Review: 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX STI
By Kevin Miller
Once upon a time, Subaru was known for making durable, reliable, and unexciting front- and four-wheel drive passenger cars and wagons. Featuring horizontally-opposed four cylinder engines and manual engagement of the rear wheels on 4WD models, the cars were rudimentary but functional and the earned a reputation in the Northwest and Northeast US. Then Subaru began its involvement in the World Rally Championship (WRC) series, and some of those boring cars began to get much more exciting, boasting sophisticated full-time all-wheel drive systems, turbochargers, and suspensions that handled very well.
It was the company’s WRC participation that caused the Impreza WRX, and later the WRX STI, to come in to existence, initially as homologated production versions of the company’s race cars. While Subaru is unfortunately no longer involved in WRC, the hot WRX and even-hotter STI developed a strong following, and still exist today as a legacy of Subaru’s time in the WRC.
For 2011, Subaru once again offers the STI in a sedan version (since the debut of the current-generation car, the STI was available only in five-door guise). The 2011 STI features major chassis upgrades with higher spring rates, thicker stabilizer bars, and new bushings. Styling at the front of the car is revised, and lighter-weight 18” wheels are fitted. At the rear, quad tailpipes and a large new spoiler (tall enough that it doesn’t block the view out the rearview mirror) enhance the appearance of Subaru’s performance flagship.
Looking at the STI from afar (or next to a basic Impreza), the swollen front and rear fenders which contain the WRX and STI’s wider track are clearly evident, as they eventually join the doors which are shared with the basic Impreza.
Inside, the 2011 STI features a new audio system with available navigation headunit and iPod/USB interface, and also features standard heated front seats, side mirrors, and windshield wiper de-icer. Seats in the STI are tall, deeply bolstered racing-style buckets. I found the seats to be comfortable for drives as long as 90 minutes, and their Alcantara seating surfaces hold occupants in place well, though the large bolsters don’t hug the driver quite as tightly as those found in the STI’s arch-nemesis, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.
While all of the above addresses the STI’s appearance, it’s the drivetrain technology that is truly impressive. The car features a 2.5 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, six-speed manual transmission (with incredibly short throws), and an all-wheel drive system with DCCD (Driver Control Center Differential) featuring three performance modes and six driver-selectable differential-locking settings, mechanical and electronically controlled limited-slip center differential, helical limited-slip front differential and TORSEN limited-slip rear differential. The car also features vehicle dynamic control (VDC) with stability, traction control, and yaw sensor. Finally, there is a Brembo performance braking system for when it’s time to bring the fun to a quick halt.
The DCCD control looks like a miniature BMW iDrive controller, except that it instead controls the STI’s differential and throttle response programming. In Intelligent mode, the car chooses the settings based on driver input. In Sport mode, it follows a fixed program. Finally, in Sport Sharp (S#) mode it adjusts throttle mapping to make the engine even more responsive; in S# mode, the car is notably quicker.
Inside of the car, the charcoal-colored Alcantara-and-leather seats with red stitching are in line with the car’s speed-racer persona, but everything else in the car shouts out the Impreza’s economy-car roots. Low-gloss hard plastic is everywhere: on the dashboard, doors, and console, most of it charcoal colored, with some silver-painted bezels. Only the red-stitched padded elbow rests on the inside of the doors break up the interior’s hard plastic. The low-pile carpet and headliner are also charcoal colored, leading to a somber interior ambiance which is broken up by a large collection of STI emblems (located on the frond door sill plates, tachometer, seatbacks, console, and steering wheel). The steering wheel is adjustable for rake and reach, which allowed me to find a comfortable position behind the wheel. There is plenty of interior storage too: a cubby at the bottom of the center stack, a relatively large console between the front seats (where the USB connector and a 12-volt outlet are located), wide door bins with molded-in bottle holders, and pockets on each of the front seatbacks.
Through the top of the leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel, attractive black-faced gauges with red text and white needles are clearly visible. The centrally-located tachometer is the largest instrument; the speedometer is smaller and located to the right of the tach. On the left side are fuel and temperature gauges, but there is no turbo boost gauge. There is, however, a shift-up indicator lamp and buzzer, which provides a true rally-car feel during the daily stoplight-to-stoplight grind.
The DVD-based navigation head unit is a double-DIN sized touchscreen device which will accept a single CD. My pre-production model lacked the iPod/USB interface which is to be standard on 2011 Impreza WRX STI models. Unfortunately, the tiny buttons along each side of the head unit have even tinier lettering for the legends, and the control logic was far from straightforward. The unit does feature Bluetooth telephone connectivity, and it is possible to turn off the display whether or not audio or navigation system is in use. Unfortunately, if the screen is turned off and a call comes in, there is no way to answer that phone call. Perhaps this is intentional to keep the driver’s focus on, you know, driving.
Turning the key in the column-mounted ignition (no keyless entry or starting is availalbe in the Impreza line), the boxer four rumbles to life and the interior is immediately filled with a boisterous exhaust burble. Slotting the short-throw gearshift into first gear and setting off, the characteristic sounds of a horizontally-opposed four cylinder and Subaru gear whine fill the cabin. The powertrain noises are very mechanical, bordering on agricultural-sounding. In fact, they’re not unlike the sounds of a 1990 Legacy AWD with manual transmission that my brother owned a decade earlier. Driving over gravel, pine needles, or on a wet road, you can hear literally every pebble that hits the underside of the car. It seems as if there is no sound insulation used whatsoever.
The STI’s economy car roots are also evident in the thin gauge of sheetmetal and thin window glass used. Still, it does boast some nice features. The STI has a single-zone electronic climate control system, which effectively manages airflow and temperature in the car. Front seats are heated, and there are nice-looking blinkers are on the mirror housings. Too, the car has very bright, effective Xenon headlamps, though level adjustment for those lamps is manual rather than automatic.
The back seat benefits from the same Alcantara and leather (or is it vinyl?) with red stitching as is used up front. Velcro flaps cover the lower LATCH points for car seat attachment, making those anchors easy to find. I’m six-four, and there was not enough room in the Impreza to “sit behind myself,” though my five-year old in her booster seat had adequate space back there, and the vinyl upholstery on the front seatbacks cleans up easily enough from and shoe scuffs she might provide. The back seat passengers can fold down an armrest, and they’ve got a double cupholder that folds out of the center console between the front seats.
Out back, the trunk opening under the huge rear wing is barely large enough to fit my large equipment case- the case scraped and had to be forced in to the trunk opening. The trunk floor is only flat inside of the opening, then goes “uphill” as it approaches the back seat, likely to accommodate the car’s all wheel drive hardware. The back seat does fold forward in a 40/60 split to increase luggage space.
Getting underway smoothly in the STI can be a bit of a challenge, as the clutch has a relatively narrow friction point; more often than not I lurched away from a stop. Erring on the side of too much throttle in the wet produced entertaining wheelspin; too little throttle easily stalled the engine. The car does have a hill-holder system which is quite helpful when starting off on an incline. Once in motion, turbo lag is not noticeable, but turbo boost is, as the tach needles sweeps quickly up between 3000 and 6000 RPM, the accelerative rush running out of breath as the 7000 RPM redline approaches. At speeds between 40 and 60 MPH on the freeway, you’ll have to work the gearbox for acceleration, downshifting from sixth to third gear to get meaningful torque to scoot forward.
Steering feel in the STI is pretty good, though it lacks the razor precision and telepathic communication of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution; the performance tires fitted did tend to wander on grooved pavement. The chassis and AWD system are incredibly well balanced; I was able to four-wheel-power-drift my way around corners in heavy rain looking like a professional Finnish rally driver rather than the ham-fisted punter I actually am. In dry conditions, the amounts of grip and go are borderline indecent. That being said, the ride straddles the line between “really firm” and “harsh.” On poor pavement, the ride can be nearly punishing, though the cabin doesn’t rattle even in that circumstance.
The Impreza WRX STI is rated 17/23 MPG by the EPA on premium unleaded gasoline. During my week with the car, I traveled about 300 miles (a pretty even mix of balls-out stoplight-to-stoplight driving, and steady 70 MPH freeway travel) and and got an average of 19.2 MPG according to the car’s trip computer. The low-fuel warning lamp illuminated after 275 miles, and I added a few gallons but didn’t fill the tank, which would have allowed me to calculate fuel consumption myself.
While the Impreza WRX STI shares its basic layout with the $17,495 Impreza, the 4-door STI has a starting MSRP of $33,995. Including the $725 destination fee, the price is $34,720, which is approximately double the price of the aforementioned entry-level Impreza. For that price premium, you get a lot of sophisticated hardware and a car with dramatically upgraded performance over the base car; in fact, the STI can out-accelerate and out-handle most new cars sold today. Within that price premium, you’re also paying for Subaru’s pedigree in WRC racing. Is it worth it? I’d say yes, though it totally depends on your point of view. The WRX STI’s drivetrain incorporates some amazing go-fast technology. In this category, I thought the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR was a bit more sharply-focused driver’s car; compares the two cars based on price and feature content, and gives the WRX STI a mere $219 price advantage. While the Subaru has slight comfort and usability advantages over the Lancer GSR (thanks to slightly wider front seats and folding rear seats to expand cargo space), the choice really comes down to the buyer’s personal preference after driving both cars; either way you’re in for an amazingly involving, enjoyable drive.