Road Tests

First Drive: 2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA

The best production STI ever built just got better, but does it top a Civic Type R?

If you’re not already a fan of the Subaru WRX STI, I really don’t know what to do with you. In fact, buzz off—there are stamps that need collecting. If you’re a fan, buckle up. The new limited-edition Type RA takes the already great STI and makes it much, much better.

Given that it’s inspired by the Nürburgring record-attempt car (the “RA” in Type RA), you might expect it to be better—especially since that (much more heavily modified) STI set the record for a four-door sedan at the Nordschleife with a lap time of 6:57.5. While there’s no rally-spec engine under the hood of this Type RA, it has some of the record run RA’s DNA.

This is the first time Subaru has graced America with one of its truly special Subaru Tecnica International creations, and only 500 examples will be sold here (for 2018 at least), each bearing its own serialized number plate next to the shifter. There are no options or upgrades, but you can take your pick of white, blue, or black paint. Oh, and the sticker will show a price of $48,999 plus $860 in delivery fees for a total of $49,859—at least until your friendly local dealer marks that up another 20 percent thanks to its exclusivity.

So what does the Type RA add to the already fun STI formula? Not a lot, and not much of it is all that glamorous, but taken together it adds up to a car that’s sharper, tighter, and much more ready for action on track.

The engine gets some minor but significant upgrades, including new sodium-filled valves and reinforced pistons. Both of these modifications are essentially durability upgrades, helping the Type RA to withstand the rigors of extended high rpm and high-boost track usage. Combined with some electronic tweaks, a larger-diameter exhaust, and a cold-air intake, the STI Type RA’s upgraded 2.5-liter engine is rated for 310 hp and 290 lb-ft, up 5 hp and zero lb-ft at peak, but more importantly, with significantly more area under the curve in the 2,000 to 3,000 rpm range. Dovetailed with a 4 percent shorter third gear ratio, (1.590:1 in place of the standard STI’s 1.521:1), the Type RA feels perceptibly quicker in typical corner carving, most of which happens at third-gear speeds.

While it’s not likely something you’d notice in a visceral sense, the STI Type RA is also 68 pounds lighter than a factory-spec STI equipped with Recaro seats. The weight is mostly cut by dropping the spare wheel/tire kit (replaced with an emergency flat fix kit), but some of the weight savings also comes from the carbon fiber roof. Unlike most of the all show, no go carbon used on cars these days, the Type RA’s roof is autoclaved dry (prepreg) carbon fiber—no wet layup here. As a result of the weight savings, the Type RA’s center of gravity is a few millimeters lower.

Aerodynamics also get an upgrade for the Type RA, with a new adjustable carbon rear wing. In the flat position, rear downforce increases by 64 percent over the standard STI’s wing; with the upgraded wing up, it’s 116 percent more smashing. Overall aero is also improved, with 16.5 percent less lift on the front axle, and 42.9 percent less lift on the rear. Despite the upgrades in downforce, the whole package offers 1.4 percent less drag.

The single most noticeable improvement of the Type RA over its standard brethren is the steering. While Subaru doesn’t mention any steering-specific tweaks, the suede-wrapped wheel is much more communicative than in the standard STI. Perhaps that’s down to the improvements offered by the Bilstein STI sport-tuned dampers, which increase the damping forces at lower shaft speeds—the kind of motion induced by driver input, rather than bumps in the road. Whatever the cause, the nearly $50,000 Type RA’s steering is palpably improved.

In fact, if there’s a single shortcoming to the STI Type RA’s skill and feature sets, it’s the Type R. No, not another special STI—the Honda Civic Type R, which I drove from our offices in El Segundo to the launch of the Type RA in Palm Springs, effectively giving me the opportunity to road test them back-to-back.

Though it’s front-wheel-drive to the STI’s four-tire fire, the Type R ticks more boxes and ticks them much harder than the Type RA can manage. How? Let’s start with the weight: the Type R tips the scales at 3,117 pounds; the Type RA, though lighter than a standard STI, is a bit huskier at 3,395 pounds (both curb weights as supplied by the respective manufacturers). That 283-lb difference might not seem like much on paper, but it’s the same as a trim adult passenger, a large dog, and 50 pounds of dog food.

Making the weight differential worse, the Type R packs 4 fewer ponies, but 5 lb-ft more torque–essentially a dead heat on output, leaving the Type R with fewer pounds to haul around with each horsepower. The Type R does it with 0.5-liters less displacement, too, and nets superior gas mileage: 22/28 mpg city/highway versus the STI Type RA’s 16/22. The Type R is also more comfortable to sit in (especially over longer drives), and has better steering, more neutral handling dynamics, and a sweeter-sounding engine. They’re both pretty ugly designs, so no winner there.

Oh, and the Type R’s list price is $34,990 (including delivery). Sure, dealers are marking up the Type R into the $50,000-range, but that’s where the Type RA starts. Even if dealers don’t add their own premium to the 500-car Type RA run (and you can bet they will), the Type RA gives up a lot of the bang-for-the-buck punch to its more ordinary production Honda counterpart.

In the end, whether the Type RA is worth the premium over a standard STI—especially when you could probably accomplish most of the same upgrades yourself, admittedly sans-warranty—is a question best answered not by your rational, logical side, but by your burning enthusiast passion. Sure, there are better bargains around—the Type R being foremost among them. There are cars that cost just a little more that are even faster, though they might lack the utility of the Subaru. So yes, you can find reasons to poke holes in what is, ultimately, the best production STI that Subaru has ever sold in America, and a genuinely fun car to wail around in.

You could also be collecting stamps.

2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $49,859 (as tested)
ENGINE 2.5L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve H-4/310 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 290 lb-ft @ 4,000-5,200 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 16/22 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 181.3 x 70.7 x 58.1 in
WHEELBASE 104.3 in
WEIGHT 3,395 lb
0-60 MPH 5.6 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 159 mph (est)

Buying Guide
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2018 Subaru WRX

2018 Subaru WRX

MSRP $40,895 STI Limited w/Wing Sedan

0-60 MPH:

6.2 SECS

EPA MPG:

21 City / 27 Hwy

Horse Power:

268 @ 5600