In 2014 I terrorized California’s Monterey Peninsula in a new Subaru WRX STI, the baddest kid on the block for under $40,000.
With muscular fenders, hood scoop and an outrageous rear wing so big you could do chin-ups on it, Subaru’s wild child had the specs to back up its pecs: 305 turbocharged ponies, all-wheel drive and enough cornering grip to pull the lips off your teeth.
Only Volkswagen’s Golf R could hold a candle to its performance, but the German’s conservative wardrobe was for a different customer. The rowdy ’Ru was Dennis Rodman coming at you with a taunt and pierced lip.
That was then, this is now. Subaru got wannabes.
Like Tom Brady followed Joe Montana. Like Justin Verlander after Nolan Ryan. Like LeBron in Michael’s footsteps. Every athlete inspires a new generation. So, too, the STI. In the last two years the 2016 Ford Focus RS and 2018 Honda Civic Type R have traced Subaru’s trail as nice compacts turned into in-your-face, tire-smoking, 300-plus horsepower wild things.
How do they compare to the King of Wing Bling? All three are terrific — the margins small between them. I saddled them up on track, city and rural roads to suss out the differences.
For 2018 my $39,455 Subaru tester has updated its fierce face with a thinner grille, meaner headlights and bigger chin openings to feed more air to the hungry turbo-4 within. If you ogled the blood red, tire-smoking 2007 STI “Baby Driver” co-star, then the more-refined ’18 model will make your heart race.
But Subie looks modest compared to the punked-out, $34,775 2018 Type R. With a rear wing stolen off an F1 racer, more mascara than Gene Simmons of Kiss, and more body vents than a pair of distressed jeans, Type R is a paparazzi magnet. It’s all show and even more go.
In Montreal, Honda took us to the track to test the Type R (in showrooms now) before we ever set tire on road. The R is the offspring of two parents, Honda’s 10th-gen Civic and Formula 1 race program. Take 2016 North America Car of the Year Civic’s wider, lower chassis and inject it with F1 DNA: front spoiler, front-wheel air curtains, stiffer shocks, beefier anti-roll bars ... and that outrageous rear aerofoil. It looks like the Civic was rear-ended by the Red Baron.
The Type R is then stuffed with the heart of a lion. Coaxing 306-horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque out of a mere 2.0-liter turbo, the four-pot is the production manifestation of everything Honda has learned in 60 years of motorsport.
Around Montreal’s iCAR race track, the R immediately recalled the Si sibling I tested in Mojave earlier this year — intuitive, planted, balanced. But with 50 percent more power. The Si made headlines last decade with a 2.0-liter, normally-aspirated engine that put out 100 horsepower per liter — a feat only Ferrari and BMW engines could match. In the turbo era, the Type R’s 150-ponies-per-liter eclipses even the mighty Porsche Turbo (143 per liter).
At the legendary Nurburgring, the Type R threw down the gauntlet with a front-wheel-drive car record 7.43-minute lap. Nail the turbo to 7,000 rpms and somehow the front Pirelli Sports stay on despite 295 torques coursing through them.
This muscle-bound physique is only an issue in low speed second-gear corners as torque overwhelms the steering, and the tires fling asphalt like a mutt digging for a bone. Throttle management is required. I pine for the STI’s all-wheel traction.
Next to these two wing nuts, the squat $39,560 Focus RS looks positively working-class. No exotic triple or quad pipes here — just twins. No wing, just a big, hatch-hitched spoiler. The face is inelegant — its bumper stuffed into its enlarged grille like Rocky Balboa’s mouthpiece. But like Rocky, this thing is a champ.
Underneath its hood are 350 horses and the most sophisticated powertrain of the lot: a torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system with twin rear clutch packs that speed up the outside rear wheels for better rotation (the STI’s AWD system uses inside-wheel braking). Fifty horses shy of the Focus RS, the Subaru STI still matches the Focus on zero-60 and quarter-mile times. But despite its cosmetic upgrades, the STI did not get sister Impreza’s all-new architecture — an oversight that also puts it a generation behind the Honda. The old bones of the Focus are no match for Honda, either — but its powertrain compensates.
On track at Waterford Raceway, the Ford rotated nimbly through the long, challenging Carousel — then put down the AWD power on exit.
The hard-backed seats and stiff suspension of the RS will beat you up around town, though, the nose porpoise-ing along Detroit’s choppy roads. Type R’s comfortable thrones are better daily wear. The Subaru’s Recaros? Somewhere between the two.
On the road, the Type R may be a Rottweiler off its chain — bounding around country roads looking for something to chew on — but its Comfort setting is the most livable, dialing back the ride from rock hard to merely stiff.
The four-banger of the RS brings welcome character. It roars furiously with the pedal down, then farts and pops when you let off. It’s wonderfully obnoxious compared to the STI’s flat-4 VW Beetle-like putter, and the Type R’s generic bark.
If you don’t know how to drive a stick, you’re in the wrong aisle. These bad boys come manual only.
The Honda’s silver ball-topped shifter is the standout here, its short throws making for easy box navigation. It’s an entree to the car’s well-thought out ergonomics from seats to center console to easy-pull rear shade. Even with the third pipe exhaust resonator the car is quiet inside.
Infotainment systems? Huh? Are the cars not entertainment enough? Suffice to say all offer Apple CarPlay/Android Auto apps to get you to the local track.
I am also biased to the hot hatches — the RS and Type R’s five-door utility matching their performance. Load ’em with luggage for South Haven, blitz Gingerman Raceway for track day, then hang at the beach afterward. The STI sedan is less space efficient — but at least you can dry your wet towel over the rear wing.
The verdict? Focus RS is the performance champ, but the content-rich Type R lays down a new marker of wing-bling affordability for a cool $5K less than its rivals. The STI, meanwhile, plots in the shadows. When it gets the Impreza’s new chassis, watch out.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2018 Honda Civic Type R
Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger hatchback
2.0-liter, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder
306 horsepower, 295 pound-feet torque
0-60 mph, 5.0 seconds (Car and Driver); 170 mph
EPA est. mpg: 22 city/28 highway/25 combined
New wing-bling champ; the budget choice
Wing-bling may not be your thing;
tough putting power down with FWD
2017 Ford Focus RS
Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger hatchback
2.3-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder
$36,995 base ($39,560 as tested)
350 horsepower, 350 pound-feet torque
0-60 mph, 4.7 seconds (manufacturer); top speed: 165 mph
EPA 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway/25 mpg combined
Track champ; AWD OMG
stiff daily driver
2018 Subaru WRX STI
Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan
2.5-liter, turbocharged, boxer 4-cylinder
$36,995 base ($39,455 as tested)
305 horsepower, 290 pound-feet torque
0-60 mph, 4.7 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 159 mph
EPA est. mpg: 17 city/23 highway/19 combined
Powerful flat-4; traction ready for action
Aging chassis; hatchback, please?
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★