I’ve been accused of being a little mean to Subaru. For a bit of backstory, I used to own a 2011 WRX, that I got bored of and traded for a Mini Cooper S, much to the outrage of the local “Subaru Syndicate”. Yes, that’s a real thing. Now, as much fun as the WRX could be in the right conditions, it rarely dazzled me on the road. The qualities that made it such a beast in the dirt and gravel made it sloppy on the road. I always thought the steering was a little numb, the turn-in was a bit vague, the engine was a bit lazy, and the shifter was a bit fucking horrendous.
So when an old coworker of mine reached out regarding his tuned 2006 STI and said I could have a go, I was intrigued. I had gotten rid of my Subaru before modifying it, so I’d never gotten to experience the magic that Cobb Tuning could create. Also, maybe the extra goodness of the STI would had solved a lot of the issues of my WRX. Yes, it was an earlier generation, but Subaru isn’t exactly known for making drastic changes between model years. I had skipped out on buying an STI because the price premium was not worth the relatively minor horsepower increase.
Had I made a mistake?
This STI had a catless downpipe, as well as a tune, but was still running the stock catback exhaust. In the Subaru world, this counts as stock. It’s to the point where you almost expect to be handed a Cobb Accessport along with the owner’s manual right at the dealership. Similarly to Siobahn, the E30 track car, running a stock exhaust means you can have fun without making your neighbors hate you. Yes, loud exhausts are fun, but they drone on the highway, and cause everyone else in the neighborhood to despise you, and make unfavorable assumptions about your genitals.
Immediately, the STI felt like a more polished package than my WRX, even though it was five years older. The clutch was lighter, the steering was tighter, and the shifter was smoother. Well this was certainly unexpected. Everyone always talks about the horsepower difference between the two models, but manage to neglect all the other upgrades, except for the Brembos. Everybody has to mention the Brembos. Nevermind that 95% of owners will never push the WRX brakes to the point of failure, they’ve got that brand name on the caliper. That means it’s better. Not sure how, but better.
That’s not to say that the STI was perfect. The interior is very much a product of the time. Yards of hard, black plastic let you know you’re in a Japanese car from the early 2000s. But like Matt Farah says about the Mitsubishi Evolution, with these types of cars, you’re buying a $35,000 drivetrain, and getting an interior for free. It’s not a bad place to be by any stretch, and the seats are amazing…still, it does feel dated.
Once you’re out of traffic, and can start to let the big girl unwind, the differences are even more dramatic. Acceleration is strong, but not scary. There’s very little hesitation or lull in the powerband, just a nice, beefy mid-range. The gearing is a bit short, as I was routinely up in fourth gear while still on relatively tight roads. But the shifter is slick enough that it’s not an issue to bang between the gears. My tiny, ballerina feet had some issues with heel-toe downshifts, but I assume that’s more of a learning curve than anything. It’s probably easier if you’re built like an adult.
There was a minor issue with the return spring on the clutch pedal being a bit wonky. That meant that sometimes the pedal stayed stuck to the floor. Easily rectified if you just flick it back up with your toe after each shift, but mildly unnerving when you can’t find the clutch at 80mph. Again, this is a ten year old car with nearly 150,000 miles. Sometimes shit breaks.
Sometimes that shit breaking makes you poop your pants.
But, other than that minor setback, the STI was everything I wanted a Subaru to be. The entire package felt well sorted and fully fleshed out, whereas my WRX had always felt a bit cobbled together. This was my thought process up until we came upon a sharp dip in the road, and the STI nearly bottomed itself out. When I came back to that dip on the return pass, I had to slow way down to preserve the front bumper, and this was at stock ride height.
Having to slow for road imperfections? That wasn’t how I learned to drive a Subaru. As a wise man once said, “keep your foot in it, keep your nerves up, and trust the machine…Driving a WRX fast in the wild is surprisingly similar to driving a snowmobile: it’s never going entirely in a straight line.” The trick to driving a WRX quickly is to never lift. Let it walk around on you, and trust that it will come back. But that’s not how the STI drove. I was having to dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge my way around every pothole or bump.
Maybe this wasn’t the perfect iteration of the Impreza. Maybe the idea of a “perfect” car is a waste of time entirely. They each serve their purpose, as different as those may be. Sure, the WRX and STI are both based on the same economy car, but the actual driving dynamics are as different as can be. The WRX is better suited to sideways shenanigans in mud and gravel, whereas the STI is a much more precise weapon of asphalt aggression. Take either out of their element, and the experience is diminished. You need to view them within the proper context.
At the end of the day, I think I made the right call on buying the WRX over the STI. Yes, I had a lot of complaints about it, some of which the STI would have fixed, but on the right day, on the right road, there was nothing like it. The speed which it would carry over the most apocalyptic roads was just staggering every time. The STI is better in basically every measurable metric, but when you need to be an asshole and practice your third gear Scandinavian Flicks, the WRX soaks up abuse like none other.