First Drive: 2014 WRX STI
Ever since I could remember, I have been a Honda guy. Hondas are good cars. My dad, who's a certified Honda mechanic, properly engrained that notion long before I even sniffed a driver's license. So, when it was time for my first car, I picked up a 1987 Honda Civic. It had no A/C, no defroster and made 87 hp at the crank. Every morning, on the way to school, I would tear through the neighborhood streets, wringing the life out of that car for every bit of speed it had. Trust me, it didn't have much, and it wasn't terribly fun to drive. That Honda was followed by a string of other Hondas: a '99 Honda Civic Coupe (right at the height of the tuner craze), an '03 Honda CBR600RR (a lead pig of 600cc motorcycles), an '06 Honda Element (I actually liked this car a lot, but it was out of character) and finally, an '11 Honda Pilot (this is now the wife's car). Here's the thing with Hondas: they're not particularly great at any one thing; they're just good across all things. Reliable -- yes. Easy to work on -- absolutely. Fun? Not in the least.
So, when we were looking for a new car, we happened to have rented a VW Golf (MKV body style). Wow! What a revelation. Were cars supposed to be this great to drive? Here’s an economy car along the lines of a Civic, but it was actually a hoot to drive around. It was so good, it left a lasting impression that eventually parlayed us into the world of German automotives. Soon thereafter, we picked up an '09 VW GTI, much to the dismay (and caution) of my father (remember, he’s a mechanic). But with a 200 bhp, turbocharged 2.0L motor, mated to a snickety-snick fast DSG paddle-style gear box (basically, a Golf amplified) in a hot little hatch, it was too tempting to pass up. It was so easy to drive fast and it handled so beautifully. And for the first 50,000 miles, it was pure love.
But then, it happened... German engineering at its worst. After its 50K mile birthday, the problems began rolling in. There were so many problems that I kept a running list of no less than 20 separate and distinct issues with the car; each of these issues required diagnosis, repair and/or replacement. When the ABS control module, front door module and water pump all failed in the span of three days, we finally called it quits. We were losing out on opportunity costs – missed days at work, money for labor and repairs, etc. It was bittersweet because, oh, GTI, you were so fun to drive, but ownership was so absolutely burdensome. Remember, this is particularly so in the context of having owned a litany of Hondas.
So, why drag you, the reader, through all this history? Context. Tired of the VW's issues, I was looking for something that would remind me of some of that Japanese reliability, but provide the "fun to drive" quotient of the GTI's turbo and race-bred heritage.
Enter the Subaru WRX STI.
I picked up a 2014 used STI from a dealer. The car only had roughly 8,000 miles and was still well within its factory warranty. It was the Limited version with all the options loaded into it. The only option it didn’t carry was a cargo tray and cargo net. There were many compelling reasons to pick up this car, not in the least that this particular dealer was willing to give me a great price on the GTI as a trade in. SOLD! “Anything to get that car off my hands,” I thought. With a CarFax report showing over 20 visits for repairs, the VW was also involved in one accident (not my fault), so, when they offered a good price on the STI and the GTI trade in, it was a no-brainer decision.
The STI packs 305 bhp, mated to a short 6 speed manual transmission. For those who don't know, the STI is born of Subaru's rally race history. The car is equipped with a state-of-the-art AWD system that's way too complicated for me to explain here. Needless to say, this car has the kind of pedigree that should net pure enjoyment. And while it's no VW (in terms of reliability), it is to be expected that it's no Honda either. I am not under any kind of pretense that the Subaru pictured here has anywhere near the kind of reliability that a Honda might have. Yet, with crossed fingers, I hope it's better than the VW. So, what's it like to drive?
If you can’t tell, this is the sedan version of the STI, which is much more attainable than its hatchback sibling. Being the sedan variant, it does have the ridiculous rally wing in the back. It literally looks like it rolled off the rally race course and into my driveway. It’s not subtle, in the least. When asked about the car, I have gotten used to saying that it's a bit "sore thumb-ish." It sticks out. It's clear what this car was intended to do and be. What it is not is a sleeper. And yet, here's the thing:
With all the stuff that's going on under the hood, between the wheels and on the inside of the car (seats, gauges, steering wheel)... it's not that fun to drive. The steering, while direct and darty, feels completely disconnected from what's going on on the road. I turn the wheel and the car steers (quickly), but there's no communication telling me anything other than the car has changed direction. Then there’s the size. The car not only looks and is bigger than the GTI, most importantly, it feels bigger. The car feels like it's pitching a lot, from side to side, when you throw it into a turn. Yet, I know, from what I see out the front window, it's planted and sure footed. Speaking of pitching, I’m not sure why it pitches so much, given the turn-in is so soft. I almost want to get beefier front sway bars and revised bushings just to tighten up that turn-in. The car rotates differently about its axis as well. I can't tell if that's a different thing or a good thing.
Don't get me wrong. The car is scary powerful, but there's a good amount of turbo lag that delays the onset of that rush. I could easily convince myself that this is a good thing, what with my lead foot and all. And while those 300+ horses are there to play when the turbo is on full spool, I feel like that delay is part of the reason I answer, "Eh," and shrug my shoulders, when asked, “Is it fun?” The boosted steering, the lagging turbo, the soft turn-in, they all serve to reinforce this disconnected feeling in the car. I know the ECU is doing stuff to keep the car nice and tidy, but where's the joy in that? It’s like when I got stuck in the snow with the GTI and the traction control was working overtime to keep from spinning the wheels. Just let me modulate the throttle so I can get us out of here!
On paper and from just walking around the car, there's so much to love and like about this car. I won't lie and say I don't get a bit excited, in the morning, to jump in and drive it. I won't lie and say I don't get a little giddy like a young school boy when I fire up the motor and hear that boxer engine rumble. But then, I put it in first gear and give it a little gas and all that excitement fades away. In a way, while aiming for some of that Japanese reliability I got from a Honda and the “fun to drive” quotient I got from a VW, I ended up picking up a car that lands squarely on a whole other page of its own. It's not a Honda, in terms of reliability. It's definitely not German in terms of the “ultimate driving machine.” I feel like I’m beginning to understand the Subaru culture and what other Subaru owners have been saying about their second, third, and fourth owned Subaru. It’s not any of those other car makes. No…
It's a Subaru.