Review: Borla S-Type cat-back exhaust for 2015+ Subaru WRX

Listen to as many YouTube clips as you can, it’s always the first startup that makes the biggest impression. Then you dive further into the video, assessing the other crucial checklist items: Will it put a smile on your face under hard acceleration? What does it sound like when you drop down a gear and floor it? Is it going to drone on the highway? And yet, as much as you can prepare for how an aftermarket exhaust sounds, you never really know if it will satisfy until you hear it in real life.
Although the current-gen Subaru WRX is a great car, it is severely lacking in the combustion-generated sound department. Sports sedans are usually backed by a noise that encourages one to drive hard, by vocals that match the sporting intentions; that simply isn’t the case with the stock WRX. The problem for the FA-powered car is that factory pipes just aren’t exciting, which leaves it in the hands of the owner to improve the situation.
Knowing this, the kind folks at Borla sent over an S-Type cat-back exhaust system for my own 2017 Subaru WRX. After a few weeks of testing, I wholeheartedly love the newfound character that emanates upon coaxing from my right foot. The Borla setup is truly a great kit and has only improved the car. Click past the jump for a more in-depth review.

(Disclaimer: In an attempt to make my WRX sound as great as it drives, Borla sent me an S-Type exhaust system on their dime. Happily I installed it on my otherwise stock car, unless you consider mud flaps a modification [spoiler alert: you shouldn’t].)
From my V-Twin powered ATV to my not-too-dearly-departed Challenger R/T, I’ve modified the way just about every single vehicle I’ve ever owned ejects noise. Accordingly, there’s been good and bad experiences. Luckily for my 2017 Subaru WRX the former applies here, as it has only made my car better and more enjoyable not just while commuting, but while driving for fun as well.

The stock setup

There’s many factors that go into creating the sensation of speed, from actual thrust to what we’re about to explore here: sound. Sound is a crucial element of what makes a car enjoyable to drive; if there’s any questioning this, look at the backlash from Porche replacing the flat six with the turbo four in the 718. Sound works to make things sound just as fun as they feel, turning what could otherwise be a good experience into a great one. Motion, and the sensation of speed, is nothing without sound.
And that’s why it’s such a shame that Subaru ditched the unequal length headers, the iconic natural sound enhancer behind the Boxer-four, with the introduction of the FA20 series motor that powers the 2015 and newer WRX. Instead of the deep, uneven choppiness that came to create the immediately recognizable “Subie rumble,” the stock FA engines gets the traditional turbo four cylinder tone. Not that it’s a bad sound per se, but it’s severely lacking when compared to its predecessor. Enter the Borla S-Type.
While not drastically more so, it’s easy to see how restrictive the stock exhaust (left) is versus the Borla based on pipe diameter alone

As such, and as they do with an extensive list of other vehicles, Borla was on the task of improving how the current WRX sounds. In stock form the car is quiet, overly muffled, and slightly raspy; Borla, as they do, sought out to improve on the good and ditch the bad. Here, that means increasing the raspiness, bumping up the decibel level, and letting out just a little of that old Boxer rumble to remind you it is indeed a traditional Subaru flat engine. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no mistaking it for an EJ-series car, but if you listen closely you can certainly hear its resemblance.

Let’s back up and discuss what makes a good exhaust: it makes you want to accelerate hard through the rev range, to downshift just for the sake of listening to it sing a beautiful song written and performed in that very moment by your brain and right foot, to lay on the throttle for the sake of laying on the throttle, to hammer the gas in a tunnel, and most importantly, to drive. The difference between a good and bad exhaust can really mean the difference between enjoying taking the car places and not. Or, going on a trip or adventure for nothing more than the sake of doing so. It can truly be the difference between liking and loving a car.

Initial inspection of the Borla S-Type is positive. Fit and finish are fantastic. Both the metal itself and the precision and strength of the welds are of very high quality. The system mounts up just right, using easy slip joints to stay together, and it looks great to boot. Installation was as simple as simple gets as far as modifications go, taking maybe an hour and a half start to finish. Even the most casual of driveway mechanics would think this do-able.

Upon first startup, I was hooked immediately. The FA motor doesn’t have the same glamor that did the EJ engines, but that doesn’t mean the new powerplant can’t sound good on its own merit. Out on the road I was pleasantly surprised. Borla’s sound meter on their website indicates “Aggressive Plus,” or that it would be a loud exhaust, but it really isn’t. Rather, it’s just right: loud enough to be easily identifiable as aftermarket, but without blowing your eardrums out or droning like crazy. I found, and as of this writing a few weeks later continue to find myself, constantly downshifting, laying on the throttle, or pointlessly dipping into boost simply to hear the S-Type sing. If anything, it could bear to be maybe 5-10% louder. As-is though, it’s just about perfect.
What you’re rewarded with upon coaxing a raspy sound with a snarl and burble under revs and on downshifts, giving you a provocative sense of aggression rather than just a soulless bellow of exhausted gases. The closest I can directly equate or compare it to is that of the Abarth Fiat 500. I know that the Abarth’s tone offends some, but I find it intriguing; to my ears, it’s an evocative, encouraging, even semi-evil note. That which emanates from the Borla quad tips is right in the middle of the tonal range– neither super deep nor very high pitched– but has an underlying rasp, a subtle burble to it. It’s deep down low, and screams up high. Best of both worlds.
The factory muffler (bottom) is quite a bit larger than the S-Type

What’s really spectacular though is that there’s no drone. Zero whatsoever. In fact, while cruising on the highway, you’d be hard pressed to tell a difference between the stock exhaust and the Borla. And yet, drive into a tunnel, drop a gear or three and hammer the gas, and you’re rewarded with a sporting shout of speed. It matches your intentions perfectly, be they cruising or beating on the car as if it’s the final stage of a WRC event. This is exactly how I like my exhaust to be.

If you think you’re going to see any actual performance gains you’ve been playing too much NFSU2. But that doesn’t mean the exhaust won’t make things feel faster, as the aural part of the driving experience builds into a significant portion of one’s sense of speed. My butt dyno tells me that *maybe* the mid-range punch has gained a hair of difference (note that I drive ~25-30k miles/year and know the gas pedal’s reaction time like a doctor knows their stethoscope), but there’s no real, drastic difference in power. There is, however, a big difference in the ever-crucial aforementioned sensation of speed. So while you won’t pick up on big power, you’ll feel like you’re doing so.
To me, the perfect exhaust isn’t oppressively loud but still lets you know of the car’s intentions, and that it means business. It’s aggressive on startup, quiet on the highway, but growls and sings under acceleration and deceleration. It’s not race-car loud, but you don’t need to be a die-hard gearhead to know it has something more to it. To this extent, the Borla S-Type exhaust system succeeds wonderfully; it’s appropriately aggressive on startup, it makes a much meaner noise than stock under both light and heavy acceleration, it’s damn-near indistinguishable from the factory setup during highway cruising, and, perhaps most crucially, it makes you want to drive, to hear the exhaust and engine rather than to just interact with them. At the end of the day, the Borla S-Type exhaust system looks good, sounds good, and reinvigorated how much I enjoy driving my WRX. It’s only made my car better, and that’s the highest of praise I can dish out for an exhaust system.

One more thanks to Borla for sending over the exhaust, Kamil for working out the details, and my buddy Dom for helping me install the system amidst my worsening back pain.

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7 responses to “Review: Borla S-Type cat-back exhaust for 2015+ Subaru WRX”

  1. Ross Ballot Avatar
    Ross Ballot

    P.S. – Video review coming soon!

  2. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    i can’t tell 100%, but i think Ross likes his new exhaust.

    1. Ross Ballot Avatar
      Ross Ballot

      Unfortunately I can’t drive the car for about a month due to back surgery, and it’s killing me. New toys on the thing and it’s just sitting there now!

  3. JayP Avatar

    Borla’s HQ is in my hometown.
    The kid and I were in town while they were hosting a car show and part of the event was a tour of the facility. We ended up chatting with a young gal who I suspected was the daughter of one of the executives. She gave us the low-down on their move to Tennessee from California. They’d just bought a fuel injection company and had a prototype kit on stand. No info on that though…
    Borla is a good company – I just haven’t had a chance to buy any of their hardware.

  4. Kamil K Avatar

    I kinda miss the iconic square exhaust tips.

    1. Ross Ballot Avatar
      Ross Ballot

      Likewise, but I think they’d look out of place on the 2015+ body. I do also miss the single side dual tip exhaust from the first few generations of WRX…

  5. Mike Wood Avatar

    No power gains!? Then why do many say 7-10 HP, why does Borla themselves say a performance increase? I don’t get you guys with these reviews… every little HP adds up, and 10 HP is a start, so why not mention it?