Flush with cash in October 2001, just before the dot-com bubble burst, I went to an Audi dealer to buy an S4 Avant. Perhaps it was my Alice Donut T-shirt and camo shorts, but I couldn’t get a salesperson to even look at me, let alone give me a test-drive. I’d read a review in our sister publication Automobile (by none other than Jamie “NVH” Kitman) stating not only that the new-for-the-2002-model-year Subaru WRX was their Automobile of the Year, but also that the rough and ready, bug-eyed, rally-based bruiser had performance akin to a Porsche 911 4S. A boxer engine metaphor taken too far, perhaps, but the review got me thinking, and I took my tech boom dollars a few doors down to the Subaru dealer. An hour or so later I drove away in a black WRX wagon (base price $24,520) that was about 20 grand less than the Audi. Good thing, too, as I got mass laid off a month later and never would have been able to keep a near-$50K S4. Life is a funny thing, as I just drove the $49,855 2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA. The only question there can be is: Is the Subie worth the money?
What makes a Type RA? First thing is exclusivity. Only 500 units are being built for the U.S. market, and 75 are being sent to Canada. That’s 575 total cars worldwide, as Canada and the U.S. are the only countries getting any. You can tell which one you have by a numbered plaque above the shifter. They come in blue, white, and black, with black being the scarcest color. RA stands for Record Attempt, dating back to the original 1989 Legacy RA that set a FIA World Speed Endurance Record. For years Subaru has been releasing limited edition RA models—much to the sorrow of JDM fans around the world—only in Japan. The 10,000-foot view shows you that the RA gains 5 horsepower, loses a little weight, gains a little aero, and receives slight tweaks to the suspension. From up there I get that it’s difficult to justify the $10,400 price bump over an STI with keyless entry and Recaro seats ($39,455). However, once you zoom in and get granular, you see where Subaru spent the money.
The one single aspect that cynics and Subaru haters are lasering in on the hardest (see my Instagram feed) is the admittedly tiny bump in horsepower. American STI fans first met the 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four (engine code EJ257) in 2004, when it made 300 hp. In 2008 Subaru bumped it up to 305 hp, the same amount of power the EJ257 still makes today, 10 years later. Cobb or any other tuning company will sell you a kit to add 20 hp for a few hundred bucks. However, the way the Type RA makes the extra power is impressive. First off, the ECU is retuned, and there’s a redesigned cold air intake. Standard stuff, sure. Subaru also throws in stronger pistons and sodium-filled exhaust valves, the latter of which is some pretty serious high-performance kit (sodium-filled valves handle heat better) typically seen on higher-end performance cars.
There’s also a new, larger exhaust system with 50 percent less back pressure. The EJ257’s peak torque output (290 lb-ft) remains the same, but more of it shows up earlier in the rev range. However, based on a dyno-chart PowerPoint slide we were shown during the overview, I asked the engineers if in fact peak torque isn’t a little bit higher. They said yeah, it is, but they wouldn’t specify a number. They told me they would get back to me, but they never did. I don’t know why. Anyhow, the Type RA is torquier than the standard STI. The big point, though, is that Subaru could have added 5 extra ponies with just an ECU reflash. Instead, they re-engineered the necessary parts to add both strength and durability. Tuners rejoice. In addition to the engine mods, third gear is 4.5 percent shorter at 1.590:1.
Subaru cut the weight of the STI Type RA by 68 pounds. This was accomplished by replacing the spare wheel with a can of fix-a-flat (Type RA owners can further reduce weight by hucking it and its associated near-useless pump into the trash), adding BBS gold wheels, replacing the rear wing with a carbon fiber one, and replacing the steel roof with a top made from carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP). You will note that one of those things is not like the other. In fact, it represents a major change to the car’s structure. Subaru claims that the carbon roof not only drops 8 pounds overall and lowers the center of gravity by a couple millimeters but also is so much stiffer that it helps the rear wheels maintain better contact with the road. Subaru also pointed out that the next cheapest car to come standard with a CFRP roof is the nearly $20K more (BMW M3, $67,495).
For the first time ever on a U.S.-spec STI, you get Bilstein dampers, which are tuned differently than those on the standard car, as is the rest of the suspension. There’s also a new front clip with a Cherry Blossom red accent in the grille, a new rear bumper, a functional underbody wing, and cutouts in the rear fenders. By the way, the wing not only reduces lift but also can be placed in two positions. Inside, the red accents continue around the cabin, including on the standard Recaro seats. There’s red stitching all over the place and red seat belts, too. By the way, red belts are a $540 option on a Porsche 911. My favorite interior upgrade is the steering wheel, which has been wrapped in Ultrasuede. It’s exactly like Alcantara and transforms the STI’s steering wheel from what feels like a hollow Rubbermaid product to something quite great to hold on to.
Right, driving. I spent the first 10 minutes of my drive trying to remember if Subaru had mentioned anything at the press conference about improving the steering. Neither my driving partner nor I could remember them saying anything of the sort. Turns out it’s the same exact steering rack and electric-assist motor. Hook me up to a lie detector, though, because I’d swear that they changed something, both in terms of quickness and of feel. To be more specific, the steering ratio feels much quicker. Subaru actually had a standard 2018 STI on hand, and I had to turn the wheel more in it than in the Type RA to get through the same corners. Not only that, but the steering felt so much better, more connected, more precise, less spastic. Grown up? Yeah, let’s go with that. Talking to Subaru peeps as well as pro rally driver Mark Higgins—who gave me a blistering, handbrake-yanking hot lap around the 1.4-mile Desert Circuit at the Thermal Club—the difference in steering feel comes from the retuned suspension, plus the overall stiffening of the car resulting from the carbon roof.
Then of course there’s the added power, if you can call a 1.6 percent increase an actual increase. That said, it’s really more of an increase in torque, or at least torque delivery, than power. Remember, horsepower is best seen at the end of a quarter-mile, not at the start. In other words, horsepower is your top speed, whereas torque is your acceleration. The shortened third gear also has something to do with it, but the Type RA feels quicker than the stock WRX STI. The torque, aka twisting force, hits all four wheels earlier and harder than stock. As a result, an already quick car feels that much quicker still. Subaru claims only a 0.1 second improvement in 0–60 mph (the 2018 Subaru WRX STI we tested hit 60 mph in 5.7 seconds), but passing ability, felt most acutely in third gear, is surely much better.
In summary, it is the combination of the extra grunt, the revised suspension, and the improved steering feel that takes an already good performance car and makes it great. I arrived at this conclusion from time spent both on the road, where the Type RA truly impressed, and on that technical yet fun little track circuit. There were a couple of hairpins that induced then exaggerated the STI’s inherent understeer. However, if you’re brutal with the car and get the front rotated around pre-apex, you can just mat the throttle and power your way on out. Turns out if you’re violent enough, the Type RA is killer little track toy, one that, as Higgins showed me, is capable of fairly insane things. Higgins recently set the four-door production car Nürburgring Nordschleife record in a (highly) modified STI Type RA. The dude can wheel a car even when using a plowing, crossed-up front end to dive into a corner.
Is it worth the money? How do you ever answer this? I’ll just go with yeah, it is. Look, if I were in the market for a new sporty car, I’d absolutely consider the Type RA. The combination of its rarity and how much better it drives than the standard STI would be enough for me to pull the trigger. Still, $10,400 extra is a good chunk of cash, especially for something with a Subaru badge on it. Of course, we live in a world where the carbon-ceramic brake upgrade on a BMW M3 costs $8,150, and it’s a frequently selected option. Again, that’s just for the brakes. (All STIs now come standard with six-piston front, two-piston rear steel Brembos, including the Type RA.)
We asked Subaru what cars they benchmarked when developing the Type RA. First they looked at the VW Golf R. Once they surpassed that, they then looked at the Ford Focus RS. They also spent time with Porsches. Despite being a sedan instead of a wagon/hatch, I think this Subaru beats both the Volkswagen and the Ford. To reiterate, I think $49,855 is a fair price for this rare car, especially if you are a fan of the brand. Getting back to my original point, I would buy the Type RA over the current $52,375 Audi S4. I say that as a 2017 Audi A4 Allroad owner.
But there are buts. Three specifically: the $34,990 Honda Civic Type R, the $35,945 BMW 230i, and the $44,995 Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE. I’d say in terms of pure driving fun, the BMW is on par with the Subaru Type RA. The Subaru is probably the better athlete, but it’s hard to find fault with the little rear-drive Bimmer. It’s a throwback to when BMWs just had that something extra. Were you to option up the BMW the way the Subaru comes equipped, the German’s price would likely be higher. Still, badge snobs won’t even understand this particular comparison.
Then we have the Type R from Honda, the best Honda I’ve driven since the original NSX. True, unscrupulous dealers are charging $15,000 We Don’t Want You As A Repeat Customer fees, as apparently is both their wont and their (quasi-legal) right. Even if the two Japanese performance machines cost the same, I’d probably go Honda. I think. We have yet to do the inevitable Type R versus Type RA comparison test, but stay tuned. However, if the Honda were actually $15K less, I’d absolutely pick the Type R.
Finally there’s the amazing 455-horsepower Camaro SS 1LE, which, well, I can think of a whole bunch of $100,000+ cars I’d rather not have over Chevy’s performance super bargain. I’m looking at you, Jaguar F-Type R. Let’s end this review by saying that only bringing 500 examples into the country is a smart move by Subaru, as there are without question 500 American WRX lovers who will love this car. The STI Type RA is a wonderful performance machine, especially in small doses.