After graduating from college and landing an engineering job, my first financial goal was to save enough money to purchase a Subaru WRX STI. Not to stash it away into a 401(k), or start saving up for a house; I was driving a ’99 Integra, without VTEC, and I was ready to upgrade. I lived in a cheap apartment, maintained my budget-friendly college diet, and after about 20 months of saving, there was a brand new 2014 STI hatchback in my driveway—ahem, assigned apartment parking space.
It was a mistake.
Initially, I felt genuine joy. I had created a goal and achieved it, but the result wasn’t as spectacular as I’d imagined. The purchase was based almost entirely on numbers. What’s the coolest performance car you can get for under $40,000? Zero to 60 mph in five seconds, 305 horsepower, 290 lb-ft, nearly six inches of ground clearance (good for snow!), three limited-slip differentials, all packed into the practicality of a hatchback. In my head, it was a vehicle without compromise.
When I brought the car to work for the first time, in all of its World Rally Blue glory, my boss immediately wanted to go for a ride. This helped clue me in to the car’s flaws. I had made an expensive emotional purchase, and naturally, my internal dialog defended my decision as the correct one, even when I caught pungent whiffs to the contrary. “Wait for it,” I said, as I went from first to second gear, and then laid down on the throttle around 3,000 RPM. After a brief delay, my boss and I were pressed back into our seats.
This ride-along was a lesson about both 0-60 times and torque curves. Yes, technically the STI can hit 60 mph in about five seconds, but that requires violently dumping the clutch with the engine floating at 5,000 RPM. If you have any mechanical empathy in your bones, it’s not a frequent endeavor. Instead, you politely engage the clutch, and only mat the go pedal once all spinning surfaces are in sync. This provides a worryingly drawn-out delay as you wait for 4,000 RPM, until the turbo finally spools up and all of the torques are released. In the real world, your 0-60 isn’t much quicker than the average commuter car, because the motor is so weak off the line without a clutch drop.
As far as 0-60 times, there’s a pecking order for how important the figure is: Electric beats internal combustion. All-wheel-drive beats two-wheel-drive. Automatic beats manual transmission. That is to say, if you’re considering buying an AWD electric car, the quoted 0-60 is nearly a perfectly accurate depiction of what you’ll experience in the real world. Every. Single. Time. But what if you’re buying something designed purely to be fun? The manufacturer’s quoted 0-60 time might as well be ignored entirely for a two-wheel-drive, manual transmission, gas-powered vehicle, unless you’re at the drag strip with nice weather. There are too many variables to consistently match the car’s potential, so don’t expect it at every stoplight.
While the STI is capable of impressive acceleration, the torque curve also leaves a lot to be desired. Below about 3,500 RPM the engine essentially acts naturally aspirated, and without any assistance from the turbocharger, the STI is slow. The majority of your daily driving happens in a range where the car is gutless. A tragedy among those in automotive media (myself included) is that we love to talk about how a sports car drives on a track, or a favorite backroad, but we’re less keen on admitting how boring it may be to live with. Two of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had in a car have been driving Subaru STIs. Once with studded tires on a frozen lake in Wisconsin, and once on a dirt rally course in Washington. If a WRX STI can’t make you smile while driven hard in the right conditions, you’re probably not very interested in cars. I love that it exists. But to live with? I sold mine after two years.
Driving an STI changed what I valued in a car. I had been saving my money, fantasizing about this do-everything rally car, and when I finally met my hero I was left disappointed. I justified the purchase initially with the happiness the car might bring, but the ratio was off. The amount spent didn’t equate to the joy gained—the car just wasn’t that fun unless you drove it like it was on fire. That’s a big internal hit to one’s pride many probably aren’t willing to admit. I bought it, I must like it, right? Perhaps for some, the placebo effect works. For me, it made me believe six-figure supercars could never be justified. The cost-to-joy ratio simply doesn’t work.
What should I have bought? Well, now that I’ve had the fortune of driving hundreds of press cars, it’s a much easier question to answer. There are plenty of cars that are fun regardless of the situation – be that city traffic, a backroad, or the track. Two prime examples sit inside my garage: a Mazda MX-5 and a Tesla Model 3 Performance. Although very far apart on paper, both will bring a smile to your face even while bumbling through city traffic. Responsiveness is what gives me joy in a car, and both models offer responsiveness in droves. (While the Miata’s not known for horsepower, its handling, steering response, quick-revving engine and throttle response all add a lot to its athleticism.) We should want our cars to be fun in the situations we most often use them, with maybe a bit less emphasis on what looks best on the ‘gram.
Buying my first new car taught me two main lessons: first, the numbers don’t really matter. Slow cars can be fun, fast cars can be fun. Some cars can be amazing on paper, but only deliver smiles in hyper-specific scenarios, if at all. Test driving a variety of cars is critical before buying.
The second lesson is that the correlation between cost and joy is very weak, or at the very least, isn’t a guarantee. Am I here to tell you that a $120,000 Porsche Cayman GT4 isn’t more exciting to drive than a $30,000 Miata? Absolutely not. But for four times the price, it isn’t even close to four times the rush. There are tons of enthusiasts who won’t get out of bed for anything but the most powerful and most expensive metal out there. It’s OK if you’re into that sort of thing. But we’re not all like that, and I know I’m not.
Despite the many flaws of the STI, I don’t fault the owners or dismiss the worthiness of the cult following it created. It’s a special car, injecting raw flavor into an otherwise calm vehicle lineup. Differing opinions mean a much more diverse pool of options for buyers to choose from, and that’s a great thing. After all, if everyone took my advice we’d all be driving Crosstreks, and the automotive space would be an incredibly monotonous scene.
Jason Fenske is the man behind Engineering Explained. A mechanical engineer by training, his videos and written work have been seen far and wide.
Read about more misadventures and lessons learned in our Car Confessions and Hard Lessons series.
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