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The Subaru Impreza WRX and WRX STI are fast and fun to drive, yet reasonably practical for everyday use. Loosely based on the Impreza compact, the WRX versions are economical to operate in light of their performance and, more than ever, make excellent cars for commuters who like a little spice in their daily drive.
The 2011 Subaru WRX lineup has expanded. The 2011 WRX gets the widebody treatment of the STI for both sedans and hatchbacks, and three trim levels for each. The 2011 STI adds a four-door sedan in two trim levels to the existing five-door hatchback and considerable running gear upgrades. All of them add iPod control and Bluetooth, and some four-doors have the option of leather upholstery heretofore unavailable.
WRX models are very good and seem to get better every year. Following a complete redesign in 2008 the WRX got a power increase and suspension retune in 2009 and aero upgrades for 2010. The 2010 Special Edition STI took the handling to the next step with suspension uprates based on the home-market spec C cars, and the 2011 WRX STI goes even further.
Despite their racy appearance and serious performance, the WRX is reasonably refined. The current WRX models are smoother and more comfortable than pre-2008 versions, and easy to live with during the typical commute. Their cabins are roomier than previous versions, with an overall improvement in appointments and finish quality. They're offered with high-grade audio and an optional navigation system.
The WRX and STI achieved cult status among driving enthusiasts and boy racers, but more than ever that image is too narrow and confining. These cars have decent room in the back seat and good cargo capacity. Their all-wheel-drive system can legitimately be considered a safety and foul-weather advantage, even if, with the powerful, turbocharged engines in the WRX, it's marketed as a performance enhancement, a role it also fills.
These are drivers' cars: no automatic transmission is offered. Yet buyers seeking a smaller car with lots of safety features should like the WRX. All models come with all-wheel drive, electronic stability control, a sophisticated anti-lock brake system and good crash-test performance; a good set of winter tires make them near unstoppable in bad weather.
From about $26,000, the WRX models come well equipped, with nice seats, automatic climate control, a good stereo and more horsepower than all but a couple cars in this size/price class. Both are powered by a 2.5-liter, 265-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder, arranged in Subaru's familiar horizontally opposed, or flat-four, configuration. The WRX offers a bang for the buck that surpasses many more expensive sports sedans.
The STI version is essentially its own car. STI stands for Subaru Technica International, the high-performance division that made the WRX famous through considerable success in the World Rally Championship. Nearly every major mechanical system is unique to the STI: six-speed manual transmission, special suspension and brakes, unique interior appointments and a high-tech, manually adjustable all-wheel-drive system. Yet the STI's centerpiece is a higher-tech version of the 2.5-liter four, generating 305 horsepower. Its quarter-mile acceleration times match those delivered by some muscle and exotic sports cars.
While the STI offers increased performance and driver involvement relative the WRX, few feel shortchanged in the WRX. Subaru's claim that buyers like both and the choice frequently comes down to price...the STI is about $9000 more than the WRX and offers more performance, and more potential, for the extra coin.
To be sure, the WRX costs more than your typical front-wheel-drive compact, and the performance and all-wheel-drive come with a mileage penalty. Still, we think the WRX models are a good deal, offering lots of performance for the dollar in a car that's easy to live with every day. Primary competitors for the WRX and WRX/STI are the front-drive Mazdaspeed 3 and Volkswagen GTI, and all-wheel drive Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart and Evolution.
The 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX ($25,495) comes in sedan and a 5-Door versions powered by a 265-hp turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 5-speed manual transmission. The WRX comes with fabric upholstery (checkered carbon black with red stitching), automatic climate control, power windows/locks/mirrors, AM/FM/Sirius/MP3/iPod audio with Bluetooth and auxiliary input jack, cruise control, electroluminescent gauges, quad tailpipes, 17-inch alloy wheels with summer performance tires. The hatchback also adds a rear wiper, spoiler, clear-lens taillights and cover, light and tie-downs for the cargo area.
WRX Premium ($27,995) sedan and hatchback add heated front seats, heated mirrors, wiper de-icer, power moonroof, trunk spoiler and fog lights. The Navigation Package ($2,000) features a GPS system with seven-inch screen, satellite radio, auxiliary audio/video jacks, CD/DVD drive and Bluetooth telephony. WRX Limited ($28,995) adds leather upholstery and HID low-beam headlamps, also available with Navigation ($30,995).
The WRX STI sedan ($33,995) and 5-Door ($35,995) is equipped similarly to WRX Premium grade. The extra money adds mainly high-performance mechanicals, starting with the 305-hp 2.5-liter engine, 6-speed manual, more sophisticated all-wheel drive system and upgraded chassis components. The 5-Door includes cargo cover, tie-downs, cargo light, rear wiper, and BBS wheels; navigation is optional. STI Limited sedan ($37,345) adds the BBS wheels, fog lights, moonroof, and comes with leather upholstery.
Dealer-installed accessories are numerous, ranging from wild spoilers and footwell illumination to more practical short-throw shifters, gauge packages, brake pads and performance exhaust systems. Many dealer-installed parts feature full factory warranty coverage.
Safety features include dual-stage front airbags, front passenger side-impact airbags and curtain-style head airbags. The WRX has achieved five stars for front impacts, five stars for front passengers in side impacts, and four stars in rollover tests from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Active safety features include Vehicle Dynamics Control stability electronics and four-channel, four-sensor anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD).
There's no mistaking that the 2011 WRX and STI mean business, with flared nostrils, flared wheel arches and generally more flair than any other Subaru. The bodywork may look as busy as a racecar's without the decals, but all those scoops, vents, curves and spoilers are there for engineering reasons, not cosmetics.
The WRX now wears essentially the same clothes as the STI: puffed-up fenders covering fatter tires and wheels set wider apart. In return, the STI gets a four-door sedan derivative previously reserved for the WRX.
Distinguishing WRX and STI is easiest from the rear. The WRX sedan has a lip spoiler along the trailing edge of the trunk, and the hatchback a spoiler atop the rear window. In contrast the STI sedan's rear spoiler is a wing standing well off the trunk's surface and the hatchback has a larger spoiler atop the rear window. Sedans use conventional taillights while hatchbacks get clear-lens arrangements with some LED elements that help it stand out, and the STI's quad tailpipes are polished stainless 3 outlets.
A wider, lower front end treatment, a bit deeper on the STI, sets off both cars, and some have HID low-beam headlamps but bi-xenon units are not available; perhaps Subaru expects owners to add their own bank of driving lights. The fender badge reads WRX or STI as appropriate. The WRX has 235/45R17 tires versus the STI's 245/40R18 rubber. BBS forged wheels come on the STI hatchback and STI Limited sedan. Spotters may also notice the STI brake calipers.
The current-generation, launched as a 2008 model, is the largest WRX generation ever, which translates to more room inside the car. The four-door sedan, developed specifically for the United States, is more than six inches longer than the five-door hatchback. The four-door has the edge in covered trunk space and about 3 mph higher top speed, the hatchback a minor advantage in rear-seat headroom comfort and is slightly lighter in STI guise.
In side view, the most prominent bit of design is a sharp crease that extends from the front wheel arch and runs just above the door handles all the way to the rear. It helps create the impression of a wedge, and emphasizes the aggressive attitude of the whole car. We appreciate the flared fenders employed more to cover wide tires than as the retro styling exercise of the Mercedes' E-Class pontoon rear fenders.
American buyers overwhelmingly prefer sedans to hatchbacks but the latter are making a comeback. In the case of the WRX and STI, we will take the hatch, however, and not just for its practical benefits like a rear wiper, better visibility, easier parking and the ability to carry awkward loads. We'd say it's the more handsome car. Its roofline runs in a single, elegant nearly-French curve from the base of the windshield to that spoiler at the top of the rear glass. Also, its rear overhang is considerably shorter than the sedan's and the STI sedan's wing is downright invitational to law enforcement. Shorter overhangs are generally better for handling, in addition to other benefits.
WRX and STI have an aluminum hood, which reduces weight in front and helps distribute the car's mass more evenly over the front and rear wheels. Both cars feature the latest evolution of what Subaru calls its Ring Frame Reinforced body design. Think of RFR as a safety cell in roughly a cube shape around the passenger compartment, made of stronger, hydro-formed steel sections. The idea is more strength and rigidity without an undue increase in weight, and it may help explain the excellent ratings in NHTSA crash tests. The first objective of RFR is better occupant protection, but the structural improvements pay dividends in many respects, from more responsive handling to improved smoothness in just about every aspect of the car's operation.
When the WRX and STI were redesigned for 2008, their interiors were more understated, or subdued, than they'd been in years. Since then, however, Subaru has re-introduced details such as aluminum alloy covers for the foot pedals, red stitching on the seats and steering wheel for 2009, and embroidered WRX logos to remind occupants of what they're sitting in, in case the howl of the free-revving turbocharged engine isn't enough. For 2010, the line-topping STI model got new black Alcantara upholstery with red stitching, instead of gray Alcantara with silver stitching, for a bolder presentation.
For 2011, WRX changes are evolutionary. The new gauge cluster looks instantly familiar to us and conveys the same data in the same manner; the central tachometer dominates everything. The stereo system has been revised, now capable for satellite radio, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod control and USB and auxiliary inputs.
The major change is the option of leather upholstery and a moonroof in Limited-level sedans. This choice may find favor with owners seeking some luxury with their performance, though we prefer our rally cars as is: a moonroof adds weight at the highest point on the car, to a small extent working against the low center of gravity that aids handling, and the cloth seats grip better for keeping you in place and don't have the surface temperature extremes of leather.
Based on the Impreza's cabin, the WRX and STI benefit from lots of glass and low window sills, giving a light and airy feeling that belies the compact label. Head and legroom in front are generous and the sporty front seats leave more rear seat legroom than the numbers imply. Four six-footers won't tax it, and most enthusiasts will have plenty of headroom for a helmet.
The front bucket seats in the WRX are upholstered with a soft, black-checkered fabric, double stitched in the fashion of a luxury car, and they provide a good compromise between support and comfort. There's enough side bolstering top and bottom to keep occupants snug during fairly aggressive driving, but there's also plenty of give in the cushions.
The seats in the STI are more like aftermarket performance seats, which means harder and more heavily bolstered. They're even better for hard driving, but the snugger fit leaves less squirm room during longer, more relaxed travel, and they demand more energy to climb in and out of. The seats come in black Alcantara with red stitching. The integral headrests may require a helmeted driver to have their head further forward, or backrest more reclined, than they are accustomed to.
Overall, the WRX driving position is excellent. Seat adjustments are simple, but they allow people of various sizes to get properly situated. Most drivers will be able to reach all controls, including those for adjusting side mirrors, without lifting head or shoulders from the seatback. A suitably contoured tilt/telescoping steering wheel does the same for gauge vision and stalk controls, while the adjacent shifter and handbrake are right where you want them. One minor gripe regarding the armrests: They're positioned such that each elbow rests at a slightly different height. Then again, you'll seldom use both simultaneously.
Gauges are easy to read and illuminated in dark amber. The trim is a metallic silver plastic. You'll find more attractively grained plastics and maybe richer looking trim materials and carpet in this price range, but nothing in the WRX looks cheap enough to kill the deal. That's at least partly because the dashboard layout is so straightforward, effective and easy to clean the dust off of.
The size and shape of the dash is roughly symmetrical on both the driver and passenger sides, with a big, outreaching center stack of controls and displays in the middle. The four dash vents are fully adjustable and large enough to move plenty of air.
An LCD sits under its own hood at the top of the center stack, with temperature indicator, time and other information. At the bottom sit three big climate-control knobs: one each for temperature, airflow direction and fan speed, easy to grab with barely a peripheral glance, operating with a nice tactile sensation that conveys the amount of adjustment. In between are the standard audio controls or the optional navigation screen. Both are good sized and easy to manipulate. While the audio knobs aren't as big as those for the air conditioning, volume, source and tuning can also be adjusted with buttons on the steering wheel spokes.
The expanse of glass combines with narrow windshield pillars to provide excellent outward visibility in virtually any direction. Wiper coverage and strength is up to muddy rally standards, well beyond daily driving, and on most models the area where the wipers park is electrically heated so you needn't wait for the defrost to thaw them before sweeping the snow off.
Cargo capacity in the sedan is fairly good. With 11.3 cubic feet of trunk space, it falls toward the lower end of its size class, a bit less than what's found in the less-expensive Honda Civic Si sedan or the more expensive BMW 328i. Still, the WRX does have all-wheel drive and the rear seatback splits and folds forward. With the 60-percent portion laid flat, there's enough room to slide two golf bags in through the trunk, and still leave room for a third passenger.
Cargo space in the five-door hatch is much better. With 19 cubic feet, rear seat up, there's a lot more space than what's available in the typical small sedan's trunk if you don't need the rear window view. The hatchback also allows taller objects to be contained within the car. When the rear seat is folded cargo capacity expands to 44.4 cubic feet, with easy access from the rear side doors to help push things in and out.
Cubby storage is average. The glove box is deep, holding more stuff than most, and there's a lined bin in front of the gearshift for phones, openers or glasses. There's a pair of cupholders in the center console, just right of the handbrake that are up to the car's handling abilities. Another cupholder in each front door pocket is large enough for a 24-ounce bottle. The box in the center console has jacks for MP3 players and a power point. Models with the navigation system come with a video jack. This allows video games or DVD players to project on the navi screen, but only when the car is parked.
While the WRX delivers inviting, balanced driving performance it's also relatively refined and easy to live with on a daily basis. All-wheel drive built-in from the start long ago made it a favorite where the road is white a good portion of the year, and the performance aspects are making it popular in climes where all-wheel drive is unneeded.
The widebody treatment has made the WRX look more substantial and threatening but it added less than 30 pounds so straight-line performance is essentially unchanged: Only added traction from the wider tires may require a change to your start-line launch technique. It can be driven moderately with ease and really comes on steam as the rev counter nears 3000. With 265 hp and 244 lb-ft of torque the 2.5-liter engine is plenty potent, and the all-wheel drive allows you to fully exploit it; a front-wheel drive Mazdaspeed 3 has more power and notably more torque but can't use it all until third gear.
Subaru engines are all horizontally opposed; as in a Porsche or original Volkswagen Beetle the cylinders lay flat 180 degrees apart rather than the conventional four cylinders lined up in a row. This makes the engine low, compact and light, all aids to vehicle dynamics. It also means a slightly lumpy idle sound, little power right off idle (you need to slip the clutch a little), a droning exhaust around 1500 rpm you'll notice only ion creeping traffic, and it's hard to sometimes imagine a $35,000 car still sounds a bit like a 40-year-old Bug.
The WRX uses a five-speed manual transmission exclusively. It has nicely spaced gear ratios and a short-throw shifter, but it's a gear short of much of the competition and the shifter is a bit rubbery causing us to not get a gear we wanted occasionally; fortunately we never got the wrong gear either. Subaru's performance division offers plenty of shifting upgrades that would add precision and effort for crisper, more precise gearchanges. A Hill-Holder feature keeps the car from rolling backward when the brake pedal is released to engage the gas on incline starts.
Suspension was already dialed in nicely on the WRX, with nicely weighted, accurate steering crisply pointing the car, good grip, and compliant ride quality that lets you know the road surface but doesn't beat it into you; it's a relatively easy car in which to approach its limits and aids driver confidence. For 2011 there are very minor changes to the tuning, but wider wheels and tires carefully chosen to not add weight to rotating mass, ensure even more grip. All WRX and STI come with three-season tires and even all-wheel drive won't overcome their uselessness them in the snow.
Although grip is commendable what makes the WRX such a nice driver is balance. The weight is better split front/rear than most cars in this class, but the steering, brakes, handling and engine are ideally mated to the others. It's never a case where there's too much power for the brakes or steering, or so much grip it feels underpowered. And the mechanical noises it makes...turbocharger whistle, gear whine and so on all add to the fun or fade into the background when you're just cruising from A to B.
On another level is the STI. Think of this as a purpose-built, class-spec rally car with air conditioning and a radio but lacking a roll-cage and five-point seatbelts the government says you can't have in a street car.
Although the same size engine has slightly lower compression and only one-half-psi (14.7 vs 14.2) more peak turbocharger boost pressure than the WRX it employs more sophisticated components to add 40 hp and 46 lb-ft of torque. Combine that with a six-speed manual that has shorter gearing than the WRX, and the 165-pound heavier STI is substantially quicker. Imagine first gear, three second gears in a row, and a couple for cruising along the highway or pushing top speed. (Although the STI sedan is 11 pounds heavier than the hatch, top speed is higher because of less aero drag. With few opportunities for 150+mph in North America, we'll stick with the lighter hatch.)
An STI is a quick car. Perhaps not as fast from 125 mph like a big V8 muscle car or V12 GT car but for the twist-and-punch of a mountain pass, autocross course, off-highway rally or urban commute it's plenty potent. And the STI's six-speed manual shifter felt much more accurate than the WRX's five-speed. Again, upgrades are available.
Beneath the STI are few parts shared with the WRX: transmission, all-wheel drive, suspension arms and antiroll bars, brakes, and even the wheel bolt pattern are upgraded. The springs in the 2011 are stiffer even than those of the 2010 special edition but still deliver the compliance needed for bashing along dirt roads or surviving commutes. Likewise the 18-inch wheels are new, and lighter than the previous versions. But it's a pair of relatively inexpensive rod-end bushings in the front suspension that pay the biggest dividends because they keep the front wheels more stable, translating to easier shock and spring tuning and less steering correction mid-corner.
Like the WRX the STI is also fairly easy to drive quickly. At its handling limits, the STI has a slight inclination to understeer, or to keep going in a straighter line. Yet that tendency is less than in the typical front-drive car, and the all-wheel-drive system allows the driver to get the front end to tuck into a curve by adding a little (not a lot) more gas. The STI stays planted under rough, abrupt or heavy-handed inputs on its controls but get the speed and steering angle right and you can keep it there while powering out of the bend. Whether braking hard into a curve, or panic-braking with a sudden twist of the steering to avoid an accident, the anti-skid electronics work to keep the car's weight balanced and the tires on that fine line between maximum grip and slide. The STI's multi-setting stability control helps take care of the beginner at a club track day without strangling the pace, and it allows exceptionally skilled drivers to turn all the electronic aids off.
On both paved and unpaved closed courses, we found we could overdrive corners in a big way and easily maintain control (if not the briskest pace). Enter a corner a bit too fast and the worse thing to come of it is a poor entry to the next corner. But if you know the course, the STI's controls let you adjust for it. The center differential that apportions output front and rear has a choice of automatic modes ideal for most drivers and most conditions...those where you don't know what weather, road, or traffic have in store for you. The manual setting allows you to vary the amount of front/rear lock and displays it as bar-graph in the instrument panel. Fewer bars equal less lock, for good turn in but understeer if you apply too much power in the corner; more bars for more lock and the front wheels go where you point them and with this acceleration you want to make sure they're pointed where you want to go.
SI-Drive is the other console control that sets accelerator response. Push down for Intelligent to maximize economy and make the smoothest drive (like rain or snow) because the pedal has to travel more to get the same power output.. Sport is the happy medium for response and drivability, or rotate the knob to Sport# (sharp) for the quickest reaction to your right foot. This is best reserved for open roads or tracks where you'll ask for lots of power at any given moment. Regardless of how you get going, the big Brembo brakes, with ventilated iron discs that stand up to off-pavement abuse, merely shave off speed or stop immediately with equal aplomb. The antilock system is also very good, probably a direct result of Subaru's rally experience finding traction where little exists.
The Subaru Impreza WRX and WRX STi are fun, fast and solid, with standard all-wheel drive and overall performance that's rare in their class. They're also practical, with decent room in the back seat and good cargo capacity, and they've achieve excellent scores in NHTSA crash tests. Ongoing refinements haven't significantly diluted the character and enthusiasm that have made the WRX so appealing over the years, but they have raised the bar on comfort and quality. The WRX and STI cost more than many cars of comparable size, and they give up some fuel economy for the performance, but those who appreciate this car's strengths probably won't mind.
J.P. Vettraino filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Detroit; with Mitch McCullough reporting from Vancouver Island, British Columbia and G.R. Whale reporting from the Colorado Rockies