Driven: 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX & WRX STI

Written by and Photography by Lee Bailie on .

2011_Subaru_WRX-STI_3 2011_Subaru_WRX-STI_5

Apparently forgetting one’s keys can yield unexpected benefits. Witness my recent attempt to return a 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX STI (black, pictured) to Subaru Canada after driving it for a week.

It wasn’t until I had arrived at Subaru’s suburban Toronto head office (late, I might add), and was about to transfer all of my junk back into my car that I realized I had left my keys at home.

A little redfaced and feeling completely embarrassed by my forgetfulness, I explained the situation to PR Coordinator Josh Sanders, hoping they would let me borrow a car (any car) just so I’d be able to get home. My expectations were quite low at this point.

After checking the fleet and getting the okay from his superiors, Josh produced the key for a 2011 Impreza WRX. I was relieved, and frankly a little shocked by my good fortune.

I profusely thanked Josh for allowing me to have the WRX for more than just overnight – I kept the car for five days, almost as long as I had the STI – and, thinking quickly, mentioned to him that because I was now going to drive the STI and the WRX back-to-back, I would turn the piece into a comparison of sorts, hence the double review.

These models, while they are variants of the same car and share many common parts and features, are markedly different in terms of driving dynamics, cost, and ultimately, intent.

2011 Subaru Impreza WRX STI

When I arrived to pick up the STI, Josh took the time to go over some of the car’s features, and answered some of my questions. At the end, he asked if I had ever driven an STI before (I hadn’t), and the question made me feel both excited and a little nervous.

As soon as I got behind the wheel and twisted the key, I knew why he had asked.

2011_Subaru_WRX-STI_4The loud, deep-bass rumble of the 2.5 litre turbocharged and intercooled 4 cylinder Boxer engine served as fair warning that this was no ordinary compact car. As I put the car into gear and started to move through the parking lot, I started to feel a bit like a teenager that had just scored Dad’s hotrod on a Saturday night.

At low speeds, the STI snorts and snarls as gears are engaged and the pace quickens. Not used to driving such a knife-edged performance machine, it took me a while to get a feel for the clutch, but by the time I returned to the office, I felt comfortable with it.

At highway speed, this car is really in its element, especially when the driver wishes to negotiate around and through slower traffic. The STI’s nimble reflexes combined with its 305 horsepower engine with 290 lbs.-ft. of torque enabled me to zip through mid-afternoon traffic with ease. Once the turbo kicks in, it feels a little like you’re piloting one of those souped-up race cars in a video game like Gran Turismo 5.

For 2011, Subaru has given all WRX and STI models a new wide-body design, which has widened the car’s stance (35 mm in front, 40 mm in the rear). Accompanying the wider track are bulging fenders that house some pretty aggressive rolling gear on the STI: 18” Enkei cast aluminum wheels wrapped in 245/45R18 Dunlop SP 600 tires.

The STI has also received a redesigned front bumper and grille, a revised suspension with thicker front and rear anti-roll bars, firmer front and rear spring rates and a lowered ride height.

Finally, to complete the full-on performance look, the STI features a hood scoop to feed air into the intercooler and a large, but functional, rear wing.

Since this is the top-of-the-line Impreza, it is absolutely jammed with Subaru’s best rally-inspired gadgetry, from different driving modes to a fancy high-pressure turbo, an adjustable differential and – of course – symmetrical all-wheel drive. All of this gear is standard issue on the STI.
2011_Subaru_WRX-STIMy tester also came with the optional ($3,600) Sport-tech package which includes a whole slew of techno-goodies, among them a power tilting and sliding glass sunroof, Xenon high intensity discharge (HID) headlights, automatic climate controls, a Pioneer in-dash navigation/stereo system with detachable touchscreen and SD card, mirror-integrated LED turn signals and fog lights

Inside, the interior is both comfortable and well-appointed. The heated seats are the performance bucket variety, covered in rich suede-like Alcantara with leather trim and red STI stitching in the head rests. I found them to be both comfortable and well-suited for keeping the driver planted during more aggressive driving. The steering wheel and shifter are both wrapped in leather, and had a nice solid, tactile feel.

Not surprisingly, an orangey-red is the predominant lighting colour, and it is used liberally everywhere: to backlight the main instrument cluster, the centre stack and every other assorted switch and knob throughout the cabin. Even the storage bin underneath the climate controls radiates a reddish glow.

To me, the layout of the STI’s controls and switches were quite intuitive and they were all easy to use. Kudos to Subaru for giving a car loaded with technological wizardry a mercifully straightforward and user-friendly interior environment. While the look and feel of the interior was befitting of a $40,000 plus car, it wasn’t needlessly complex or fussy.

This car is all about performance – people want to get in, spend a few minutes adjusting the driving position, the mirrors and the climate settings and get rolling. They aren’t going to want to have to spend half an hour learning how to use a bunch of unwieldy controls. Subaru understands this well, and as a result they’ve given the STI an interior that isn’t going to get in the driver’s way.

2011 Subaru Impreza WRX

The most concise way to describe the WRX is to say it is, essentially, a scaled back STI.

While it shares its basic architecture and dimensions with the STI and utilizes the same Boxer engine and drivetrain (minus one gear), the WRX isn’t as powerful nor does it have the same amount of equipment as its stablemate.

That said, the WRX is no slouch in the performance and technology departments, either. This car can hang with the best of them in both categories.

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The Boxer engine in the WRX is the same as the one in the STI (2.5 litre, turbocharged and intercooled, inline 4 cylinder), but it is tuned differently, and its turbocharger doesn’t have quite as much boost (13.3 PSI) as the STI (14.7).

While it may be down somewhat on power compared to the STI, I certainly wouldn’t suggest a compact car that has a 265 horsepower engine with 244 lbs.-ft. of torque and a top speed of 228 kilometres per hour is a ‘milder’ version of anything. This car is a serious performance machine in its own right.

Like the STI, the WRX has a high level of standard content both inside and out. From the 17” cast aluminum wheels wrapped in 235/45R17 Dunlop SP Sport 01 tires to the performance tuned suspension, heated rally seats and USB audio integration with Bluetooth connectivity, the WRX comes well-equipped.

Aside from the rear wing and different wheels, the WRX looks nearly identical to the STI when the two are parked beside one another.

Impressions

I drove these cars back-to-back, which I think explains why I was so struck by how different they are from one another.

Although they are only separated by a few degrees of performance and available equipment, they are quite different to drive and to live with – at least they were for me.

The STI was generally fun to drive, but it’s ragged-edge driving dynamics made it hard for me to feel completely comfortable behind the wheel. While I found it to be an exceedingly willing performer, its hair trigger nature made it somewhat fatiguing as a daily driver on clogged roads with lots of stop and go traffic.

The loud drone of the exhaust and the notchy, mechanical feel of the clutch/shifter started to wear on me near the end of my stint with the car. There were a few occasions when I wish it would just stop making so much damn racket, especially when I climbed in to travel home after a long day at the office.

The weird reverse gear (a ring on the shifter has to be lifted up in order for it to engage) also seemed needlessly fussy, and while I am aware of Pioneer’s good reputation in the world of mobile audio, the stereo/navigation system became a little irksome with its constant legal disclaimers and low battery and low storage reminders. Could they be fixed? Probably, but they were annoying nevertheless.

Driving it as I did – commuting back and forth to work, with a mix of city and highway driving – is likely the way most buyers will drive this car. It is, after all, a four-door sedan with a sizeable trunk and a useable back seat, and that says functional daily driver to most people.

In this environment, the STI took on the personality of a caged animal. It was akin to using a thoroughbred to give pony rides. Sure, you can do it, but it’s such a waste of potential.

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Although it may be built for the track, most STIs will likely spend more time stuck in traffic than screaming along the back straight at Mosport in sixth gear. Too bad, because this car would be much more at home in that environment.

With that said, the times I did lean on the gas and let the boost come in fully, the car just came to life with tons of thrust, precise steering and excellent handling.

The standard SI Drive was lots of fun to play with too, particularly in S # (sharp) mode with its lightning-fast throttle response. This mode used more gas (premium) than the other settings (Sport and Intelligent), but it allowed the car to make best use of the Boxer engine and all-wheel drive platform.

Let me be clear. In spite of these mostly minor gripes, I had fun behind the wheel of the STI, but I found the five days I spent with the WRX to be more satisfying.

While conceding that one’s taste in cars, like anything, is inherently subjective I found the WRX struck a better balance between performance and comfort. Simply put, I think this car would suit my needs better if I was trying to decide which one to buy.

Like the STI, the WRX has a powerful turbocharged and intercooled engine with gobs of torque, all-wheel drive, excellent brakes and a nicely equipped interior with lots of standard equipment.

The tradeoff in top-end power and extra gadgets that a buyer would have to accept in choosing the WRX is more than made up for, in my view, with its quieter cabin, smoother clutch/shifter operation, better fuel economy and lower price.

The WRX seemed almost as fast to me as the STI, but its acceleration was accomplished without nearly as much effort, and felt more comfortable in normal driving situations.

For $32,495, the WRX is $9,000 less than the STI I drove ($41,595 with the Sport-tech package). Given the performance-comfort proposition it offers, the WRX price seems like a bargain.

The STI may get more ink (and notoriety) based on its well-earned reputation for gaudy performance, but the best value here is the WRX.

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