Subaru’s presence in the world of performance sedans cannot be overlooked. Beginning in the early 1990s, Subaru’s racing heritage has proven fruitful, to say the least. The WRX was released in the US as a production car in 2002, with the STI following in 2004. Since then, the WRX and STI have become staples of the JDM scene in the US. In a titanic battle of Subaru WRX vs STI, the question naturally arises: which is the better buy?
Up to this point, Subaru has released four distinct generations of WRX with a fifth on the way. There are technically four generations of STI as well, however, the first generation STI was only available in Japan. A couple of important distinctions between the WRX vs STI justify the price difference.
The STI is unquestionably the more performance-oriented option, equipped with stiffer springs, a larger engine, fatter tires, and bigger brakes among other things. With that being said, the WRX isn’t a slouch. Despite being less equipped for track days, the WRX is still capable of crushing mountain roads with ease.
The trade-off boils down to a few different considerations that might matter a lot or very little depending on what you are looking for in a performance Subaru. The primary considerations that we will focus on include the following:
- Subaru WRX vs STI – Performance
- WRX vs STI – Price
- Subaru WRX vs STI – Versatility
At the end of the day, they’re both great cars that stem from one of the most successful rally racing divisions in the world. As far as daily-driven performance sedans are concerned, Subaru has truly cracked the code.
Subaru WRX vs STI – History
Before we jump into the nitty-gritty, let’s first talk about why the WRX and STI are such a big deal. In the late 1980s, Subaru was ready to win some races. Prior to 1992, Subaru didn’t have much success with their Leone or Legacy-based rally cars. Subaru’s racing division, Subaru Technica International, was established in 1988 and by that time they were sick of losing.
That’s where the Impreza chassis entered the picture. In 1993, Subaru Technica International debuted the Impreza 555 Group A car at the Rally Finland stage, resulting in a second-place finish. The Impreza 555 was based on Subaru’s GC8 Impreza WRX which was released in November 1992. The Impreza 555 went on to win Subaru three consecutive manufacturers titles in 1995, 1996, and 1997 and a record total of 46 rallies. All based on the WRX chassis.
Overall, the Subaru WRX is one of the most successful rally chassis of all time. The WRX chassis continued to evolve over the years, resulting in the GD chassis which spanned from 2000 to 2007, and the GE chassis which spanned from 2008 to 2015. The VA chassis succeeded the GE from 2015 to 2021. An upcoming generation of WRX is slated to arrive for the 2022 model year and will take on the VB chassis designation.
Subaru WRX vs STI – Performance
One of the primary distinguishers between the Subaru WRX and STI is the difference in performance. There are a few important differences in the hardware between the two. The main one is the engine. However, there are other important performance distinctions as well, including suspension components, different transmissions, and brakes.
Subaru FA vs EJ Engine
Both the Subaru WRX and STI are known for utilizing a turbocharged boxer 4-cylinder engine. That’s the way it always has been and seemingly always will be. The Subaru WRX previously utilized the EJ205 and later the EJ255 in the GD chassis. The most current WRX features the new F20F engine, originally designed for use in the Subaru BRZ. The EJ used in earlier generations of WRX was a flagship motor for Subaru and powered the WRX for decades. It still powers the STI to this day.
The FA20 is a unique engine choice for the WRX. Instead of modifying an EJ for WRX use, Subaru chose to update the FB boxer 4-cylinder. Their goal was to reduce weight when compared to the EJ, while still maintaining durability. The FA20F delivers torque much faster than the more powerful EJ due to the sequential turbo which reduces turbo response time.
The VA generation STI utilizes the EJ257 engine, a specialized version of the EJ255. The EJ257 has the added benefits of an improved cylinder head and block design. The 257 also received strengthened pistons, valvetrain upgrades, and a specialized tune.
Both of the engines are turbocharged boxer 4-cylinders. The main difference between the two is displacement. The FA20F has a stroke and bore of 84mm x 90mm, while the EJ257 has a stroke and bore of 99.5mm x 79.0mm. As a result, the FA20F has a displacement of 2.0L compared to the 2.5L EJ257.
The EJ257’s extra displacement directly translates to more power. Despite being a somewhat antiquated engine at this point, the EJ is still good for 310 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque. The FA20F produces 268 horsepower and 258lb-ft of torque.
Subaru WRX vs STI Suspension
On paper, the WRX and STI have a very similar suspension arrangement. Both feature independent suspension in all four corners; a piece of rally DNA that has carried through. While both feature four-wheel independent technology, a lot of the difference in ride comfort boils down to how it is tuned.
The WRX, focused on providing a fun, family-oriented driving experience, is equipped with sport-tuned suspension. In that sense, the WRX’s suspension is much better suited for city driving or high-mileage highway cruising in comfort. The WRX’s suspension is noticeably softer and more forgiving than the STI. Don’t get it confused, though. The WRX will stay planted through corners just fine.
In comparison, the STI features very similar hardware but is tuned for added stiffness. The result is more rigidity and, as a result, a harsher ride. The beefier STI sway bars add a noticeable amount of stiffness as well, especially noticeable during daily highway driving when changing lanes. The STI is track-oriented which certainly manifests in the form of spine pain over deep potholes and road imperfections.
Subaru WRX vs STI Brakes
Brakes are one of the most instrumental parts of any vehicle’s overall performance. Excess power is only usable if you are able to come to a stop just as quickly. Given that the STI is track-oriented, it gets the better brakes. Both the WRX and STI use disk brakes, but that’s where the similarities end. The WRX features standard steel disc brakes, similar to ones that you’d find on most family sedans.
The STI puts massive Brembo brakes to use, which feature ventilated discs, 6 piston front calipers, and 2 piston rear calipers. Overall, it’s a night and day difference between the two. However, in all actuality, you’ll only ever need Brembo stopping power on the track. If track days aren’t in your future, stock WRX brakes should do you just fine.
Subaru WRX vs STI Differentials
While the WRX and STI feature similar drivetrains, one of the primary differences is the differentials employed by both. The WRX and STI both use front and rear differentials to put power down to all four wheels. The STIs differentials are simply better. In addition to featuring LSDs for both the front and rear wheels, the STI has an advanced central differential that allows the driver to control the power split between the front and rear. The center differential is known as the DCCD or “Driver Controlled Center Differential,” which allows for on-the-fly adjustments to front/rear power split.
WRX and STI Transmission Options
The WRX is offered with two transmission options while the STI is only offered with one. Both the WRX and STI are factory equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission. There is a difference between the 6-speed in the WRX and the one in the STI however. The WRX features a cable-shifted TY75 transmission which is newly developed for the FA20 engine. The STI uses a TY85 close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission, giving the STI a crisper shift feel.
In addition to the 6-speed, the WRX is also offered with Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT transmission. A CTV functions differently than a typical automatic transmission. Instead of having set gears and gearing ratios, CVT transmissions use two hydraulic adjustable pulleys driven by a chain belt in order to find the most optimum “gear ratio” at every rpm. This means that there aren’t technically individual gears to select. The CVT uses sensors and hydraulic actuators to determine the best gear ratio for the given circumstance.
Most automotive purists scoff at the mention of a CVT transmission in a performance vehicle, as history has shown them to be sluggish. However, the CVT option for the WRX is one of the better ones on the market. CVT-equipped WRXs also feature paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. While shifts aren’t nearly as fast as they would be if the WRX used a double-clutch system, the CVT works for daily driving. Despite being the less desirable option, the CVT transmission is a $1,900 option and is only available on WRX models above the Base.
Subaru WRX vs STI – Price
At the forefront of the WRX vs STI argument is the difference in price. 2021 WRXs start at a $27,495 MSRP base price. To get into a 2021 STI, you’ll have to shell out around 10 grand more, at a base price of $37,245.
A lot of the added price is found in the standard equipment fitted to the STI. Many of the upgrades come in the form of internal and external technology. For instance, the STI comes factory equipped with a steering responsive headlight system, heated front seats, keyless access, and a 7” multimedia screen. All of this is in addition to the performance-enhancing additions over the WRX.
The STI Limited trim level comes with even more standard equipment. STI Limited’s boast a front lip and specialized rear wing spoiler in addition to a power sunroof, leather upholstery, and alcantara Recaro seats. The STI Limited runs a few grand more than the STI Base at $41,945.
The base WRX lacks most of the modern amenities that come standard in the STI. Creature comforts like powered seats, push-button start, GPS, and dual climate control are all absent from the base model WRX. However, it does have a few included options that you might now expect. These include a rear-view camera, electronic cruise control, and a 6.5” multimedia screen. The next step up in the range, the WRX Limited, essentially adds all of the included amenities found on the STI base for an additional $5,000 over the starting MSRP.
WRX vs STI Versatility
Both the WRX and STI are destined to be all-rounders, with the WRX edging out the STI in that department. When we talk about versatility in this section, here are the questions we’re trying to answer: Which car will be the jack of all trades? Between the WRX and STI, which am I going to have a better time daily driving?
It is impossible to argue that the WRX isn’t the more comfortable car, especially on long road trips. The combination of standard comfort seats and less performance-oriented suspension tune make the WRX the preferred pick for long-distance endeavors. With that being said, the WRX does lack interior features that might make extended journeys more comfortable. The lack of dual-zone climate control and upgraded multimedia screen on the base model holds the WRX back a bit in the comfort department.
In general, the STI interior is the better place to be from a features standpoint. As stated above, the STI comes equipped with power seats, dual climate control, and a larger screen. It has a more premium feel overall. However, what it makes up for in gadgets it gives up in ride comfort.
It’s important to remember that the designers had the track in mind when developing the STI. For that reason, it doesn’t translate road imperfections well. The performance seats also hurt the STI’s daily drivability for some people. The rigid Recaro racing buckets hold you in tight around the bends but lack the padding to make them truly comfortable on extended journeys.
Storage and Passenger Space
In terms of space for both passengers and stuff, the WRX and STI are almost completely identical. In practice, it makes a lot of sense. They’re both built on the Impreza chassis and don’t have many structural differences. They both have comparable storage space and legroom to any other midsized family sedan.
In more technical terms, both the WRX and STI have 12.5 cubic feet of trunk storage space. That should definitely be enough for a couple of golf bags or multiple week-stay suitcases. To expand storage space even further, the rear seats of both cars fold down. The wide trunk opening on both the WRX and STI makes loading cargo easy as well. Due to the STI’s large wing coming near to contacting the rear window, the STI’s trunk doesn’t open quite as wide as the WRXs.
Both the WRX and STI are surprisingly spacious inside. Legroom and headroom in both cars should be more than sufficient for anyone short of a behemoth. Multiple reports claim that a 6’ rear passenger can comfortably fit in either vehicle behind a 6’ driver with a normal seating position. Headroom isn’t an issue either despite the rear sloping roof.
Daily Driven Performance
Earlier, we covered the differences between the WRX and STI performance in terms of the hardware. However, there’s a distinction between on-paper stats and real-world performance. Both the WRX and STI are undeniably quick cars. Most non-enthusiasts wouldn’t likely be able to identify a significant difference in performance between the two. But for those that know, the STI is undeniably the better performer.
Perhaps the most important difference in performance dynamics between the two is the increased chassis rigidity from the STI. This ultimately boils down to the stiffer suspension tune and larger rear sway bars with a pillowball-style linkage. These elements allow the STI to corner flatter, reduce body roll, and have better traction through corners. That’s a difference you’ll feel both on and off the track.
The additional 40 horsepower found in the STI is also certainly noticeable. While the mid and top-end speed of the STI is undeniably better than the WRX, the sequential turbo found on the FA20F engine that powers the WRX gives the WRX better low-end torque characteristics. It is also much easier to stay in boost in a WRX, as the lag time is significantly reduced.
The STI’s much larger and more efficient brakes create much more stopping power than the WRX. This is an extremely important distinction if you intend on doing any kind of performance driving. This also carries through to street use as well. It’s always better to have stronger brakes and the difference between the STI’s Brembo kit and the WRX’s standard setup is night and day.
Poor Weather Performance
As both the WRX and STI come from a lineage of rally descent, they are both right at home in poor weather conditions. Both vehicles feature full-time all-wheel-drive and independent suspension in all four corners. That’s a recipe for a capable car in the snow, rain, mud, and dirt.
In most cases, a WRX with appropriate tires will tear through most terrains and conditions. Newer WRX models lack an LSD in the rear which hinders it a bit in extremely treacherous conditions. With that being said, a WRX with snow tires is just as capable of trudging through snow as an all-wheel-drive SUV barring clearance issues.
In a straight Subaru WRX vs STI battle in inclement weather, the STI will win every time. While the WRX is extremely capable, the STI is a monster. The biggest distinguishing factor is the STI’s center differential. Subaru’s Driver Controlled Center Differential allows the driver to switch the diff into different condition modes. It can also automatically sense road conditions and adjust the power split itself. The DCCD system allows the driver to vary the front-to-rear torque distribution to optimize all-wheel-drive performance to suit specific driving conditions. This makes the STI’s poor weather performance truly unparalleled.
Subaru WRX vs STI – Summary and Conclusion
If I had to give a non-car related analogy to describe the difference between the Subaru WRX and STI, it would go something like this: the difference between the two is similar to the difference between a Rolex and a TAG Heur watch. Both tell the time and both have extensive history. However, a Rolex is slightly more accurate, more expensive, and more sought after.
Ultimately, it is a very similar situation between the WRX and STI, they are very comparable cars that can do very similar things, but the STI is better overall. The decision between the two should be prefaced by the following questions: Am I going to do much performance driving? Am I willing to spend the extra $10,000 on a car that slightly edges out a similar one? If the answer to either or both of those questions is no, then the WRX might give you a better bang for your buck.
If you enjoyed this article and are interested in some other Subaru content, check out our Subaru EJ205 Engine Guide. For Subaru modification content, take a look at our Subaru WRX Upgraded Intake Guide. As always, safe driving!
-Additional information for this article provided by Ian K.