The Subaru WRX is an Impreza that pumps iron, and the WRX STI is the Impreza on steroids. They go beyond the mere high-performance compact sedan. Each has its own version of a stiffened Impreza chassis, turbocharged engine and all-wheel-drive system. Both versions come as a sedan, a hatchback isn’t available.
The WRX uses a turbocharged direct-injection 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder engine with a twin-scroll turbocharger, making 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque that comes at 2000 rpm and lasts until 5200 rpm. It’s mated to either a 6-speed manual gearbox or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The 6-speed manual uses all-wheel drive with viscous coupling at the center differential that splits power 50/50 front to rear, and is variable from side to side.
The CVT has eight steps that make it feel like a sequential automatic transmission in Sport Sharp mode, or six steps in Sport mode; it behaves more like a CVT in Intelligent mode. Its-all wheel drive splits power 45/55 front/rear, and moves it from side to side depending on traction needs. Additionally, the torque moves around between wheels based on cornering forces and steering-wheel inputs. There’s electric power steering, and naturally the suspension is sport tuned.
The WRX STI gets chassis bracing, a stiffer suspension with revised front geometry, 305-horsepower engine, its own 6-speed manual gearbox, bigger brakes, quick-ratio hydraulic-boost steering, and an edgy all-wheel-drive system that’s better for the track.
With the standard transmission, the WRX gets an EPA-rated 20/27/23 mpg City/Highway/Combined; it’s 2 mpg less with the CVT, which is unusual because CVTs are all about fuel mileage. However Subaru says in Intelligent mode the CVT delivers nearly 24 mpg combined. The STI is rated at 17/23/19 mpg.
The NHTSA hasn’t tested the WRX, but the IIHS give it its Top Safety Pick+ rating, with the best scores across the board, including the difficult small overlap crash test. A rearview camera is standard.
The WRX comes in Base, Premium and Limited models. In addition to its higher performance, the STI adds leather and faux-suede upholstery, dual-zone climate control, fuller center console, and LED headlamps with turn signals on the sideview mirrors.
Subaru’s camera-based EyeSight safety suite is available on the WRX with the CVT. It includes adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and lane-keep assist.
In the WRX, only the roof and trunk lid remain from the Impreza; every other body panel is unique, including grille and bumpers. The front fenders are pronounced, the front air dam deep, the air intakes massive, the hood scoop big, and the wheels bigger. The headlamps are LED.
The STI is easily spotted by its giant wing on back. If that draws too much attention to the car, it can be ordered with a lower profile trunk spoiler like that on the WRX.
The cabin is straightforward, fairly roomy for a compact car, and adequately but inexpensively finished. The instrument panel isn’t fancy, but it’s functionally well designed, with simple intuitive controls, and a cowl over the main gauges and another smaller one over the LCD display in the center of the dash. There’s matte silver trim on the soft-touch low-gloss black plastic dash. The headliner is higher quality for 2017.
The WRX and STI aren’t known for refinement, comfort, and convenience. Tire and wind noise are high.
The WRX has grippy sport seats with fabric upholstery and manual adjustment, with leather and power optional. The STI gets pseudo-suede seats with big bolstering and Alcantara accents, as well as trim that’s a bit nicer. Realistically, there’s only room for two in the rear, as that middle person won’t be happy.
There are generous bins and trays, with an average trunk size of 12 cubic feet. The rear seat folds down for more cargo space, but if you carry sports equipment, go with the Impreza Sport or Crosstrek.
The STI is definitely more powerful and corners harder, but it also rides with some rigidity, so the WRX is more relaxed and comfortable on the street. It’s still plenty fast, while the handling is balanced and electric power steering is precise.
The WRX likes transitions, and with its firm suspension and big stabilizer bars, it’s plenty taut and composed. It’s got electronic torque vectoring, a system that applies the brakes on individual wheels to help the car turn into corners, and reduce understeer. The traction control can be disabled, if it feels intrusive during those most spirited driving times.
The turbocharged 2.0-liter boxer four engine, with 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, is there when you need speed. It responds especially well because the torque is available from 2000 to 5200 rpm, thanks to the cams and valve springs. Because the cylinders are horizontally opposed, the engine is flatter and lower, dropping the center of gravity of the car and improving the balance, the key to Subaru’s good handling.
The all-wheel drive system depends on the transmission. The CVT can’t be called a gearbox, because there are no gears, just pulleys and belts that simulate the behavior of gears. The Subaru CVT is as sharp as any we’ve tested, thanks to its design and programming. In Intelligent mode, it constantly alters its ratio to produce the best gas mileage. In Sport manual mode, the driver can paddle-shift through six ratios that feel like gears. In Sport Sharp mode, it responds like a sequential automatic or dual-clutch transmission, with eight virtual gears and swift throttle response. In this mode it can accelerate from zero to sixty in 5.9 seconds.
The 6-speed manual gearbox offers fairly short throws. Its all-wheel drive uses a viscous-coupling center differential that splits torque 50/50, and moves it forward or back as traction demands. The setup is much quicker than the CVT, with zero to sixty times of 5.4 seconds.
Weak point to the WRX is brakes. The 17-inch Dunlop SP Sport Maxx RT tires are willing, but the brakes in the two cars we drove felt numb and needed a heavy foot to slow the car down.
The STI is another story. It’s sharper and stiffer, and its 2.5-liter turbo boxer four makes 37 more horsepower (305 hp) and 32 more foot-pounds of torque (290 ft-lb), but it’s not that much quicker in a straight line because of its gearing. Its 6-speed gearbox and all-wheel drive use a special driver-controlled central differential system, with a helical limited-slip front differential and a Torsen limited-slip rear differential. Its steering is quicker, with different front steering geometry and quick-ratio hydraulic steering. The brake issue is gone, with big Brembos front and rear.
The Subaru WRX and STI, two high-performance Imprezas, have been around a long time, and are popular and proven. They’re always fun to drive, and still turn heads. For the power you get, they’re well priced. They’ve been developed to the point where they’re both civilized, the WRX more than the STI, but you can still live with the STI on the street. The cabins aren’t fancy, but neither are they cheap, while they’re functional and intuitive without gimmicks.
Sam Moses contributed to this review, with staff reports from The Car Connection.