The WRX STI wasn't an instant hit in its later years. But it's a performance bargain in 2021
By Tony Middlehurst / Friday, January 15, 2021 / Loading comments
- Available for less than £11,000
- 2.5-litre flat-four single turbo, all-wheel drive
- 300bhp standard, 400hp in the Cosworth model
- Interior quality not up to the best Euro standards
- Running costs might sting a bit
- Driven correctly, it should be very reliable
Search for a used Impreza WRX STi here
You wouldn’t want to see the letters ‘STI’ on a doctor's note, but anyone with functioning blood in their veins would always want to see them on the back of a Subaru Impreza.
In the first part of this century the STi and WRX acronyms became accepted shorthand for cars that, in either rally or road spec, were hugely adept on B-roads, back roads, or just bloody quick roads. It was a classic case of racing improving the breed. Subaru had been dabbling in rallying since 1980, but their effort ramped up massively in 1988 when Subaru Tecnica International was formed, followed a year later by the handing over of the factory’s sporting operation to Banbury-based motorsports specialists Prodrive. The unique power characteristics and low centre of gravity of the Impreza’s 2.0 turbocharged flat-four ‘boxer’ engine, Subaru’s fine all-wheel drive system and the 1991 signing of Colin McRae for driving duties were the final pieces in a jigsaw that brought three Driver and three Constructor trophies to the Japanese firm’s boardroom table between 1995 and 2003.
The first WRX (World Rally eXperimental) car dates back to 1992, with the first STi arriving two years after that as a kind of road-legal version of the 555 Impreza rally car. It had forged pistons, a more efficient intercooler, a stronger drivetrain and some carbonfibre suspension components. The 40th anniversary 22B STi of 1998 is probably the most sought after gen-one special edition. 400 (or is it 424?) of these 2.2-litre widebody cars were built, and today you’ll pay at least £100k for a vaguely decent one. Last year, a delivery-mileage example was put up for £295,000.
The second-generation WRX carried on riding the rally wave for Subaru dealers, starting in 2000 with the ‘bug eye’, then the less visually challenging ‘blob eye’ of mid-2003 and ending with the ‘hawkeye’ of 2005. The sportier STi version of this gen-two car generated 281hp or 316hp in the 500 WR1 limited editions that were built to celebrate Petter Sollberg’s 2003 WRC title.
In 2008, Subaru pulled out of the World Rally Championship. The homologation rationale that had kicked off the creation of the WRX project no longer applied and from that point on the writing was on the wall for the road cars. The third-generation WRX had been released a year earlier to much controversy, mainly because of its styling. The 4-door saloon did have some of the Mitsubishi Evo’s toughness about it, but the 5-door hatch looked a bit sad, like a 1 Series that had been out in the sun for too long. Although the gen-three Impreza was discontinued in 2011 and replaced by the gen-four in 2012, both the WRX and STi stuck with the gen-three chassis until 2014.
You’d actually be forgiven for wondering whether the hatch and saloon were designed by the same company, let alone the same team, but both cars delivered 0-62mph times of 5.2sec (with some hotshoe sources claiming 4.8sec). The UK prices for both bodystyles were also identical at £31,150 and the claimed weights were the same too at 1,505kg, quite a bit more than the 1,120kg of the original Impreza Turbo. The 158mph saloon was 3mph faster than the hatch. If you wanted more factory horsepower, the STi could be turned into a 335HP 340R for £1,700. A collaboration with Cosworth produced the 395hp STi CS400 which chomped through the 0-62mph run in just 3.7sec.
At the end of 2012 Subaru announced that sales of the gen-three WRX STi and Impreza would finish in 2013 due to lack of demand. As the fourth generation WRX and STi were revealed at the January 2014 Detroit motor show (the Impreza name having been dropped), Subaru UK announced that the new model would go on sale in the UK from summer 2014 at £28,995. The WRX featured the twin-scroll 2.0 boxer engine used in the BRZ and Toyota GT86, while the STi continued with the old 296hp 2.5-litre engine, stiffer suspension, 18in wheels, an electronic DCCD centre diff and a classier interior to address some of the complaints aimed at previous high-end Imprezas. A four-door saloon was the only body shape.
In 2017 it was announced that the WRX STi was going to be axed from the UK market. A Final Edition car was launched in early 2018 to commemorate the moment. Its wheels were enlarged to 19in, it had stronger brakes, and the interior was spruced up to something nearer the level you’d expect from a £34k car. Inside there were heated seats, a bigger media screen with a reversing camera and a digital radio. 150 Final Editions were brought into the UK.
Today, although the boxer engine lives on in the company’s SUV range, the only sports car you’ll find on the Subaru UK website is the BRZ coupe. As we reported last November, the 2021 version of that car is unlikely to be sold here because Subaru’s range-wide CO2 average won’t support it in the same way that Toyota’s range can tolerate the next GT86.
If you like the idea of a sporty Scooby but don’t have the money or inclination to go for an early gen one or two, we reckon the 2008-on gen-three/gen-four Impreza WRX STi is a very interesting option for the sporting driver who also requires an element of practicality. They aren't for everybody, but they score on reliability, left-field appeal and affordability, with prices starting from under £11,000. That’s the car we’ll be looking at today.
SPECIFICATION | SUBARU IMPREZA WRX STI (gen-three/four)
Engine: 2,457cc, flat-four, turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],000rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],000rpm
0-62mph: 5.2 secs
Top speed: 158mph (saloon), 155mph (hatch)
MPG (official combined): 27.4
Wheels: 8 x 17in
On sale: 2008 – 2015
Price new: £28,000
Price now: from £11,000
Note for reference: car weight and power data is hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it’s wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
The STi’s aluminium 2.5-litre quad cam 16-valve EJ25 flat four has variable valve timing and one turbo running quite high boost. Its liking for revs plus the effects of lowish gearing and high tyre noise make it pretty noisy on the motorway. The distinctive woofle of old is not so prominent through the gen-three’s more evenly proportioned exhausts, but there’s still plenty of character and response through the range from the initial gust at 2,500rpm, and the fun doesn’t pall as you approach the 7,000rpm redline.
In the US, owners of 2009-14 Impreza WRX and WRX STI models launched a class-action lawsuit against Subaru, alleging overheating damage to the pistons and PCV (positive crankcase ventilation) systems, with cylinder no 4 being the worst affected and metal debris being carried through the engine by contaminated oil. Some say that this piston ‘ringland’ problem may have been overstated in terms of the number of cars that suffered from it. If it did happen it would tend to be at around 3,500rpm when the turbo was boosting hard and the engine was running lean at wide-open throttle settings.
Some owners recommend not booting the engine at low rpm in higher gears, only going for WOT when you’re at the right revs, and only using high octane petrol. Others counsel the use of an oil catch can, or even tuning the car to stage 1. Whatever, it’s good practice generally to refresh the oil and filters every 5,000 miles with genuine items. Make sure the spark plugs are in good nick too. If you’re thinking of buying a car, get a compression test done.
We talked earlier about getting extra factory power from this engine. Doing it yourself is a riskier route especially if you don’t remap it after any mods. As ever, temperature control is critical on tuned turbo motors. For the gen-three STi a performance top mount intercooler kit (TMIC) from the likes of Mishimoto will deliver a 10 deg F temperature drop over stock for just under £600.
The closely-stacked six-speed manual gearbox is what you want for the best fun on the road (no automatic was offered), but some might consider the agreeably short shift action to be unduly heavy and notchy, especially before normal operating temperatures are reached. Power reaches all four wheels by way of a four-mode (including fully locked) Driver Controlled Centre Differential and a mechanical Torsen diff. Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive is a neat system in that, unlike most part-time AWD designs, it’s always delivering torque to the front and rear wheels, the default being 41 percent to the fronts and 59 to the rears. That cuts out the split-second delay between the part-time car hitting a slippery patch and responding to it. SAWD-equipped cars will generally use more fuel than a part-timer though. Talking of which, treating the 27mpg official fuel consumption as an accurate real-world average would be a mistake if you intend to drive the car in the correct manner, when you’ll be stopping every 250 miles or so for a top-up.
If the clutch pedal is squeaking take it to a dealer as it may be the early stages of spot weld failure on the pedal assembly and/or firewall. Clutch and throwout bearing issues are not unknown on Subarus. Gears that grind unless you hold in the clutch and let the revs drop between changes is a warning sign. The WRX’s five-speed box is more problematic than the STi’s six-speeder.
There’s very little to criticise in the gen-three’s McPherson strut/multi-link rear chassis. The STi has intelligent all-wheel-drive (SI-DRIVE) to provide adjustability for throttle, gearbox and suspension and give the sort of clawing grip that you’ll struggle to believe in the wet or on jittery roads. Commit to what your mind is labelling impossible and you’ll be amazed.
Sweet feedback from the nicely-geared (but sometimes noisy) steering adds to the pleasure of being able to place the car exactly where you want it. Switch off the two-mode stability control and predictable oversteer is your reward. Good drivers in diver’s boot mode can emulate Chris Harris but it’s best to keep that sort of thing for private tracks.
STi braking is very powerful via Brembo ventilated discs and four-pot calipers, though some owners have experienced pulsing and there was a master cylinder recall in 2012 but that affected 3,000 Subarus across the Impreza, Legacy and Outback ranges. There have also been incidents of WRX/STi owners having to press overly hard on the brake pedal to disengage the cruise control. This is usually down to a brake sensor needing to be reset.
Ride is softer than that of earlier generation WRXs, the extra weight being carried gives the gen-three a clumsier feel than the old cars had. Even so, it’s still pretty rigid. Much stiffer and the lenses would be falling out of your specs. In standard trim you’ll want to avoid bigger or even medium-sized potholes.
Doors have a reputation for being a bit ‘chattery’. Ironically this is usually caused by a plastic doohickey they put in there to stop the doors rattling. Your local dealer should be able to fix this in less than 20 minutes. There was one report of the rear wing blowing off but that turned out to have been down to an aftermarket fitting guy forgetting to put the bolts back onto the four posts after installing something else in that area of the car. You want to keep the wing if at all possible as it does play a big part in keeping the car on the ground.
Deleting the daytime running lights is a popular alteration. So is fitting mudflaps to protect the thinnish paint. There was a tech service bulletin for a headlight wiring issue but few if any owners seem to have experienced it. The base Impreza scored four out of five on the Euro NCAP crash test.
There was a fair bit of moaning about the design and quality of the materials on display in the gen-three car’s cabin. The cheap switchgear, old-fashioned clocks and plastic trim pieces pretending to be metal made much cheaper cars like the Ford Focus ST and Vauxhall Astra VXR look positively luxurious.
On the positive side it’s all perfectly functional. There’s only a slight pedal offset to mar the otherwise good driving position, and driver information is easy to access. The part-leather Recaro seats are superb, though they do cut into the leg space available for rear passengers. Folding down the rear seats in the 5-door hatch frees up more than 1,200 litres of cargo space.
Dash lights such as the Hill Assist warning light have been known to come on, but not always for an obvious reason. Sometimes a check engine light will be traceable to a ‘too rich’ fuel mix code. That usually turns out to be an open circuit in the emission control system that can be sorted by a simple reset. Subaru air conditioning units can give problems if O-rings fail.
The rear shelf in the hatch may make itself heard but as with the noisy doors a knowledgeable dealer will have an easy fix for it. Door speakers rattle too, but depending on the frequency that noise might be better than the correct sound coming from the poor audio.
Owners of banged-up gen one and gen two Impreza WRXs and STis were routinely caricatured as tenement skidders or ram raiders, but it shouldn’t be forgotten just how great these cars were. Serious money was needed to buy the models that were worth having. Even now, late low-mileage cars go for £35,000 and more and 22Bs are on another level altogether.
Externally at least the gen-three STi was a very different proposition to its predecessors. Subaru tried to give the car a more modern, everyman appeal, but in a world that was also inhabited by the 20bhp more powerful, £3,000 cheaper and considerably higher quality BMW M135i it looked vulnerable and bordering on obsolete, especially on the inside. Costs for taxation (£815 in the first year), insurance and fuelling were additional demerits.
For a relatively old tech car costing well over £30,000 new these problems eventually turned out to be insurmountable, but the situation is different now for used gen-three and gen-four STis. Although you won't escape the high running costs, you will have an access-all-areas pass to the character and heritage of that amazing flat four engine for around a third of the new price. We’ve seen high-milers at under £11k and one privately owned and very clean 2010 hatch that had only just passed the 60,000 mile mark at a highly tempting £10,500.
You can either enjoy the more than ample performance as it stands or lift it to genuine sports car levels knowing that the fine all-wheel drive chassis will still do a very good job of keeping you between the hedges. Just be careful how you go about any tuning. Subaru is strongly associated with engineering quality, a reputation borne out by the absence of much in the way of major or even minor problems with this car, and there’s an excellent dealer network in the UK there as a backup, but there can be problems with incorrectly modded engines. A properly done stage 1 tune will give you pretty much everything you might need.
Choosing a 2008-on STi will to some extent boil down to your opinion on how it looks, your ability to look past its interior shortcomings, and your willingness to keep paying the running costs. If you tick all those boxes, here are three cars from the PH Classifieds that might tickle your fancy.
First up is this 2015 gen-four saloon. It’s done 25,000 miles and looks the part in in classic WRC blue with leather and Alcantara upholstery. Take it away for £21,450. Here’s a CS400 Cosworth gen-three hatch from 2010. With 43,000 miles and a full service history, it will show you what happens when a verified 395hp hits the deck. Yours for £27,350. Finally, this 2015 gen-four STi four-door with 24,000 miles and a full service history might benefit from some better tyres but it’s under £18k and it does come with the rare and very useful sounding extra of lunch control.
Search for a used Impreza WRX STi here
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