for full red panels, thus carrying the video-game appeal into the cabin. Contributing to that feel is a sport steering wheel that properly fits the hands and is great for performance driving.
Trims for the 2021 Subaru WRX STI are base and Limited. Standard equipment on both includes 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in summer performance tires, LED headlights that move with the steering wheel, quad-tip exhaust, and heated side mirrors. The base trim comes with manually adjustable front seats, heated front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather-wrapped shift handle, keyless access with pushbutton start, and a combination of Ultrasuede and leather-trimmed upholstery. This trim also comes with a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Moving up to the Limited trim adds a power moonroof, Recaro sport bucket front seats, eight-way power-adjustability for the driver’s seat, a Harman Kardon premium stereo system, and the addition of Starlink navigation to the infotainment system. The Limited also offers the option of a more low-profile rear spoiler, thus toning down the STI’s in-your-face aesthetic.
The WRX STI is powered by a 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four engine. It’s also known as a boxer engine, as two banks of cylinders lie flat and “punch” at each other. This engine setup has been used occasionally in the past (like in the Chevy Corvair), and routinely by two brands: Porsche and Subaru. If you’re the WRX, that’s good company. The WRX STI makes 310 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque. Compare that to the standard WRX, which makes 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque from a smaller 2.0-liter turbo flat-four.
While the regular WRX can be had with a six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission (CVT), the WRX STI can only be selected with the manual transmission, routing power to Subaru’s trademark all-wheel drive (AWD).
The STI has an added punch over the acceleration characteristics of the standard WRX. Like the standard WRX, you still have to really work the revs to get into the ideal powerband. The STI’s redline is just south of 7,000 rpm, and you don’t really get peak power until about 6,000 rpm. That means you have a pretty small window of peak power, and keeping the needle in that window during hard acceleration takes some skill. The challenge is heightened by the fact that the clutch can feel a bit vague compared to more hardcore performance vehicles.
We recently had the privilege of driving the 2019 Subaru WRX STI S209 (photos of which have been included in this review). It’s the most hardcore version of the WRX, rife with upgrades like a high-performance clutch. The pedal feel was great, the travel was short, and you could pinpoint the clutch engagement point. Only 209 examples of this car were built and they are completely, utterly sold-out. So what’s the point of bringing up a car you can’t have? Subaru informed us many of these parts are available in the STI catalog. Any critiques we may have about the WRX or STI were answered in the S209, and so the S209 becomes an aspirational map of what’s possible in a WRX.
Back to our STI, the cornering is every bit as precise as its reputation leads one to believe. There’s a fantastic weight and feedback to the steering, and the turn-in is sharp. Thanks to its stiff suspension and standard AWD, the WRX STI expertly negotiates corners in a way that makes more expensive sports cars blush.
But the cornering prowess comes at a cost. In day-to-day driving, the WRX STI is harsh. Like “shake out your fillings” harsh. It’s less comfortable than the standard WRX, the Honda Civic (Si and Type R), Volkswagen GTI, and Volkswagen Golf R.
The Golf R hasn't been available since the 2019 model year, but a new one is on the way for 2022. Despite not being on sale this year, it’s important to hold up the Golf R as the standard for everyday drivability in a performance hatchback. The VW sleeper has a refined ride that errs on that of a luxury vehicle like a BMW 230i or its own cousin, the Audi S3. On the other hand, some drivers feel like punishing themselves is the only way to connect with the road. The STI’s competitors are here to prove that’s simply not the case.
Form and Function
The WRX STI benefits from being a conventional sedan, which means no climbing over the front seat to use the rear seats. It’s largely this reason why the sport compacts have endured, while true affordable sports cars come and go (with the obvious exception of the Mazda MX-5 Miata). Its 12 cubic feet of trunk space is well below that of the GTI or Golf R (both with 52.7 cubic feet). In fact, it falls well short of the Honda Civic Type R (46.2), which also benefits from a hatchback body style. The STI does have a 60/40 split-fold rear bench, which allows for more usable cargo space.
Up front, the driver has a comfortable but commanding seating position. You sit a bit more upright compared to the low-slung Civic Type R. This makes for solid visibility, and a better angle for your legs to work the pedals. There are decent cubbies in the doors and a small center console bin, but really the best space is at the bottom of the center stack. And even with the front seats comfortably positioned, there’s still a decent amount of rear legroom for tall-ish occupants.
The WRX STI comes equipped with the 7-inch Starlink touchscreen infotainment system. This is an upgrade from the 6.5-inch screen that comes standard in the base WRX. Starlink comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and has a generally sensible layout. It does not have the latest or flashiest graphics, but we’ll take ergonomic and logical menu layouts over the latest hotness every day of the week. Moving up to the Limited adds navigation as well as the Harman Kardon premium sound system.
Otherwise, the 2021 WRX STI is pretty low-tech for today’s standards. Remember, this car was redesigned in 2015, and received an infotainment update along the way. It still has small and relatively low-fi screens in the instrument panel and atop the dash—the latter being a signature Subaru design element. You can do fun things like monitor the turbocharger’s status and other performance updates from this screen.
Standard safety features include Vehicle Dynamics Control, traction control, a tire-pressure monitoring system, a full array of airbags, and a backup camera. Otherwise, the list of available safety features is pretty basic. That’s because the STI is only offered with a manual transmission. That doesn’t gel with all of the modern safety systems, such as forward-collision warning, lane-departure warning, and reverse automatic braking. All of these require the computer to gain control of the throttle and brakes in an emergency, which could easily cause a manual transmission vehicle to stall. Solving for this would be a great way to preserve the manual transmission and ensure its place in the automotive world in the years to come.
The only possible safety upgrade in the WRX STI is in selecting the Limited, which adds blind-spot monitoring with lane-change assist and rear cross-traffic alert.
The 2021 Subaru WRX STI returns EPA-rated fuel economy of 16 mpg city, 22 mpg highway, and 18 mpg combined. In our week of combined city and highway driving, we observed an average fuel economy of 18.7 mpg. The WRX STI is required to take premium fuel.
Base MSRP for the 2021 Subaru WRX STI is $37,245. Pricing for the Limited trim starts at $41,945, and the low-profile trunk-lid spoiler is a no-cost option. Subaru offers more than 70 port-installed options.
Performance compacts are in a bit of a transition. The Honda Civic is being slightly updated. The Civic Si is not available, but the Type R is, with a starting price of $37,895. The Golf R has not been available for a couple of years now, but with a redesigned Golf around the corner, a new Golf R is expected to arrive soon with a starting price north of $44,000. That’s pretty steep, but you also get the best interior of the bunch and the refinement befitting of a car that commands such a price.
The WRX is not immune to this march of progress. A new generation is just around the corner, which should hopefully address the critiques about the dated nature of the cabin. But the larger problem is the track-ready appearance. If you have the money for one of these (especially a Limited), you might not be in a station in life where such an aggressively-styled vehicle is appealing.
The base WRX starts at around $27,000, which makes the argument for affordable performance. But the STI—especially the Limited—is a pricey performance machine. It’s hard to pit this against a used BMW M2, which you can easily get for similar coin. It all comes down to how bad you want that performance experience. The WRX STI has the most hardcore driving feel in its segment. You have to know what you’re doing to unleash its power, and even then it has a coarse, dated interior and a rough ride. But if you truly love the feel of carving up a back road or want the dirt-mastering experience of a rally driver, there’s truly nothing like a WRX STI. Just be ready for what you give up to put yourself behind the wheel.
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