First drive: 2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA [Review]by Byron Hurd
RA comes to America.
Since the 2017 model of the Impreza was introduced, the WRX and its hopped-up STI variant have been orphaned from its parent chassis in a way. Both still ride on the variant of the platform which was introduced in 2014, when Subaru made good on promises of a strategic move to differentiate the Impreza and WRX.
It's a shame in a way, because the new Impreza rides on a sublime chassis that is just begging for more power. We'll see a new WRX for 2020, which means it's getting into its golden years. Like humans, cars tend to have certain milestones celebrated; fortunately for us, when it happens for cars, we get cool variants.
The "RA" moniker dates back decades and actually originated with the Legacy nameplate. The original "Record Attempt" model was designed for a 100,000-kilometer endurance run in Arizona. Since, the badge has migrated to the Impreza and adorned special-edition cars commemorating other record-attempting (and often -setting) milestones. Until now, "RA" models have been built exclusively for domestic (Japanese) consumption. For 2018, that has obviously changed.
To put a finer point on it: 'ring times.
They may have several letters and common, but "Subaru" and "subtle" rarely go together. The STI RA is no exception. Given that this model is based on a lapping record attempt, it should come as no surprise that its aero package plays a substantial part.
Yep, you guessed it: It's got a big ole wing.
There's more to it than that, of course. The wing is carbon fiber, making it lighter than the base STI's. That weight reduction carries to the roof (also carbon fiber) and the trunk, where you'll no longer find a spare tire. There were some other minor changes here and there, but the long and short of it is that the Type RA is nearly 70 pounds lighter than a regular STI.
It also gets a unique front underspoiler and Cherry Blossom Red accents all around. The interior gets some visual upgrades too, including a plaque signifying the Type RA's limited-run nature. Only 500 units will be sold stateside (Canada gets a few too). Red stitching and accents are found basically everywhere (yep, even on the standard Recaro seats) to match the exterior badges and grille treatment.
It also gets more power, but that sounds more exciting than it actually is. The bump comes from a revised intake, new reinforced pistons, an ECU retune and an exhaust with 50% less backpressure. The result? Five horsepower. 5. That's right. Subaru is quick to point out that there's a tiny bit more low-mid-range shove, but 310 horsepower just doesn't seem all that impressive considering what went into producing it.
So why all the the fuss for just five ponies? Durability, mostly. The reinforced pistons are paired with sodium-filled exhaust valves--a nod to better thermal management--and the reduced backpressure should let the turbocharger breathe a little more freely. Short version? The Type RA may not pack that much more of a punch, but it should be able to swing for much longer periods before getting tired.
In the RA, we also got to sample a lot of the base 2018 STI's upgrades for the first time, including upgraded Brembo brakes featuring six-piston calipers up front and two-pots in the back. There are upgraded rotors all around (13.4-inch up front; 12.8-inch in the rear--both ventilated too) for better heat management. The DCCD (driver-controlled center differential) system and suspension were also re-worked, allowing for better steering response and nimbler handling.
Our day with the Type RA was split into two parts (four, technically, since we also sampled the new BRZ tS; more on that later this week). In the morning, we drove out of Palm Springs on CA-74 to the Coachella Valley overlook, where we then took turns driving Subaru's special models up and down the mountain to get a feel for their on-road behavior.
Here, the STI gets to really flex its muscles. The 2.5L turbo-four made quick work of uphill sections, and the Brembos begged us to really stay on it as long as our testicular fortitude allowed. They still grabbed hard after repeated outings, never once giving us any cause for concern.
It took us longer to trust the STI than the aforementioned tS, just by dent of its inherently greater compliance, less direct steering and higher seating position, but once we felt out all of its limits, we had no trouble tossing it into corners at tire-squawking thresholds. This is where the carbon roof's torsional rigidity and center of gravity advantages come into play. Even this lighteweighted Type RA is still pretty heavy as small performance cars go (3,400 pounds), and every little bit helps.
Despite this prowess, however, we couldn't help but think of our time in the 2017 Impreza and its flatter, less-exaggerated cornering behavior. The older STI feels more upright and less direct by comparison. It's showing its age, in other words. We're looking forward to 2020.
As we transitioned between the day's activities, we spent quite a bit of time on the streets of Palm Springs. We're happy to report that the Type RA isn't so over-the-top aggressive that it diminishes the STI's daily drivability to any significant degree. Don't get us wrong; we're not about to call the STI "comfortable" by even enthusiast standards. Small bumps go straight to your spine, and you'll find yourself judging potholes by their likely effects on your internal organs. The Type RA is simply not appreciably worse.
Our afternoon was spent at Thermal Club's Desert Circuit. It's a scant 1.4 miles, featuring one solid high-speed straight and several challenging and technical transition areas. Subaru exposed us to no trickery or track-prep subterfuge here. Our keys were taken from us and our road cars were lined up in the pits. We got a briefing and some lunch, and were sent out to see what they could do.
With our comfort level level having been established on the street, hustling the Type RA around the track was just a manner of learning the course. The Type RA's first big test came from what would normally be Turn 1--an off-camber, almost-u-turn left-hander which deposited us onto the back straight. In this configuration, the back straight is the longest on the circuit, giving us a chance to grab fourth gear and push the Type RA as deep into triple digits as we dared before braking down hard for a quick pair of 90-degree turns (right-left).
This was followed by a tight, second-gear left-hander leading into a sweeping right banked just enough to tempt us into not lifting. Succumb to temptation and we'd find ourselves running wide to the inside for a sharp left leading into a chicane designed to keep us from getting too frisky on the would-be front straight.The first and last turns of the circuit proved the trickiest for the Type RA.
In the former, even a slightly too-late turn-in would result in heavy understeer as the right-side tires got caught between grip and gravity, leaving us with the options of powering through a too-wide line and mis-using unwanted asphalt real estate or simply going for a lift-and-tuck dance trying to get it pointed straight. Once we found the proper entry speed, however, the STI gobbled up the exit and went full-locomotive down the back straight.
The latter was more about properly placing the car than properly calibrating speed. Here, the left-turn entry into the chicane was the tricky bit. Get too much curb, and the car would come down with its momentum wanting to carry it off-track to the left, forcing us to get it settled before tucking back right. In a car this heavy, the time needed for a correction like that feels like an eternity, the suspension needing a full cycle or two to settle properly. Stay a bit lower on the curbing and we needed only breathe off the throttle for the right-hander and power on down to Turn 1.
We were pleasantly surprised by the STI's competency on the track. Its weight was present, but not overly intrusive, especially in light of its ample power and torque. It's was also incredibly forgiving of mistakes, with most being corrected by simple throttle inputs. Too fast or wide? Lift and rotate. Goof the line? Point it in the right direction and mash the gas. The torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive will figure it out.
With the Evo dead, Subaru is now benchmarking the Focus RS for STI's performance. By that measure, we'd say they've mostly succeeded. The RS feels more Focused (sorry)--more direct and more aggressive. The STI offers more all-around practicality and comfort. If all you care about is numbers, the Ford is your go-to. If you want something that's easier to live with every day, go with the STI.
If you think this is all a bit juvenile, buy a VW Golf R, gramps.
Leftlane's bottom line
The RA is available only in limited numbers and will likely be sold out not long after you read this. Fortunately, the leap from the STI to the RA is not particularly big, and you'll save some money by going with a Recaro-equipped "base" model to boot.If we could change anything about the 2018 Subaru Impreza WRX STI Type RA (besides shortening the name), we'd put it on the 2017+ Impreza chassis. It seems clear that we're reaching the peak of this platform's out-of-the-box potential, and we're looking forward to seeing what Subaru can do in 2020.
OK, sure, we'd add more power too.
2018 Subaru Impreza WRX STI Type RA base price, $48,995; As-tested, $49,855