2013 Subaru WRX STI Road Test

The 2013 Subaru WRX STI is among the fastest, funnest cars on the road, but can you live with it?

What It Is
Hyper-aggressive, show-and-go sport sedan
Best Thing
Among the quickest, most fun cars on the road at any price
Worst Thing
Noisy, low-rent interior is bogey for the course
Snap Judgment
If you can live with it, you'll want it


The Subaru Impreza WRX STI will matter for as long as there exists pre-pubescent boys and the hyper exotic race cars they dream of. It's not a slight to the exotics that a consumer today can buy hyper car performance--and a semblance of practicality--for a fraction of the exotic's cost. Which brings us to Subaru and its WRX STI.

But first, some background: WRX STI is the faster version of the WRX, itself the faster version of the base Impreza, Subaru's compact sedan. "STI" stands for Subaru Tecnica International, Subaru's in-house tuner, similar to AMG for Mercedes-Benz, or M for BMW; WRX stands for World Rally Experimental. The WRX--and the WRX STI--were hopped up versions of the otherwise sedate-performing Impreza compact sedan, but equipped for purchase by race teams and enthusiast consumers with aspirations for either road racing, or the World Rally Championship.

The premise was simple: make an already affordable car faster and more fun for not a whole lot of extra money. Though the Subaru Impreza WRX STI didn't arrive in America until 2004, we saw a similar sport compact phenomenon in the late 80s and early 90s; just think of all those obnoxiously loud Honda Civics that once polluted the streets. That scene birthed what is now a multi-billion dollar aftermarket industry, which brings us back to pre-pubescent boys, and the STI.

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Like many young, American males, my first exposure to the STI was a result of Gran Turismo on the original Sony Playstation video game console. The Impreza WRX STI was a lightweight, all-wheel drive, turbocharged monster of a streetcar that had no problem beating exotic racecars on real world racetracks. Yes, it was just a video game, but a lifelike game that mimicked real world driving mechanics. It wasn't long until Subaru--and other manufacturers as a result of Gran Turismo--brought their newfound video game stars to a frothing American automotive enthusiast audience.

That was 2001, for model year 2002 (WRX only), and 12 years later, the 2013 Subaru WRX STI is entering the end of its third-generation lifespan, in anticipation of a much-hyped successor. That's plenty reason enough for us to find out, just how livable is Subaru's beloved boy racer?

What We Drove

We asked Subaru's fleet company for an STI, and they gave us a 2013 Subaru WRX STI Special Edition, decked in a Tangerine Orange Pearl paint scheme, just one of 100 models produced. The WRX STI Special Edition is essentially the WRX STI sedan base model, but with the $500 additional Special Edition trim. Our WRX STI Special Edition has an as-tested $34,795 price.

The STI is equipped with Subaru's famous 305-hp, 2.5-liter turbocharged, flat-4 engine, a six-speed manual transmission with symmetrical all-wheel drive, a multi-mode Driver-Controlled Center Differential (DCCD), Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC), and Subaru's SI-Drive select modes, all of which are explained in more detail below. The WRX STI Special Edition also includes custom interior and exterior touches, and larger fog lamps.

Subarus generally perform well in crash tests--especially in rollover tests--but NHTSA and IIHS have very little public data on the 2013 WRX STI. To date, the WRX STI has received a four-star rating in NHTSA's revised rollover crash test, down from 5 stars the previous year. Other safety equipment includes standard traction control, brake assist, front-seat pelvis/torso and side curtain airbags (in addition to the usual front airbags).

The WRX STI Special Edition is also equipped with Brembo brakes, a sport tuned suspension, BBS aluminum alloy wheels, and bare-bones Bluetooth phone and audio controls.

The Commute

Whether the 2013 Subaru WRX STI is a good commuter car is completely dependent on what you're willing to put up with: the STI is noisy, bumpy, stiff, and not very fuel-efficient. But there are some people--like this guy right here--who are OK with that.

First the seats. They're insufferably stiff, but awesomely supportive. The seats serve a purpose, and they work wonderfully to that end. But if you're not racing, do you need them? Do you want them? Most of the Automotive.com staff, and most buyers in general, would say no. But the STI isn't for those people.

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Next the noise. The STI is loud. To keep weight down (for performance), there's very little sound deadening. That means you hear a lot of exhaust rumble, wind noise, road noise, and tire noise from uneven paved surfaces, bumps, holes, and dips. And if it matters to you like it does for me, the standard audio system is lousy. I can usually put up with a noisy car by overpowering that noise with loud music. Not so in the STI (a simple factory fix is to upgrade to premium audio).

Also, the STI is faaaast, but it isn't very fuel-efficient. I drove the STI uncharacteristically easy and barely sniffed 24-mpg highway. By the time the rest of our staff had their way with it, our combined mileage was south of 20 mpg. But no one buys an STI because of its fuel economy. It's a performance car, and that would be stupid.

But keep this in mind: The WRX STI was never intended to be plush, soft, quiet, or economical. Those things are antithetical to the idea of performance. For the people who care about those driving attributes, the 2013 Subaru Impreza is a perfectly ordinary and capable compact sedan. The STI, on the other hand, is strictly for the enthusiast, the kind of driver who takes pride in what he or she drives, the kind of driver who enjoys a spirited drive--all the time.

The Grocery Run

Considering its humble roots, it's no surprise that the WRX STI can do a grocery run. There's a surprisingly cavernous trunk under the massive wing, and our highly scientific evaluations revealed that one could fit 15 grocery bags into it. If you use the same Britax stroller that we used, you could fit the stroller and nine grocery bags. Very impressive, considering the STI's awkward trunk shape.

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Usually when we write about sports cars, we knock them for being impractical. But the WRX STI has four doors, which means you could put kids in it, like I did. My son has a Recaro booster seat, and it fit perfectly into the backseat, as if it was carved for a Recaro. My younger daughter has a different brand seat that uses LATCH. Subaru vehicles are consistently among the easiest LATCH points to secure safely and confidently. For what it's worth, my children loved the boomy, loud exhaust while driving with the windows down.

As for the STI itself, it's definitely the late night, blast around town kind of grocery getter. Maybe the wife is craving ice cream, you're craving a six-pack, or you just want to get out to blow some steam. This is, after all, a 305 horsepower compact sedan, the kind of car you use to take the long way home.

The Weekend Fun

I wish I could say that I drove somewhere epically and awesomely gnarly to test the STI's fire breathing acceleration and road holding prowess, but I did not. In fact, I merely lived with it. I drove it around town like I was trying to avoid the police (it's not just orange, it's ORANGE!), and I drove it on the highway curious to see how high the fuel mileage gauge would go.

That's not very exciting. Bad Jason. Very bad Jason.

But there's a reason why I drove this way. I wanted to know if it was possible to enjoy driving a car that's meant to be driven flat-out all the time the same way I'd drive anything else, or if it was only rewarding at full effort. The reality is that most people--even enthusiasts--will not drive on a racetrack.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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We already know that the STI is capable of freeway speeds in about 5 seconds, give or take a few tenths. We already know that it's one of the very best handling cars on the road, and that its giant Brembo brakes are very good at stopping. This is not news, and it is, in fact, what STI owners expect.

But then there's the other stuff that you pay for, like the very technical electronic gadgets. Are they worth the price for admission? For even regular drivers who will never sniff an autocross event?

Driver Controlled Center Differential allows the driver to specify where the majority of the engine's power should go. Even though the STI is all-wheel drive, it's not divided evenly between the front and rear wheels. Although the DCCD can output engine power 50-percent to the front wheels and 50-percent to the rear wheels, it also allows drivers to divert more power to the rear wheels, particularly useful on racetracks. Vehicle Dynamics Control is a button that allows the driver to shuffle through turning on and off various settings like stability and traction control, and hill start assist; again, racetrack stuff. Subaru Intelligent Drive tames or radicalizes the engine response according to the drive conditions. There's Intelligent for gentle driving, snow and ice conditions, and maximum fuel efficiency, and a Sport# (Sport Sharp) for maximum engine and transmission response. There's also a Sport setting between the two, which we simply clicked past on our way to Intelligent or Sport#.

And yep, we can validate that the STI is very good at being fun. DCCD is a neat trick that is almost useless on real roads for real people--but awesome on racetracks for professionals--and let's be honest, it's best that every driver on public roads leave VDC on its safest setting anyway. As for the SI-Drive, Intelligent does a great job at taming the hyper-aggressive, peaky turbocharger boost and sharp shift points, enough so that, minus the stiffened suspension settings, the STI drives almost casually. On a fresh tank of gas with 150+ miles of highway driving, I drove highway speeds to 24.2 mpg--better than the EPA's 23-mpg estimate. Set to Sport#, the STI awakens as if your ears have become unplugged and the world around you is suddenly bristling with life. It's noisier, faster, sharper, jerkier, rawer, and an absolute blast to drive.

When you mash the pedal, the turbo whooshes to life. Power is quick and early in the rpm range without the typical lag of larger turbos. Effortless power at your disposal enables adrenalized lane changes, merges, and passings. The Brembo brakes clamp with confidence-inspiring force, and the steering feels communicable in your hands in a civil, sure-footed and direct way. Twenty years ago, this kind of performance began at $50,000--with none of the STI's compact sedan practicality.

Summary

This review began with the notion that this type of car still matters, that there is still space in the current automotive landscape for an over-engineered, go-fast version of an ordinary compact sedan. Though the Subaru WRX STI has long been a co-ruler in the sport compact segment, it now faces classier, less-expensive competition from Mazda, Hyundai, and now Ford. And while there was a time not long ago that the STI could overpower weaker muscle cars, that's no longer the case.

So, for just under $35,000 (and you could spend more for an STI Limited), you get a specialized machine that most people will find too harsh, too extreme, not very good looking, and is outclassed--but not out-gunned--by slower rivals, and for a lot less money.

We know the STI's strengths: class-leading safety, class-leading all-wheel drive performance, class-leading power and acceleration, braking and handling, and a surprising amount of grocery- and kid-carrying space. Even better if you opt for the non-Special Edition STI five-door hatchback. But in either case, you're left with an interior flushed with functional and ergonomic materials and controls that are distractingly low grade, and an everyday ride that, while fun, is expensive to fuel, and a little jarring to drive.

If money is the main obstacle to one's hesitation to the STI, and if all you want is the best performance available, there is a solution: The Subaru WRX and WRX Special Edition offer almost all of the above, but for $6,000 less. What do you forfeit? DCCD, the huge wing, the Brembo brakes, some horsepower, and a five-speed manual transmission instead of a six speed. The upside is that the lighter WRX is actually quicker from a standstill to 60 mph, with the sprint taking only a blistering 4.7 seconds.

Of course, there are some, like me, to whom none of this matters. And there are many, like me, who do not view the STI for what it is, but for what it can become. These are the people for whom Subaru builds the STI. We don't care about the road noise, the tire noise, or the non-premium interior. We often make our Subaru's lower, stiffer, noisier, and a whole lot faster. Just as we did in Gran Turismo.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $34,795
Fuel Economy:
EPA City: 17
EPA Highway: 23
EPA Combined: 19
Cargo Space: 15 grocery bags/9 grocery bags with stroller
Child Seat Fitment, Second Row: Excellent
Estimated Theoretical Range: 389
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Excellent

Notebook Quotes

"Maybe I'm too old to think that $36,000 for a fast version of a car that usually costs half that much is a good idea. Maybe it's because this particular Impreza never imprezzed me much. But whatever it is, this STI just doesn't boil my potatoes as a daily driver. But I can't deny that it's fun. I've driven these on tracks and on my favorite roads, and believe me, they're a boatload of joy. The steering is light and sharp, the chassis responds well, the brakes are strong, and the engine is as strong as it is funny sounding. Put it all together--and remember to hit S#--and you have a tossable, relatively lightweight all-wheel drive pile of pumpkin orange awesomeness to whip around town or the track." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director
"This car is a little antiquated, and it's garish. It isn't as good of a sports car as the Evo, but it's far more livable." -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor

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