First Drive: 2015 Subaru WRX STI

Designed to match wits with the performance of the Porsche 911 Carrera S, the 2015 Subaru WRX STI offers $90,000 sports car handling and agility for $37,000.

Laguna Seca Raceway outside Monterey, California is hallowed racing ground. The foggy 2.2-mile stretch of tarmac is arguably one of the most famous tracks on the planet.

Even if they’ve never driven it, most modern motoring enthusiasts are at least somewhat familiar with Laguna Seca. Just hearing the name will conjure images of every one of its 11 turns – most infamously the corkscrew.

While there are dozens of brilliant tracks in the U.S. perhaps none is as infamous and as highly regarded as Laguna Seca.

Perfect, then, that I found myself this week on Laguna Seca Raceway with a car to match its fame: the 2015 Subaru WRX STI.

The ideal

As a driving purist, there are a few key things I want in my ideal car: a turbocharged engine producing 300 horsepower or more, all-wheel drive, manual transmission, stiff chassis and suspension, big and powerful brakes, hydraulic power steering, four doors, and robust but sporty interior.

Essentially, if I could design my own car, I would build the 2015 Subaru WRX STI.

Simply meeting all my requirements on paper isn’t enough, though. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

The difference

Before I dig into the driving impressions, let me first pull apart the differences between the 2015 WRX and the 2015 WRX STI:

  • The WRX has a 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder making 268 hp. The STI’s 2.5-liter boxer four makes 305 hp.
  • The WRX has a cable shifted six-speed manual, while the STI has a parallel linkage six-speed manual.
  • The WRX’s all-wheel drive is continuous, where as the STI’s is a Driver Controlled Center Differential (DCCD) unit.
  • While electrons move the steering rack in the on the WRX, a hydraulic unit moves the STI’s wheels side-to-side.
  • The differentials on the WRX are open front and rear. The STI, by comparison, has a helical limited-slip in the front and a Torsen limited-slip in the rear.

On the road

Before racing the STI around Laguna Seca, we journalists first hit the back roads of Carmel, California. Having just been in this neck of the woods a few weeks previous in the 2015 WRX, I had some preconceived notions of how the STI would handle. They were wrong.

At first grip of the steering wheel, you know you’re dealing with a different beast.

The STI’s hydraulic power steering is heavy but alive. You have to work the wheel to get it to do anything. Out on the road, though, it twitches and wrestles with you like a big, flapping marlin. Unlike the WRX’s electric power steering, STI’s hydraulic unit transfers every roadway imperfection into your palm. If you’re not a driving enthusiast, you’ll hate it. If weekend back-road crusades are your lifeblood, you’ll love it.

2015 Subaru WRX STI drivers close

Cornering is all together a different feeling in the STI. I’ve driven sports cars and supercars. None turned and handled quite like the STI. With a chassis that is approximately 40 percent stiffer than the last-gen STI and a suspension that’s had the spring rate increased by 22 percent and the lateral stiffness increased by 14 percent, plus DCCD all-wheel drive and torque vectoring, this car can take corners and turn in harder than you’d ever imagine it could.

There were many times out on the roads where I felt I could hit the corner a bit harder. So I’d turn in a bit more and, without any hesitation, the STI would react with great exactness and precision.

I hate recounting that clinically. But that’s really the best way. The STI’s handling doesn’t operate in squishy vagaries; it’s a precision instrument designed for cutting lines and conquering corners.

Before racing the STI around Laguna Seca, we journalists first hit the back roads of Carmel, California.

For the 2015 STI, Subaru remapped the engine ECU and ramped up acceleration. What used to be 50 percent throttle in the outgoing STI is now 25 percent throttle in the 2015. Full throttle is still the same but you get way more torque at first toe touch than you ever have before.

At first, I was disappointed that Subaru didn’t build an all-new motor for the 2015 model. Unlike the WRX, which received the new 2.0-liter, the STI carries over the 2.5-liter that makes 305 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque from the last generation. After having hammered it through the hills of Carmel, I’m not disappointed at all.

Peak torque lands at 4,000 rpm. Stay anywhere near that rev range and you’ll enjoy plenty of neck-contorting torque.

Thankfully, Subaru also upped the braking power of the STI. The 13-inch Brembo brakes grab hard and never fade. You can ride the brakes like a novice and never worry you’re going to overheat the system.

On the WRX drive, my co-driver felt like he was going to throw up when I rallied the car through the corners. On the STI drive, my co-driver literally had to ask me to pull over so he could vomit. If that doesn’t tell you how much more extreme the STI is over the WRX, I suppose nothing will.

Laguna Seca

After lunch we were taken to the track. There, we were given head-socks and helmets and told to choose our cars. We were instructed to put the all-wheel drive into ‘Auto Minus’ and the traction control into ‘Track.’

Spaced a few seconds apart, we were introduced to Laguna Seca and to the other personality of the STI. Out on the streets of Carmel, the STI proved a keen canyon carver. On Laguna, it became a – pardon the cliché – track tamer.

Subaru’s engineers told us the STI was track ready. Again, I didn’t quite believe them. The last STIs had been rally cars sold for road use, with a bit more suspension travel than you might want on a road course. The 2015 is terrific on the track.

2015 Subaru WRX STI engine full

The only other cars I’ve driven on Laguna were the F10 BMW M5 and the F12 M6. While those cars could get to higher speed much more quickly than the STI, the Subaru felt much more planted, as its suspension and chassis were much tighter.

I would love to go more into the detail of my track time with the STI but, honestly, I got lost in the laps. I stopped paying attention to the car and focused on my line and my times.

This might be the best compliment I can pay to the STI, though. Unlike the M5, the STI instilled so much confidence on the track; I wasn’t worried about the parameters of the car but rather with my own performance.

Imperfect performance

Remember how I said that the STI is the car I’d design if I were asked to pen my ideal car? Well, it is. But it’s not that cut-and-dry.

While the STI is incredible driving machine, it’s also a bit painful as a mode of transportation.

Spaced a few seconds apart, we were introduced to Laguna Seca and to the other personality of the STI.

That stiffened suspension will kick you in the kidneys when you hit a bump in the road. And road noise in the cabin is sometimes deafening. As a toy, the STI is brilliant. As a daily driver, though, I fear it might become a bit of a chore.

Those complaints aside, I think there’s a couple statistics that perfectly sum up the 2015 STI.

When Subaru designed the new WRX STI, they amazingly pegged the $84,300 Porsche 911 Carrera S as the performance benchmark.

According to Subaru’s internal testing, in emergency handling max speed, the STI bested the Carrera S. In cornering turn-in ability, the STI fell just shy of the Carrera S but bested the Mitsubishi EVO. In agility, the STI is dead-on with the 911. And in lateral acceleration limit, the STI is .02 g short of the Carrera S.

These numbers are impressive for any Porsche competitor. Consider, though, that the STI is a $37,000 car, and those numbers become mind-boggling.

Highs

  • Rumbly exhaust note, even at idle
  • Rapid-fire acceleration
  • Fade-free Brembo brakes
  • Stiff suspension

Lows

  • Excessive interior road noise
  • Kidney-kicking suspension
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