2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA First Drive: Lots Of Fun, Lots Of Cash
– Palm Springs, California
Those letters at the end of this car’s acronym-tastic name stand for Record Attempt, because this road-going WRX STI Type RA pays homage to a Prodrive-built racing version that hit the Nürburgring last summer. Lapping the Green Hell in 6 minutes and 57.5 seconds, that machine set a new ‘Ring record for four-door cars. The road-going one is a fair bit less extreme, but you will at least be able to buy it at your local Subaru dealer.
Well, 500 people will be able to, as the Type RA is a seriously limited-edition car. If those buyers can rationalize the near-$50,000 asking price, they’ll be treated to one very fast, very fun all-wheel-drive sedan.
Turning a regular 2018 Subaru WRX STI into the Type RA begins with tweaks to the turbocharged 2.5-liter flat-four engine that extract a whopping five more horsepower, for a total of 310 hp; torque is unchanged at 290 pound-feet. A new air intake and a reflashed engine computer account for three of those horses, while a new exhaust with 50-percent less restriction uncorks the other two. The engine also has new pistons and sodium-filled exhaust valves to cope with the increased output. Could you get greater gains from this engine for less money in the aftermarket? Absolutely. But the Type RA comes with a factory warranty.
In the middle of the car, the six-speed manual transmission now has a 4.5-percent shorter third gear ratio, to improve acceleration, along with a short-shift kit that reduces throws between gears by 10 percent.
Various weight-saving measures also cut a total of 68 pounds from the STI. The forged-aluminum, 19-inch BBS wheels save 17.2 pounds, for instance, and the spare tire and rear-seat armrest have been deleted. A carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) roof panel saves 8 pounds and, significantly, lowers the car’s center of gravity by 2 millimeters. It also makes the sedan a little bit stiffer because it bends less readily than the regular roof panel.
“The steel panel is kind of like a spring, but the carbon panel is more like a damper,” explains Todd Hill, Subaru of America’s STI car line manager. “It reduces the spring and the flex in the car.”
Upgraded Bilstein monotube dampers are used for only the second time on a U.S.-market Subaru (the last being the Legacy Spec B). All the aerodynamic add-ons you see in the photos are functional, too, with extra downforce generated by the adjustable CFRP rear wing.
The brakes are unchanged from a regular STI, but they had already been upgraded for the 2018 model with larger Brembo brakes all around. Up front, they’re 13.4-inch discs squeezed by six-piston calipers, while in back Brembo equips dual-piston calipers around 12.8-inch rotors. Subaru officials are confident enough in the brakes’ performance that they don’t equip upgraded pads or fluid for our track sessions in the car – and let us drive the Type RAs back to the hotel after lapping without any parts replacement.
The journey to that race track just happens to pass by a thrilling, sinewy section of public highway that may as well be a hill climb. I rocket the STI up the hill on a wave of turbo boost, the nose digging in to each bend and the all-wheel-drive system propelling the car out again without fuss. The power steering is still hydraulically assisted and, coupled with the 245/35R19 summer tires, offers up a heady dose of detail about the front tires’ progress. And those tires, coupled with the revised suspension, offer plentiful grip.
Most notable of all is the boxer engine’s big mid-range punch, which is critical to carrying speed uphill between curves. In fact, Hill notes that although the engine’s peak numbers haven’t changed much, the torque and horsepower curves ramp up far earlier, so you get more real-world grunt even if the spec chart doesn’t show it.
“Between that and the third-gear ratio change … it should feel stronger,” he says.
Still, for all those changes, the Type RA doesn’t initially feel all that much different from a normal STI. Nor does it sound much different, despite the new exhaust. That’s a big compliment to the level of excitement and precision already baked into the regular STI – it’s tough to build from such a great starting place. The Type RA is fast, fun, and feedback-intensive. But so is the regular STI, so in street driving it’s hard to suss out the difference.
The Type RA is much more in its element when pushed on-track at The Thermal Club’s 1.5-mile Desert Circuit. Opened in 2014, the race track is a veritable playground out in the dusty plains southeast of Palm Springs, with a total of 5.1 miles of race track, plus karting and autocross circuits, as well as members-only villas. An ideal place, then, to unleash a 310-hp sports car.
The sharpened chassis and sticky tires scythe into each turn and deliver big grip as I lay onto the throttle on the way out. It’s planted and precise, with little bodyroll and plenty of control as I cut a path around the track. All the better, then, that the bolstered Recaro seats do such a good job of holding me in place as g-forces build.
On track, that shortened third gear really rockets the car out of corners, with the upgraded turbo engine delivering healthy wallops of torque as soon as I open up the throttle. And when the engine starts to run out of revs, grabbing another gear requires only a twitch of my right hand, thanks to that short shifter. This is a fast way to get around a race track, with great speed through corners and at the end of straights.
Indeed, the Type RA is notably faster if you put a stopwatch to it. At Virginia International Raceway’s 4.1-mile Grand West course, Subaru’s own testing revealed the car is four seconds quicker per lap than a standard 2018 STI. If you’re planning to hit up your local track day, the Type RA will make you look like more of a hero than the regular car.
You’ll look like a hero thanks to all the visual updates, too. On the outside, look for STI’s signature Cherry Blossom Red trim around the grille opening, a new front splitter, plus black mirror caps and badges. Inside, the Recaro seats have red bolsters and stitching, and the steering wheel has an ultrasuede wrap for improved grip. Of the 500 cars to be made, 245 will be painted WR Blue Pearl, with 160 done in Crystal White Pearl and the remaining 95 Crystal Black Silica.
None of this comes cheap, however. You’ll pay $49,855 with destination for the Type RA, which is $12,900 over the base STI and $8,100 more than the STI Limited. It’s a whole lot of money to spend on this car. But you’re paying for the exclusivity and intangible special-ness of the Type RA; I’m sure Subaru fans will snap up each and every copy. It will be sold only for the 2018 model year – no 2019 version is coming.
If you’re a casual enthusiast, stepping up to the Type RA might not be worth the money. Yet for anyone intending to spend a lot of time on a circuit, or devotees who worship at the temple of Subaru, the special-edition is an easy sell. It’s a riot to drive, fast on a track, and looks pretty darn racy both inside and out. As the pinnacle of the Subaru WRX STI range, the Type RA rocks.
Photos: Michael Shaffer / Subaru