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Monday, September 27, 2021

2021 Subaru WRX STI Performance Review

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Overall Track Performance

The Subaru WRX STI has been criticised for its track performance, as has the fact it has seemed to remain fundamentally unchanged for the better part of 30 years.

Yet every time I see someone on track with one, they are overdriving it and exploiting the negative aspects, rather than driving it correctly and getting the most from it.

I can’t wait for Subaru to up the game and take the Subaru WRX back to where it all started, but for the next generation with great value car packing mind-blowing performance, connected directly to motorsport. 

But as it stands now, it is still a car that offers excellent feedback and driver connection and can be fast and entertaining on the track if driven properly.

Overall Road Performance

I actually really enjoy driving the Subaru WRX STI on the road.

Although the glory days of it being one of the fastest machines from A to B are gone, it’s still a blast on a nice twisty section of road.

The connection between the driver and the road is still evident in this latest generation.

Steering feedback, brake pedal feel and a sure-footedness, make up for the moderate performance numbers.

Engine

The 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbocharged ‘boxer’ engine, with 221kW of power and 407Nm of torque, offers good, linear power and is at its best when you keep it in the right parts of the rev range.

The torque curve is what lets this car down, with most of its competitors offering a wider, flatter curve that really helps the acceleration numbers, especially when it comes to launching.

The Subaru WRX STI has a more rounded torque curve, which is fine if you fall into the middle of it, but really hurts you if the revs drop below 4000rpm.

On track the turbo lag isn’t really a problem as you always know what gear to be in and you can keep the revs up. If you’re lower in the rev range and looking for instant response, it’s just not there and it can be a bit frustrating.

This is one area Subaru really need to take a risk with moving forward. What made it so special in the early days, is the same thing letting it down now. I am looking forward to what 2022 will bring.

Braking

I had no issues with the brakes, but at the same time I wasn’t doing long enough runs to really test the durability of them.

I really enjoyed the brake pedal feel, and the ability to be able to modulate them and control the release on the way into the corner.

It’s a nice firm pedal that inspires confidence when you step on it and that shows in the data, with one of the shortest and quickest 100-0 times, 2.57 seconds @ 35.87m.

I didn’t struggle with the ABS interfering at all and it has a real handbrake that works, so a big thumbs up for that.

Chassis

The chassis is a really interesting one as I feel like Subaru has been a bit too cautious with the balance of the car. It’s very prone to understeer and the result of almost any mistake on track will lead to this.

If you enter the corner too fast, understeer!  If you release the brake to quickly, understeer!  If you add steering to quickly, understeer!  If you get on the throttle too early, understeer! If you don’t open the wheel before going to the throttle, understeer!

Now all of these are driver-induced, and it comes back to my initial comment about why the Subaru WRX STI gets such a hard time. But the issue is the default setting when over-driven is towards understeer and the majority of drivers are not very accepting of this.

The chassis is actually very good and has a lot of positive elements. It’s reactive, supportive, and has excellent traction and feedback. But again the fundamental balance is towards understeer and once there, it takes a lot of restraint to unwind it.

With a very controlled release of the brake pedal and just the right amount of steering, you can get the Subaru WRX STI to rotate mid-corner. Also, with the right amount of energy and some handbrake use, you can hold a pretty epic AWD drift. So it has the potential – but it’s doing it with one hand behind its back.

Without too much effort, Subaru could dial away some of these tendencies, then rely on the AWD grip and traction to recover the balance. Some slight refinement to the front geometry to help while adding steering and support across the rear would absolutely transform this car.

Transmission and Differentials

The six-speed manual transmission is what it is. It works fine, although it can become a bit difficult to shift when the oil temperature rises.

The actual gear ratios are really well matched to the engine. This is so important for the Subaru WRX STI, because it has to nail the middle of the narrow torque curve for the engine to perform at its best. It does this on every shift and you can feel a lot of effort has gone into that.

If Subaru does head in the direction of a dual-clutch transmission with the next generation, it really has to be spot on and feel raw – that is all part of what a WRX is.

The differentials are very solid and pretty well balanced. The front and rear diffs work nicely and offer more than enough locking.

But the best part is the DCCD centre differential, which allows different levels of electronic locking for the 41:59 front:rear mechanical torque split. This is great for adjusting the balance of the car depending on the conditions.

In theory, the more slippery the conditions area the more you would go towards the most locked setting, and the more open with good grip. But this is also very track-dependent.

Very rarely would you go fully locked on tarmac, but with the conditions we had, due to overnight rain and some dirt on the slow corners this is the setting that worked best on the day of our test. It really ties the car together and helps massively on braking and exit, but you have to make sure you don’t overdrive the middle of the corner.

There is also an Auto setting that has a plus and minus mode, that can work really well in changing conditions. This centre diff is far from a gimmick and can really transform the car in varying conditions.

Suspension

I really rate the suspension in the Subaru WRX STI.

It’s soft enough to offer excellent traction, but then has support when you lean on it or hit in bumps or kerbs. It doesn’t fall over at any point and isn’t too firm.

Many manufacturers try and make a car firm too early in the damper movement and try to stop the energy straight away, then have nothing to back it up past that point.

Dampers are all about layers, and controlling the energy is like catching a ball. You don’t just put your arm out straight and expect the ball the stop right in your solid palm, right? You manage it with more and more of your body the faster or heavier it is, and that is what dampers and suspension should do.

Overall, it’s very confidence inspiring, and all part of what makes the Subaru such a weapon on back roads.

Steering

The steering is excellent and offers all the feedback you need to make the right decisions. No problems in this area for me.

Wheels and Tyres

The Yokohama Advan Sport V105 245/35 R19 tyres worked reasonably well on the track.

It wasn’t the hottest of days when we tested, so that helped durability a little bit. If you’re looking for the best lap times there are definitely quicker options out there, but they stood up to the test well.

Driver Aids (Electronics)

As you may have guessed – I have driven a few Subarus in my time.

For me it was straight off with traction control and VDC, by holding down the traction control button for a few seconds. With the AWD system, traction is rarely an issue.

I also ran with the SI-Drive in Sport Sharp for the best engine response.

Cockpit (Ergonomics)

The seats in the Subaru WRX STI are more than good enough on the track, but I would like something a little deeper, with more of a race car feel for a vehicle like this.

The original bucket seats that came in the early WRXs are still some of my favourites, and I would love to see Subaru go back to something similar.

The steering wheel is nice and has good texture and grip, although I would like it to be slightly thinner.

I had no problem heel-toeing, finding the pedal position to be very good as well.

Having the differential controller on the centre console worked fine and it’s easy to adjust on the go. It is clearly displayed on the dash when you make changes, as is the SI-Drive button.

Lap Time

I was actually surprised by the lap time I achieved in the Subaru WRX STI.

With a package that hadn’t changed dramatically for so many years, my expectations were not that high.

This was the same day we tested the Toyota GR Yaris, so it gives a very fair comparison. I thought it would be much closer than it was in the end, although the Rallye version of the Yaris would be a much tougher competitor with stickier rubber and LSDs.

The best lap I achieved was 60.73 seconds, which I pretty much matched on the next flying lap as well. That’s 0.8 seconds faster than the Toyota GR Yaris and almost 1.0 second quicker than the Volkswagen Golf R.

Atko’s 3

  1. Don’t carry too much speed on entry, you will struggle to rotate the car
  2. Aim to get the car as straight as possible, as early as possible, so you can get on the throttle hard…
  3. …but, you need to straighten the car before getting on the throttle

Click the images for the full gallery

MORE: 2021 Subaru WRX STI v Toyota GR Yaris track comparison
MORE: Everything Subaru WRX

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