Subaru WRX/STI Generation Guide: Every Generation from the GC to VA

·23 min read
Photo credit: Subaru
Photo credit: Subaru

Overview

Few cars have democratized performance like the Subaru WRX and STI. From forbidden fruit JDM roadgoing rally car to today's family-friendly turbocharged all-rounder, the WRX offers all the flexibility of a Swiss Army knife. Four doors and a hood scoop. Fun in the corners. And when the tarmac runs out, the party just gets louder.

With a new WRX on the way, what better time to take a look back at nearly thirty years of World Rally Blue paint, boxer rumble, and vape pen jokes?

Photo credit: Subaru
Photo credit: Subaru

First Generation (GC): 1992-2000

Long before the WRX arrived, Subaru had already established the turbocharged pancake four and all-wheel-drive rally recipe with performance versions of the Legacy sedan. In 1992, the more compact Impreza arrived, intended as a replacement for the boxy Loyale. Cramming gravel-focused performance into a smaller package was a no brainer.

The GC chassis WRX were potent machines, available first as a sedan and later in coupe and hatchback variants. A five-speed manual was standard, as were twin viscous limited slip differentials and the EJ207 flat-four engine. The turbocharged boxer motor made 237 hp initially and responded eagerly to modification. Subaru called their creation the Impreza WRX for World Rally eXperimental.

To give a rough idea of in-period comparison, this was more power than you got in a 5.0L Mustang, combined with all-wheel-drive for grip. The stripped-out RA version, which had crank windows, no A/C or ABS, and a close ratio gearbox, weighed just 2579 lbs.

Starting in 1994, STI versions of the WRX arrived. Established in 1988, Subaru Tecnica International (at first shortened to STi, later STI) was Subaru's motorsport division. The first WRXs to receive the cherry-blossom-pink STI badge were taken off the line and fitted with upgraded parts. Subaru quickly switched to building STIs alongside WRXs, then began cranking out special variants.

In typical Japanese home market format, the longer the name of the car, the more impressive its performance. For instance, the Version III Impreza WRX Type RA STI came with an engine that made around 300 hp and an electromechanical locking center differential called the Driver Controlled Center Differential (DCCD). The coupe version was chosen as the basis for the team rally machines.

Bootleg WRC videos and games like Gran Turismo introduced a North American audience to the WRX and STI. The hottest Impreza we ever got was the 2.5RS coupe, which had plenty of rally jewellery but wasn't that special behind the looks.

Happily, the first generation WRX and STI have now aged beyond the importation ban. Track one down and live out your Colin McRae racing fantasies for real.

• Or just build your own. For the most part, Subarus are like Lego. Most driveline parts can be relatively easily swapped around. Thus, instead of waiting around for the JDM WRX to become importable, many Subaru fans just found a wrecked US-spec STI from later years, and swapped its 2.5L flat four engine into a 1st generation body. Finding a good condition GC-chassis coupe is pretty tough these days (technically, the internal code for two-door models is GM; GC is an informal catch-all). However, take the time and you can have the left-hand-drive STI we never got.

• You're going to want to start memorizing model codes. There are six different versions of the Impreza WRX STI, and each year brought new special editions. You can't even rely on the designations to be consistent: Subaru variously claimed that RA stood for “Record Attempt,” and/or “Racing, Group A.” Knowing the full model name will help you know if you're looking at something special, or a more run-of-the-mill 'rex.

• Gravel livin' ain't easy. The appeal of the initial WRX is something the current car still offers: performance that isn't restricted to the road. The problem with this flexibility is what happens when a car has endured at least 25 years of abuse at the hands of would-be rally drivers. These cars aren't Skyline GT-Rs, and they thus weren't as revered or preserved. Finding a good condition one will take effort.

• AWD is great for all weather driving, and also introducing rust. Buyers might not think of Japan as a particularly wintry country, but the northern part is, and this means road salt. Part of the GC's lightweight construction is simply through using thinner metal, and rust can eat big holes quickly. The rear quarters and roof around the window seals are areas to watch.

• Japanese market cars are quite different than later US models. While both the first generation WRX/STI and later USDM models came with engine codes starting with EJ, the two motors have plenty of differences. If you need parts for your JDM motor, they may need to be overnighted from Japan, in the best Fast and Furious traditions. Generally, the Japanese 2.0L engines had a reputation for being tougher than the US-spec versions (especially the STI), but these cars are fairly old now, and some parts will be brittle.

• Boxer rumble explained. For a four-cylinder car, both the WRX and the STI have a very distinctive sound. The reason for the signature exhaust note can be found under the car; the exhaust manifold collects exhaust from the heads and pipes it up towards the turbocharger, which is mounted above and to the back of the engine. Because the engine is flat, with two cylinders per side, the manifolds are longer for two of the cylinders. This gives the exhaust pulses the regular beat that's become a Subaru signature.

Of Note:

  • 1992: The first WRX arrives on the scene. The first cars are the lightest.

  • 1993: A wagon version of the WRX arrives. Up until the 2014 model year, a WRX with a hatch was pretty much unmatched as a do-anything vehicle. Regrettably, it seems like Subaru is too busy selling Crosstreks these days to build a new one.

  • 1994: The first STI comes to market. Bright pink might seem an odd choice as a signature racing color, but it's a nod to the correlation between Japanese samurai culture and cherry blossoms.

  • 1995: Colin McRae wins the World Rally Championship in his blue and yellow Impreza 555. Today, Subaru still offers a bright World Rally Blue as a paint choice on the WRX, but the earliest versions were a bit darker. The color scheme traces its roots back to an advertising partnership with State Express 555, a British tobacco company.

  • 1998: Just 400 Subaru 22Bs were built as a nod to both Subaru's 40th anniversary and the brand's third WRC manufacturer title. Today, these widebody 2.2L boxer coupes are the most valuable Subarus ever made.

  • 1999: Japan wasn't the only market getting special editions. Colin McRae's Scottish heritage had UK Subaru fans in a tizzy, and Subaru UK had some unique cars for them. The P1, developed by racing specialists Prodrive, was essentially a WRX STI Type R, retuned for bumpy UK B-roads.

  • 2000: Among the last of the GC-chassis cars was the rather odd-looking S201. Subaru fitted an unusual body kit to an STI and bumped the power levels; it was the first of the S-line models that are among the fastest WRXs.

Photo credit: Subaru
Photo credit: Subaru

Second Gen (GD): 2000-2007

The “New Age” Impreza showed up with a WRX variant right out of the gate in Japan and select overseas markets, but there was still a delay for North America. Arriving as a 2002 model year, the round-headlight WRX we finally got was mostly worth the wait.

Each facelifted generation of this chassis would gain a headlight-based nickname. Dubbed the “Bugeye” by Subaru fans, the WRX was pretty much everything we'd hoped. It had a five-speed gearbox, all-wheel-drive, and a turbocharged 2.0L engine making 227 hp in factory form.

With no trick center differential and a tiny turbocharger that quickly ran out of steam, the WRX wasn't quite as sharp as the Japanese market cars. However, it did mostly impress.

“The WRX is one of those rare cars that makes you grin even if you're just running a mundane errand. The on-boost power from the 227 bhp 2.0-liter turbo flat-4 provides a real rush. The all-wheel-drive handling is forgiving, the steering sharp and the front seats are supremely well bolstered. On top of that, the WRX is a kick just to look at, what with those muscular fenders, the rear wing and the intercooler hood scoop.” • Mike Monticello, R&T 2002


Complaints? Well, the paint was about as durable as chocolate. You could dent the body panels by just looking at them. And in terms of rattles, Subaru carefully installed a maraca player inside every dashboard they made. Still, the WRX offered plenty of performance and box-flared charm, and the optional Sportwagon variant was even more practical than the sedan.

Then the US-spec STI arrived to set the cat among the pigeons. Today plenty of sport compacts offer around 300 hp, and high-performance versions of the Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger all make double that. In 2004, the first STI offered as much power as a V8-powered Mustang Mach 1, and that was before you opened up the exhaust and cranked up the boost.

Over the course of the next three years, both the WRX and the STI picked up refinements but remained raw to drive. Both the original 2004 STI and last-of-breed 2007 STI are highly desirable today. Most WRXs from this generation have been ridden hard and put away wet, so a surviving Bugeye in good condition will be a collector’s item someday.

• The early cars had weak transmissions. Some of the first 2002 WRXs had a weak gearbox that tended to break. It's not so much the car's fault as the inevitable result of handing an inexpensive all-wheel-drive performance car to an enthusiast who promptly does a clutch dump on tarmac. However, later cars are stronger.

• The 2004 STI is vulnerable to theft. Later WRXs and STIs had an immobilizer key, but the first USDM STI was an easy target for thieves. If you're looking at preserving one, make sure to improve on-board security.

• All kinds of overseas-market parts bolt right on. JDM WRXs and STIs came with bigger hood scoops, roof vents, better headlights, and all sorts of upgrades. The Europeans also had better wheels and a few other options we didn't get. The good news is that, as mentioned, Subarus are like Lego. Go to the hunt on eBay, and get a bigger scoop to go with an uprated top• mount intercooler.

• The 2004 STI's BBS wheels are really valuable. Every other STI has a different bolt pattern, but the wheels from a 2004 STI will fit WRXs. This puts a premium on even rough condition sets.

• For every weak point, the aftermarket has a solution. Whether it's oil starvation in corners or shifter action like stirring rice pudding, the huge WRX/STI aftermarket has a solution. These cars arrived in the heyday of sport compact tuning and were supported by dozens of companies offering everything from tuning solutions to underbody gravel armor.

Of Note:

  • 2002: The Bugeye shows up both as a sedan and a little wagon. Owners cheer, then immediately begin cranking up their boost and breaking things.

  • 2003: Petter Solberg wins the WRC Driver's Championship in his Prodrive-built STI. This would be the last rally championship for Subaru on the world stage, but the GD chassis continued to compete elsewhere over its entire run.

  • 2004: While Japanese STIs continue to come with a revvy 2.0L engine, the US market doesn't have the same types of displacement taxation. Thus, Subaru comes up with a 2.5L turbocharged four that has a little more usable torque. Turbo lag is still considerable.

  • 2005: Did you know that Scandinavians came up with the idea of salmon sushi? Anyway, here's the Saab 9-2X, a rebadged version of the Subaru Impreza wagon. In Aero form, it was basically a WRX wagon with more sound deadening, no roof rails, and the quicker steering box out of the STI.

  • 2007: Subaru America announces production of a limited version of the STI. They made 800 of them, and unlike the Japanese tendency to offer more hardcore performance, the US Limited models were more refined, with heated leather seats, a subtle rear lip spoiler, and an upgraded stereo. Still, the last WRX and STI were sharper than what was to follow.

Photo credit: Subaru
Photo credit: Subaru

Third Generation (GR): 2008-2014

Let's not be coy about it: for enthusiasts, this is pretty much the worst the WRX ever got. Subaru took its rally weapon and nerfed it, making it soft and civilized and more accessible to drive. The first couple of years were a particular let down.

Having said that, the STI at least retained its potent powertrain, and was now available exclusively as a hatchback. If you were a parent looking for a way to get the kids to a piano lesson inexplicably held at the end of a gravel rally stage, there simply wasn't a better car on the market.

And, as much as the blue-and-yellow faithful looked back wistfully on the rawness of the 2004 STI, this generation of WRX and STI were easier to live with. The seats no longer gripped you with narrow side bolstering, but they were more comfortable. The suspension on the STI was less harsh. Even the interior quality was improved. Sort of. By Subaru standards, anyway.

Further, while the STI didn't change much over the years apart from a mid-cycle facelift that saw the sedan body style return, Subaru did sharpen up the WRX a little. The company's initial intent was to separate the WRX and STI lines more, figuring enthusiasts would just opt for an STI anyway. But a WRX should be, like a Volkswagen GTI, an affordable performance machine for the everyman, and stepping up to the STI wasn't cheap.

One year after the WRX debuted, Subaru fitted an upgraded turbocharger producing more boost, stiffened the suspension, and added stickier tires. The softer version of the WRX had its name changed to the Impreza 2.5GT, and was only available with an automatic. The manual-only 265 hp WRX was clocked at 0-60 mph in 4.7s by Car and Driver.

“To sum up: The 2009 WRX is what the redesigned 2008 WRX should've been. And good for Subaru for realizing this, admitting it...and fixing it!” • Mike Monticello, R&T 2008

Even better, the 2011 model year saw the WRX get the same widebody as offered in the STI. The STI still had that clever center differential and more power outright, but in many ways the WRX was a better buy. It was less expensive to operate and insure, just about as quick in the real world, and now looked just as good… which is to say, ugly with box flares.

Subaru also bought the sedan shape back to the STI in 2011, making for a strong showroom lineup. If you wanted the big wing and bigger brakes, Subaru had that for you. After a hot gravel hatch that needs to handle a daily commute and haul a mountain bike to the trailhead? Subaru's got you covered there too.

But with news that a new WRX was on the way for the 2015 model year, fans started worrying that Subaru was going to get things wrong again.

• The widebody looks cool, but grip is more about tire choice. Narrowbody WRXs are worth less than the later widebody variants simply because they don't look like the STI. However, the wider stance doesn't affect overall grip as much as a decent tire choice. Save a bit of money, and spend it on upgrades.

• The WRX is more tuneable. With the tiny TD04 turbocharger now replaced by a bigger VF52, accessing more boost through a simple reflash is quite easy. Yes, you can also get more power out of an STI, but boosting your WRX to north of 300 hp requires little in the way of supporting modifications.

• But don't try to build an STI out of a WRX. It's easy to get power out of a WRX to the point where it will easily hang with a stock STI. However, all the STI extras add up: bigger brakes, stronger transmission, differentials. If you're going to be doing serious modifications, you're better off saving a bit extra to find an STI. It's just that the STI isn't necessarily more fun than the WRX.

Of note:

  • 2008 – The STI is here as a hatchback. Cheering! The WRX is a big soft mess. Pelting with rotten tomatoes!

  • 2009 – Subaru pulls a do-over, stiffens up the WRX, and rights the ship. Enthusiasts breathe a sigh of relief.

  • 2010 – The Dirtfish Rally School opens in Snoqualmie, Washington, with STI hatchbacks set up for gravel duty. A day spent here learning the intricacies of the Scandinavian flick should be on any Subaru fan's bucket list.

  • 2011 – More than just a facelift, a mid• cycle update brings new body styles for both the WRX and the STI. The WRX now has the same widebody as the STI, and the STI returns in big• wing sedan form (the hatchback version is still available too.)

  • 2015 – At the Goodwood Festival of Speed, a widebody STI hatchback stuns the supercar community when it beats everyone else up the hill. Olly Clark's “Gobstopper II” is spectacularly be-winged and packing 780 hp. It'll trounce the McLarens the following year too.

Photo credit: Subaru
Photo credit: Subaru

Fourth Generation (VA): 2015-2021

When the current generation of the WRX arrived as a 2015 model, reactions were mixed. On one hand, this wasn't the ball-drop the 2008 model had been. On the other hand, Subaru had raised expectations with the great-looking WRX Concept, shown off at the 2013 New York Auto Show.

Where the concept was sleek and low, with a bulging front-end that looked a bit like something from Jaguar's Special Vehicles skunkworks, the production car was a lot more practical. Yes, it had a hood-scoop and fender flares, but it was overall just an ordinary three-box sedan.

Which is great. What the grumblers missed is that the WRX isn't supposed to be some sleek coupe take, aping the 22B. That was a special edition; the backbone of the range has to offer everyday practicality to go along with the performance.

And the performance was pretty good. The WRX especially benefited from an extensive powertrain overhaul that relocated the turbocharger beneath the flat-four engine for quicker spooling. A slightly notchy six-speed manual was standard to handle the now 268 hp, and thanks to brake-based torque vectoring and a quicker steering ratio, the car seemed more eager to dive into a corner.

“After 40,000 miles of road trips and commutes, a blanket of snow was a welcome reminder that the WRX still shines brightest in the sloppiest conditions. It’s an easy thing to forget; the latest WRX feels more at home on the road than any of its predecessors. So we were comforted by how our final sideways fling in the rally-inspired four-door proves that, even as it grows more civilized on the road, the WRX remains true to the character that makes it distinctive.” Eric Tingwall, Car and Driver, 2016

The STI soldiered on with a retuned and refreshed version of the EJ25 that still made a little over 300 hp. It was far laggier than the WRX, but the shifter action was more precise, the brakes soaked up abuse better, and if you had that center differential set correctly, the STI was no longer an understeering mess requiring a bootful of left-foot braking.

“For the first time ever, there is an STI that wants to turn. This is a Subaru that, unlike any all-wheel-drive Subaru in recent history, can be driven on a racetrack without frustration. And not only does it turn into corners willingly, it'll accept loads of power without pushing wide.
Oversteer isn't part of the car's repertoire, but drive the STI the way it wants, and it at least goes neutral. And fun. And very, very quickly.” Jason Cammisa, Road & Track. 2014

Good news all around. Things got even better when, perhaps acknowledging the importance of the US market to the company's global bottom line, Subaru decided to bring some of its knife-edged special editions across the Pacific. We got 500 examples of the WRX STI Type RA for the 2018 model year, and later, 209 units of the 341 hp S209. The latter was built specially by STI, at a tiny factory that only produces two cars per day.

• The STI's engine is old, but well understood. At the time of launch, many complained that the STI didn't really justify its premium over the WRX, especially with the same 305 hp it had been pumping out for decades. The chassis tuning and driveline upgrades tipped the scales; besides, where the EJ25 wasn't cutting edge, tuners had long known how to make power out of it, and where the weak points were.

• If you make fun of the CVT, may the Rally Gods curse you in some mild way, like stubbing your toe on the coffee table. We get it: the manual is the only purists' choice for a WRX. However, by putting their CVT into the WRX, Subaru was able to double the practical appeal of this quick little sedan and make sure the sales results paid for the car's development. Yes, a proper dual-clutch gearbox would have been better. But take Hyundai as an example: it uses the dual-clutch box in the Veloster N in all sorts of other applications. Subaru is a much smaller company, so just swapping in a CVT makes sense.

• In Subaru Land, modifications aren't the end of the world. The odds of finding a completely unmodified WRX or STI are fairly low. However, mods don't mean abuse, and a lack of mods doesn't mean a car has been babied. If you're looking at a used WRX, is the seller a mechanic with near robotic attention to detail? Or are they a vape cloud with a No Ragrats tattoo? You're probably better off buying from the first guy.

• The limited editions are worth the premium. Both the RA and S209 are fetching big dollars these days, and that's unlikely to change. The idea that a Subaru can be a collectible has been cemented by 22B values, and the 2004 STI followed soon after, if not to the same extent. The S209 especially will be a sought-after machine well into the future. The RA offers less convincing performance for your dollar, but will also hold its value.

Of note:

  • 2014: The new WRX and STI arrive on the VA chassis for the 2015 model year. The general shape, front doors, and trunk are shared with the Impreza, but the chassis is unique, and the Impreza name is dropped.

  • 2016: Mark Higgins pilots a specially modified 600 hp STI race car around the Isle of Man TT course, coming within a half-minute of the records set by the motorcycles. The record is not terribly important, as Subaru is the only car manufacturer to run the course, but the lap is thrilling to watch.

  • 2017 – The Subaru STI Type-RA NBR clocks a 6 minute 57.5-second lap around the Nürburgring. The RA road car that follows can't come close to matching that performance, but rather pays homage to it.

  • 2019 – The S209 emerges as the most hardcore STI to ever officially reach US soil. It's not just a power upgrade: the steering, suspension, brakes, cooling, gearing, and aerodynamics are all reworked by STI's specialists.

  • 2021: Travis Pastrana breaks his own record at the Mount Washington hillclimb with a breathtaking 5:28.67 run up the mountain. His 862 hp “Airslayer” STI was some 45 seconds quicker than the next competitor.

Collectability:

When a Subaru 22B sold for $312,555 on Bring a Trailer, many conventional car collectors were left scratching their heads. Over a quarter of a million dollars for a Subaru? Enthusiasts, on the other hand, felt like their favorite brand had finally been given proper credit.

If you can afford a 22B, then please contact me immediately so that I can borrow it. I'll be your friend. If, as is more likely, you can't, there are a number of other WRXs and STIs that are highly collectible.

Values for the 2004 STI are already on the rise, but it's still possible to get a good car. The thing to do, perhaps, is go through and unwind the modifications on a car that's been owned by someone who turned a perfectly good machine into a project car.

One often-overlooked option is a first-year Bugeye. On the whole, these have been abused into near-extinction, and are impossible to find in factory form. A factory-spec sedan won't have the cachet and performance of a later STI, but they will be valuable, and are great fun at normal speeds.

For earlier JDM cars, educating yourself on all the various specialist trims is a must. However, odds are that right-hand-drive cars won't be quite as collectible in the US market, with the exceptions of the really rare stuff.

Lastly, there's the collectibles from the current generation, namely the S209 and RA. The S209 is the dream VA-chassis car to have, and it’s worth paying a massive premium for. These cars will continue to appreciate; they’re very special. The RA is a bit less special, but it is a limited edition, and will at least hold its value. It's also more acceptable to modify an RA to your own taste than mess with an S209.

The Ones to Get

  • By 2003, the WRX had most of the kinks worked out. Any good-condition car up until 2007 makes a great buy, especially the later wagons.

  • For the GD-chassis STI, the theoretical ideal is a 2007 with some of the good stuff off of a 2006 model, like the aluminum control arms.

  • The last of the hatchback STIs is theoretically a good buy, but they are thirsty and less satisfying to drive than in other generations of STI. You're possibly better off with a widebody WRX hatch for the fun factor.

  • The VA chassis WRX didn't have many issues on launch, so some pretty standard advice applies: buy the newest one you can afford. The 2018 models benefit from a host of small upgrades.

  • Buying a last-of-breed STI might seem like folly with a new and likely more powerful car on the way. However, the odds are that this'll be the last STI you'll be able to get with a hydraulic steering rack. The extra feedback might be worth it.

Notable Issues / Problems

  • The potential for rust in GC-chassis cars needs to be extended to all generations. WRXs are all-weather machines, and Subaru paint is prone to chipping and flaking. Check the usual points where water gets trapped: in the rear quarters, around the windshield, and under the carpet in the trunk.

  • Transmission issues due to abuse can be a problem with any WRX. The STI is tougher, but hardly invincible. Look for weeping differentials or crunchy synchros.

  • Clutch chatter when cold is common for older WRXs and STIs. Less experienced drivers can quickly wear out a clutch, so check the engagement point and watch for slippage.

  • Subaru wheel bearings are made of cheese. High offset wheels will gobble them up.

  • Even the theoretically tougher STI engines like to blow ring lands. Don't overdo the boost, and make sure your plugs are gapped properly.

  • A local rally shop says that a proper oil separator makes a difference for engine longevity. Stay up on your oil changes, and watch oil levels, as a flat-four can be thirsty.

  • Interior rattles are just par for the course. Wind and road noise in a GD chassis WRX are on par with that of a Napoleonic-era wooden ship. You get used to it.

  • The flat four is a pain to work on for some tasks. Step one of the instructions for changing something like an oxygen sensor can often be: “First, remove a wheel.” Happily, the WRX community is large, and there are guides to handling most issues.

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