Most people think of sports cars as gorgeous, low-slung, impractical two-seaters, but go back to the original definition of the term – "sports car" as a car that takes part in competition, or is closely related to same. The Subaru WRX STI, with its identity and attitude directly rooted in Subaru's championship rally teams, does more to fulfill that idea than many upscale performance machines. If the four-door basis somehow requires more proof of association than a sultry coupe, the speed and handling capabilities contained within the 2018 STI's amped-up styling leave no doubt that Subaru produces a thoroughly great – if unorthodox – sports car.

Best Value

The WRX models, including the STI, are based on the previous-generation Impreza sedan. Power for the STI comes from a turbocharged 2.5-liter version of Subaru's trademark flat-four. A six-speed manual transmission is mandatory, as is all-wheel drive with an adjustable Torsen limited-slip rear differential. The steering rack uses traditional hydraulic assist instead of the standard WRX's electric boost, which provides better feel at the expense of a bit of engine efficiency – one among the many factors contributing to the STI's unimpressive EPA-estimated mileage ratings of 17 miles per gallon city and 22 mpg highway.

The STI is currently available in base and Limited trim levels. The standard STI includes Brembo brakes, dual-zone climate control, and an app-heavy infotainment system with a seven-inch touchscreen. The Limited adds a sunroof, navigation, an upgraded stereo, keyless ignition, and Recaro seats with eight-way power adjustment. The Type RA, an even more tightly wound STI with a number of performance tweaks and an MSRP crowding $50,000, was announced back in November; individual examples of the 500-unit production run may still be available at dealers.

The Limited may bring more features and the Type RA an extra dose of high-street-cred speed parts, but the base STI contains all the important attributes even in its most stripped-down form, making it our clear value pick:

  • Model: 2018 Subaru WRX STI
  • Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder
  • Output: 305 hp / 290 lb-ft
  • Transmission: Six-speed manual
  • Drivetrain: All-wheel drive
  • Fuel Economy: 17 City / 22 Hwy
  • Options: n/a
  • Base Price: $36,995 (including an $860 destination charge)
  • Best Value Price: $36,995

Performance

Subaru WRX STI

The WRX STI doesn't just look like a rally car, it fully behaves like one with plenty of turbocharged thrust and a suspension set up for maximum agility. An unusual part of the handling formula is the adjustable differential, which changes the driveline balance to the driver's preference. Steering is accurate and very quick (maybe too much so), and the big Brembo brakes are wonderfully strong and fade-free if slightly grabby.

The compromises inherent in all that taut tuning and boosted power are clearly on display, and arguably make up a meaningful part of the car's abundant character. This isn't an effortless Grand Tourer; the clutch and steering are heavy, the ride is stiff, the edgy and sensitive controls can verge on irritating when the driver simply wants to lay back and cruise for a while.

Style

With its huge rear wing, bulging fender flares, and high-volume hood scoop, the STI adds plenty of visual excitement to its compact sedan roots. (The rear wing can be deleted if you insist, but if you're looking for restraint, you may want to shop elsewhere in the first place.) Nobody will ever call an STI beautiful, but its overachiever looks are an appropriate match for its rowdy driving feel.

Inside, the cabin's atmosphere is slightly more subdued if no less purposeful. There's a smattering of red trim – including the seat belts – to complement the intense overall flavor, but nothing hides the standard-Subaru basis. Even if the interior may not be much of a design statement, the function-first mentality of the STI's makers is a definite plus in daily use.

The Best and Worst Things

The STI makes a compelling case for the benefits of building a speedster from a common sedan instead of a specialized platform. It's a Subaru during the workweek, with good safety scores, a functional design, and all the pragmatism and convenience that goes with a compact four-door sedan, but give it an open two-lane (and give the local cops a coffee break) and the STI absolutely rips. The all-wheel-drive system bridges the gap between the two roles: secure on slippery roads, but also designed to put all that power and torque to the pavement as effectively as possible.

That focused attitude and maximum-performance tuning inevitably takes a toll on the STI's sense of livability. While still very functional and usable, a prospective buyer must face up to the reality of living with the harsh ride and heavy, edgy controls on a constant basis. Some people will accept it as part of the STI's essence; others may find the thrill-ride attitude wearing thin over time.

Right For? Wrong For?

Subaru WRX STI

Do you want ambitious speed and agility in a compact upright package with four doors? Can you manage a good bit of attitude in your everyday driving? Do you know who Colin McRae was? The WRX STI delivers on its promise of providing plenty of racing-influenced thrills in a rather practical frame.

Do you expect a high-performance car to be a study in refinement and balance? The STI's handling is impressively dialed in, but the intents and results are more maximum impact than serene harmony. Do you grade your cars on looks as much as speed? The STI's various body enhancements are a successful truth-in-advertising statement, but the overall effect is still tuner special instead of complete aesthetic statement.

The Bottom Line

The 2018 Subaru WRX STI may not be the most graceful creation tearing up a back road at any one time, but it'll definitely be one of the faster and more intensely fun cars on that run. If actual street performance backed by years of rallying credibility matters more than a sensual fantasyland image to you, the STI's ability to turn your daily commute into a tarmac stage may be just what you want and need.