Its sedan configuration isn’t the hot hatch that we’d have liked, but with an actual trunk that holds things and room for people and things, the 2016 Subaru WRX STI still manages to blend sharp performance with daily driveable utility.
Where the Subaru starts with economy car roots and adds go-faster bits, the 2017 Nissan 370Z Nismo was built from the ground up with performance in mind. A traditional, low-slung sports coupe with a big V6 engine up front and the widest tires that Nissan could fit under the wheel arches out back, the Z is almost the polar opposite of the STI.
Both of these bright red cars have the same aim — to go faster — but approach this wonderful problem from different ends of the spectrum. With a racetrack as our backdrop, we fired ’em up to figure out which is the best.
Subaru WRX STI
With a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system and a 305-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the Subaru starts with a more high-tech powertrain.
During the drag race, we expected the Subie to have a traction advantage off of the line, but actually finding the sweet spot to drop the hammer proved difficult. Too high or too low and the all-wheel-drive system would just bog down, but eventually we got it just right, beating the rear-wheel drive Z off of the line and to victory.
Later, on the street, we ran into our first surprise of this shootout: the sedan’s ride was nearly as punishing as the low-slung Z coupe over bumps in the road and uneven pavement. The cabin boomed and echoed more road noise despite the Subaru’s narrower tires. It’s weird, but we reckon that Subaru had to take more drastic measures with the STI’s suspension to make up for its tall sedan body.
That body proved to be one of the Subie’s biggest advantages. With room for five passengers and a large trunk for junk, the WRX STI could serve as a daily driver for people with needs beyond the track or back road blitzes.
Now, neither of these vehicles is what we’d call a tech car, but the Subaru’s in-dash system earns just a few more points thanks to its Starlink connected-car features, though even those only look good by comparison to the Z’s stark offerings.
Back on the track, the Subaru proved to be quite an easy car to drive quickly thanks to its various all-wheel drive and traction modes accessible via the S-Drive control bank. The STI’s seating position was a lot higher than the Z’s and its seats — which are quite comfortable on the road — feel a bit mushy for track use.
In back to back laps in the two cars, we also noticed much more body movement, roll and dive as the Subie was pushed toward its lofty handling limits. However, despite its shortcomings, this tarted-up econobox felt remarkably planted around every bend, clawing at the asphalt with all four tires.
Nissan 370Z Nismo
The Z does things more old-school. In its engine bay is a naturally aspirated, 350-horsepower V6 engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission with SynchroRev Matching — the only real bit of performance enhancing computer trickery — putting power to the rear wheels as God intended. A host of Nismo branded suspension upgrades, massive Rays wheels, more massive Bridgestone S001 tires round out the Nismo’s largely analog list of performance upgrades.
Launching the Z for the drag race was tricky in its own way. Getting a good start is a matter of finding the right launch RPM and then getting off of the clutch quickly, but not so fast that you spin the tires through second gear. (That looks awesome, but won’t win you any drag races.)
Despite having more power than the Subaru, the all-wheel drive STI’s traction advantage meant the Z Nismo just barely lost our 1/8th-mile drag race. With a full quarter-mile drag to stretch its legs through, we agree that the Nissan would have likely caught and passed the Subie.
On the road, the Z surprisingly matched the Subaru for ride comfort. Nissan has done a really good job with the 370Z’s chassis delivering an on-road ride that’s rough, but does a good job of soaking up most bumps. However, the painfully narrow Recaro racing seats lose the Z almost all of that good will. We’d simply rather sit on the Subaru’s seats for most trips. Add to that the coupe’s near lack of space for anything but the driver and one friend and the Z just can’t compete with the Subaru as a daily driver.
Back at the track for some hot laps, the Z proved to be the more fun of the two track cars. It wasn’t as computer consistent as the Subaru, but with fewer electronic nannies and a better connection to the engine and to the road, the Z was definitely the more exhilarating drive. The Z also seemed to have more potential to return faster laps in the hand of a skilled driver and, because it didn’t hide our mistakes, made us feel like a slightly better driver with every lap. However, big mistakes were more punishing in the Z, but that’s part of the adrenaline rush.
However, at $41,990 to start and just over $46,000 as tested, the Z Nismo is more expensive than the Subaru, which maxes out at around $40,000. We’d also hazard that the Z is likely more expensive to operate over time with its larger, much more expensive tires and brakes.
Both of these cars are awesome in their own ways, but there can only be one winner.
Despite its tighter seats and low ride, the Z actually proved to be just a hair more comfortable on the road than the Subaru, which seems to almost overcompensate for its econobox roots with a punishing ride. It’s weird, we know. However and despite this, the Subaru proved to be the better daily driver with its back seat and usable trunk. With room for four, it could work as a loud and uncomfortable grocery-getter.
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We’d rather spend a day at the track with the Nissan — it’s just more fun to drive and has more performance potential. The Subaru was a more consistent track star and is probably more approachable by drivers of all skill levels. However, the Subie’s extra utility means that you could load it up with a cooler, tools, maybe a tent and the sort of gear that makes the time between the laps at a track day more enjoyable as well. With the Z Nismo there’s barely room for a helmet and a sack lunch.
It wasn’t an easy choice, but for its ability to not just consistently shred around a course but also to get us and our things to and from the track and everywhere in between, the winner of this Shootout is the Subaru WRX STI.