Subaru Impreza WRX STI Used Car Buying Guide

Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

A Comprehensive Guide on Buying a Subaru Impreza – What to look for, Questions to Ask, Common Impreza Problems, When to Buy & When to Walk Away

We’re frequently asked by potential new Subaru Impreza owners for buying advice, such as what to look for when going to see an Impreza, what the known issues are and much more.  This Subaru Used Car Buying Guide is intended to answer all those questions and give you some invaluable information and pointers to give you the best chance of buying a good example and avoiding those that aren’t.

The Subaru Impreza is a fantastic car, offering incredible performance for relatively little money plus the ability to carry 5 adults and all the shopping.  Add to this the Subaru’s huge fan base in the form of  owners clubs, social media groups and forums and the massive aftermarket tuning and styling options available and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular both as a new purchase and as a used model. 

As with any used car, there’s good examples and bad on the market and plenty in between and if this is your first purchase of a Subaru Impreza it’s easy to make a costly mistake when purchasing.

As Subaru Imprezas are becoming increasingly rare (at least relative to more main stream models) expect to have to travel to find a good example at the right price.  We’ve heard of owners travelling the length of the UK to find the right car, if you are travelling a distance don’t get into the mindset of ‘I’ve come a long way so might as well buy it’ approach, treat the potential purchase exactly the same as a more local car, although you might want to pre-prepare insurance, have the funds available and travel with a friend or on public transport to save a second long distance journey to collect.

Before we begin, we should state that this guide should be taken as a guide only to help you when choosing a good used example and as such we cannot and will not be held responsible should you find your purchase is not up to your expectations or develops or comes with problems and issues, whatever they might be.    

Along with this guide we also suggest using the Vehicle Inspection services of someone like the AA or talking to your local Subaru specialist to see if they are able to carry out an inspection prior to purchase.  As with all used car purchased, Buyer Beware is the key.  We also strongly recommend getting an H.P.I. check on the vehicle prior to purchasing, this will advise of any outstanding finance on the car etc.

We’ve split this guide into 3 sections.  The first covers what you should be asking when initially calling up the current owner to enquire about the car.  The second section covers points you should check when viewing the car and finally the third section is a checklist that you can tick off and complete prior to purchase.

Part 1 – Questions to ask when calling to ask about a used Subaru Impreza

Ask as many questions about the car as you can over the phone first.  If the seller is honest with their replies it will give you a good idea whether or not it is worth making the journey to see the car .  We recommend making notes during this conversation that you can take with you if/when viewing the car.

Here are some questions to ask:

Is the car M.O.T’d? if so when does it run out and did it have any advisories – you can check this yourself if you have the registration number of the car on the government web site at    https://www.gov.uk/check-mot-history.

Although the M.O.T can be a good guide to the general condition of the car it is not a guarantee that the car is in great condition, for instance, the front sub frame is covered by a under tray and this is usually not removed for the M.O.T. test and as such can hide corrosion or damage to that part of the car.

If the car had M.O.T. Advisories at the last inspection ask if they have been fixed.  If they haven’t then you will need to bear in mind that they will need sorting sooner rather than later.  If the car has a short M.O.T. it might be worth suggesting that the seller puts the car through for a new test before you buy the car.  It will cost them little to do so and will give you peace of mind that at least the car is road worthy.

Ask about the cars Service History, a full comprehensive Service History is preferable as it shows the car has been well maintained.  Ask if the Service stamps can be backed up by Service invoices and receipts so you can be sure they are genuine.  Depending on model a Subaru should normally be serviced every year or every 10,000 miles, with classic models 1993-2000 requiring more frequent servicing. 

Ask about what fuel the owner uses to run the car.  Most Impreza turbo models will require Super Plus Unleaded fuel or better. 

Also ask if the Cambelt / Timing Belt has been replaced at the correct intervals (which vary depending on model) or you will need to factor in the cost of replacing it, which can cost from £225 upwards.  If you choose to view the car you need to ask for proof that the Cambelt has been changed,  do not take someone’s word for it.  If you’re unsure whether or not it has been done the you must get it done asap if you do purchase the car.  If the Cambelt or the components it runs around within the engine fail, the repair costs can run into thousands of pounds.

cam-belt Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

Has the car has been modified in any way, for example with an exhaust, induction kit, ECU remap, Coilover Suspension?  If so who carried out the modifications, was it a well known Subaru specialist or not?  Any modifications should be declared when insuring the car and as such will likely affect your insurance premium and will need to be declared.

k-and-n Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

Has the car got the original exhaust, along with catalytic converters?  If not, it’s unlikely to pass an M.O.T. emissions test and therefore be illegal on British roads.

Is the bodywork in good condition, are there any dents or scratches? Or rust? Has it been repaired at any time? Has it been involved in any accidents?  A private seller will know their car and should be able to answer these questions.  A trader may be a bit more vague with their answer as they might not know without looking into their paperwork further.   Is the windscreen in good order, for example  no cracks or chips?  Windscreens can be expensive to replace if your insurance does not offer windscreen cover.

Is the interior in good condition?  Are there any rips or holes in the seats?  Is the interior clean?  Ask about the electrics such as windows, lights. 

Are there any Check Engine Lights (CEL) or ABS lights on the dashboard?  The Subaru Impreza’s ECU monitors numerous sensors around the car such as ABS, Engine Knock and Idle control and if any of these fail will usually trigger a CEL or ABS light on the dashboard.  Rectifying these faults can be expensive.  Please note that upon engine start-up all the lights should illuminate then shortly go off.

instruments-1 Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

Ask if the car drives well?  Are there any knocks or noises when driving?  Is the drivetrain quiet?  Is the gear change smooth and the clutch normal without judder or slippage? 

Ask if the seller considers the engine to be in good order? Does it smoke on either start up or when driving?  Are there any abnormal noises from the engine?  Are there any oil leaks?

engine-bay Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

You should ask about the car’s mileage and number of previous owners.  However be aware that a higher mileage car that has been well maintained with 6 careful owners could be better than a low mileage car that has been little serviced and had one neglectful owner.  

Finally before agreeing to go see the vehicle check the price that being asked is fair, by comparing with others available online or using one of the vehicle price books or websites that provide an expected purchase price depending on condition, mileage etc.

If you are happy with the answer to these questions then arrange a time to go and view the car, preferably on a dry day and not at night.  Ideally you should go see the car at the sellers home address or at the traders premises.  If possible take a friend or family member, for help in inspecting the car.   Always be prepared to walk away from a sale if something doesn’t feel right.  

Part 2 Viewing the Car

Prior to setting out:-

– Take a torch to look at the dark areas of the car ie :- in the engine bay and under the car.

– Take this guide and complete the checklist on the last page.

– Take a camera or mobile phone and take photos of the bodywork, wheels, engine bay etc.

– Take a clean cloth to check engine oil on dipstick.

– Wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty.

– Make sure you or someone with you is insured to road test the car

– If buying privately arrange to view the car at the owner’s home or place of work if this isn’t possible.  If it’s a trade sale, arrange to view at the traders business premises.  Do not meet in a public car park or area.

Ensure the area is safe to inspect the car, so preferably on level ground (so you can test the handbrake and check engine oil level) and away from a road with plenty of room around the car to safely fully check the points below. 

Look over your notes made from telephone conversation regarding condition of the car and compare to the actual condition, do the two tally?

When carrying out the checks below, we recommend completing the checklist at the end of this guide as you go.

Bodywork

Firstly have a good look around the exterior of the car, look for any dents or scratches or rust and poor paintwork repairs. Bear in mind some minor dents or stone chips are to be expected on a used car.  Some minor dents can be repaired relatively cheaply.  

bodywork Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

Check the panel gaps for example gaps between doors and wings are the same all round the car.  If one side has wider gaps than the other it could be due to an accident repair.

Check that the front and rear bumpers are in good order, not dented, scratched and secure and line up around the bodywork.  If the car has mudflaps fitted make sure they are in good order and secured well to the car.  A telltale sign that the car has had repair paintwork is over-spray on areas that shouldn’t have paint such as window rubber surrounds and also that sometimes the colour from one panel to the next is slightly different or that the paint will have imperfections in the finish such as a paint run or a flat finish.

Windscreen, Side Windows and Rear Window         

Check the windscreen for damage like a crack or large stone chip.  Check there is no corrosion around the windscreens rubber seal.  Check also rear windscreen and side windows for same.  Check that the electric windows all work as expected and the windows return to the correct position when fully up.

chip Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

Exterior Lights

Have someone sit in the driver’s seat and activate all lights, whilst you check all are functioning including headlamps – main and dipped beam, indicator lights, side repeaters, brake lights, number plate lights, reversing light and fog lights.  Make a note of any that do not work.

Wheels & Tyres

Tyres are expensive for the Subaru Impreza due to the size and performance characteristics required therefore carefully check each tyre for condition, that all are the same size, brand and design and tread depth – the legal limit is 1.6mm in the central ¾ of the tread ideally you want at least 3mm of tread on all tyres.  Also check for any cuts in the sidewall of the tyre – a deep cut can be a M.O.T. failure.  Turn the front wheels full lock left or right and check the entire width of the tyre sometimes the tyres can wear on the edges if the wheel alignment is incorrect.  Check the rear tyres also.  Also check tyres for embedded items such as nails or sharp objects.

tyres Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

Check each alloy wheel to ensure all are the same design and in good order.  Check for scuff damage to the wheels and for any hairline cracks.  If the car has aftermarket wheels fitted ensure the tyres do not catch on the car’s wheel arches, doing so usually leaves a mark or slight groove on the tyres.

wheel Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

Ask if wheel alignment has been carried out recently, and if so is there a receipt for it.

Brake Discs and Pads

Whilst checking the tyres use your torch to check the brakes. The brake disc should be smooth with no corrosion and should not have a excessive lip on the outer edge.   If it does it would suggest the brake discs are worn and require replacement.  If you look carefully with the torch you should be able to see the remaining amount of brake pad material.  If the pads are low they will need replacing.

disc-and-pads Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

Also check each brake caliper, are they in good order or look old and rusty?  Are they original Subaru factory calipers or aftermarket upgrades or replacements?

Sit in the drivers it and if the car is on level ground test the handbrake.  It should be effective after several clicks, if not it might suggest worn rear shoes or mechanism.

Underside of the Car

Using your torch check the sills for corrosion or accident damage and have a look as far as you can under both sides of the car looking again for corrosion and making sure the jacking points are in good order.    Whilst looking under the car check for any wet areas which could suggest oil leaks. If there is a significant leak it will tend to be blown backwards and therefore covering the underneath of the car.  Major oil leaks can be very costly to repair.

Suspension

With your torch look under each wheel arch and examine the suspension struts for wet areas or damp patches.  This is difficult to do without having access to a vehicle ramp, but you can check to some extent.  

Classic Impreza 1993-2000 models suffered a know issue with rust / rot issue in the rear wheel arches of the car, so if you’re looking at a Classic Impreza model be sure to carefully check this with a torch and question the owner about this.  New Age models from 2001 onwards did not generally display the same issues but check to be on the safe side.

Boot

Check inside the boot for condition.  Lift the boot carpet and check for any damage to the boot floor. Check there is a spare wheel present and that its in good order.  Check there is the factory vehicle jack and accessory bag which hold wheel brace etc.   Check for any water or damp patches in the boot this could indicate a water leak into the car.

boot Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

Under the Bonnet

Pop the bonnet using lever on right underneath steering.  Ideally you want the engine to be cold.  Using your torch have a good look around the engine for any oil or water leaks. Look right down the both sides of the engine as some Subaru’s suffer with the rocker covers leaking oil.  This can be evident by visible damp or wet patches on left or right sides of engine.   

Whilst the engine is cold and not running remove the coolant expansion cap on top of the engine carefully  and check the water level it should be near to the top of the tank.    Warning – do NOT do this if the engine is warm.  Using your torch check there is no oil floating on top of the water.  

Pull out the engine oil dipstick and check the oil level it should be between the minimum and maximum marks and if recently changed be a golden colour.  If its black it would suggest it’s not been changed for a while.  If its low or not showing on the dipstick it might suggest the car is not well looked after, as any good owner would always keep the oil to the correct level.

dipstick Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

Whilst under the bonnet check the headlights are secure and not broken. Check there are no water leaks or damp patches around the radiator, coolant header tank and radiator hoses. 

Finally check if for aftermarket parts fitted, such as air induction kit, intercooler, exhaust downpipe etc.  If any of these are present ask for information regarding current state of car, if its road legal (for example does the exhaust have a catalytic converter) and if it’s been tuned (ECU Remap) by a reputable specialist.  As mentioned earlier, any modifications should be declared to your insurance company and will likely affect your insurance premium.

induction Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

If you have someone with you ask them or you to stand near the rear of the car and start the car. Check for excessive smoke from the exhaust tailpipe.   A small amount of white smoke could be considered normal this is just steam produced from the combustion process.  Blue/grey smoke is burning oil and black smoke is excessive fuel.  Apply some throttle to rev the engine a little to see if there is any further smoke.  

With the engine running return to the engine bay, and listen to the engine for any abnormal noises there may be a slight ticking but no knocking noises or squealing / squeaking.   Make sure the engine ticks over smoothly and does not hunt i.e. :- revs go up and down.  Check that the engine stays steady when idling – excessive movement may suggest a cylinder issue.

Interior

From inside the car check all the switches and gauges. Check the door mirrors operate correctly,  check the seat belts both front and rear operate correctly and that they secured. Check the seats for damage and that they adjust ok. Check the horn and window washers.  With the engine running again make sure there are no warning lights on the dash. If the car is a JDM import check if the speedometer has been converted to show MPH and also that the car has a rear fog lamp switch that illuminates when switched on.  When on check the rear fog lamp works.

dash Subaru Impreza WRX STI Buyers Guide

Road Test

Prior to road testing the car you’ll obviously need to insure you have the correct insurance in place and also that the vehicle is taxed and M.O.T.d.   If you don’t have insurance ask the owner to take you out.   Ideally you need to go for quite a long road test to get the car up to normal operating temperature and ideally up to national speed limit.

When pulling away check the clutch bite point and check the clutch for judder.  The clutch bite should be somewhere in-between the pedal travel not too near the floor and not too near the top most Subaru clutches do tend to bite on the high side.

Listen for suspension noises at both lower and higher speeds.  Some Subaru models are known to suffer from front and / or rear shock absorber issues where they will initially become noisy, usually at low speeds over rough ground or stick during shock travel and eventually seize or fail.   Any knocking noises from suspension could be a sign or failing shock absorbers, or suspension drop-links or anti-roll bar bushes. 

Check that the brakes have a good feel – they should be nice and sharp with only a little bit of travel before they bite.  If there is a lot of travel or if the pedal feels spongy or if the car pulls to one side when braking the brake system needs a further inspection to find the problem.  Some aftermarket drilled and grooved brake discs can be a little noisy in operation so bear this in mind.  There should be no judder from the brakes through the steering wheel or pulsing through the brake pedal this could indicate warped brake discs.

When you are happy with the brakes find a road where you can safely apply some acceleration. Check that the car is boosting OK (if it has a turbo). You should feel a surge of power from about 2000 rpm. If the car feels flat it could indicate a problem with the turbo. Listen for any abnormal noises e.g. whining, knocking, squealing or screeching.  When looking in the rear view mirror look to see if there is any smoke when you accelerate.   If safe to do so drive the car through the rev range (up to the redline area).  Keep an eye on the temperature gauge and make sure it stays within  the normal range. Check the gearbox for smooth gear changes throughout the rev range and under acceleration.

Check the car drives straight and doesn’t pull to one side, which would indicate either a tyre, wheel alignment or brake dragging issue.

As you are accelerating up to national speed limit check for wheel bearing noises – they sound like a rumble that gets louder with speed also check for any judder through the steering wheel this could suggest the wheels require balancing.

When you are happy with the road test let the car idle and listen for the radiator fans cutting in.  They cut in when the coolant is about 95c they should stay on for about 30 seconds and if everything is working OK cut out shortly after . If they are staying on permanently this indicates a problem possible thermostat or even a head gasket issue.

Check the air conditioning works if fitted. When on and set to cold it should blow chilled air and be quite cold, with no abnormal noises.

Check the DVLA V5 Log Book and look for the cars VIN number check this with the one that is on the car it can be found either in the corner of the windscreen or on a chassis plate make sure the numbers match.  Check the colour of the car matches that shown on the Log Book.  Check that the car’s mileage is about right by looking back through previous M.O.T.’s and Service receipts and working out approximate miles per year the car normally covers.

Check if the owner has the original 2 sets of keys.  Check also that an alarm is fitted and is correctly functioning.  On the later models of Subaru there is a pin pad entry system alongside the alarm so ensure this works and the pin code is available and correct.

Ask the owner about the reason for sale and consider if this is likely correct.  Ask the owner for a proof of ID to ensure that they are the genuine owner.    

Finally if all seems to be as expected agree a price, make payment and complete the required sales documents.

Checklist

Below is our Vehicle Inspection checklist.  We recommend you complete this as you inspect the vehicle prior to potential purchase.

Item/s InspectedNotes
Boot Area



Under bonnet/Engine bay



Engine oil condition and level


Interior



Road test notes



VIN Checked



M.O.T's & Service Records Checked



2 Sets of Keys?




Alarm



Bodywork




Lights



Windows and Windscreens



Wheels



Tyres



Brake Discs and Pads



Underside of car



Other



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