Driving the WRX brought me back four years to when the current generation was just making its debut and I was car shopping. Though the WRX was high on my list, I ultimately ended up buying a Mazdaspeed3 instead. Why? Because the kind of fun you have with a WRX is the kind of entertainment found best on unpaved, muddy, and/or snow-covered back roads where you blast past rows of trees, shoot up and down hills like a roller coaster, and go sideways as much as possible; it’s the kind of fun where the distinctive note of the turbocharged flat-four rings out through open fields while you do your best impression of an stage-winning rally racer. When I left the office with the keys to the WRX, its dark gray paint was sparkling clean from the car wash; when I arrived home, the yellow light of my garage only helped to show off the more fitting coating I’d added onto the lower half of the WRX: dirt and mud, the product of sheer driving fun.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
The WRX wears its flaws quite openly. Its five-speed shifter is economy-car sloppy to the point that it’s always hard to engage reverse (I’ve experienced this on several models). The steering is accurate but lacks any weight or on-center feel, which makes it less enjoyable to drive at high speeds. And then there’s the interior, which is exactly what you’d expect from a four-year-old Impreza. Speaking of the Impreza, it’s been redesigned this year, which means a newer, better WRX (and STI) can’t be far away. The well-received BRZ coupe is also making its way toward dealer showrooms.
All of these factors would lead me to advise against spending $30,000 on a WRX or STI right now. But here’s the thing: our test car costs only $26,841. That’s incredibly cheap for a hatchback that will absolutely blow away a Volkswagen GTI. In most real-world situations (i.e. those without professional drivers executing perfect launches), this humble Subie will keep up with V-8 muscle cars. For the vast majority of performance-car buyers, that alone should put the WRX high up on shopping lists.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
Subaru’s WRX is often overshadowed by the STI, but I much prefer the WRX. You give up one gear ratio and get a less sophisticated all-wheel-drive system in the WRX, but the STI is a heck of a lot more expensive and it doesn’t feel any faster on the street. And there’s a WRX is already plenty fast on the street. Even with relatively warm temperatures and winter tires, this hatch really wants to be opened up.
I especially enjoy the simplicity of the WRX. Some would argue that the interior isn’t high enough quality or that there aren’t sophisticated enough infotainment options in the WRX, but I see a car that prioritized performance over pizzazz inside the cabin. It’s certainly not for everyone, but the WRX speaks to me with its powerful turbocharged four-cylinder, AWD system, and very reasonable $26,345 starting price.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
The WRX is refreshing in its purity. I’d have a hard time saying that about any other car that has such a dour, unwelcoming interior, but since this cabin in such a raw performance machine, I find it charming rather than depressing.
This generation of the WRX isn’t long for this world, since the new Impreza has already reached dealerships. I hope that Subaru doesn’t refine the next version too much, as Mitsubishi did with the Lancer Evo X, which feels much heavier and more cumbersome than its predecessor.
Not that this WRX is perfect: its balance is impeded by the sensation that it carries its weight pretty far forward, its gearbox and clutch feel clunky, and its suspension permits lots of body roll before the chassis takes a set. That said, I recently attended Rally America’s Sno*Drift event, where Subaru reigns, and after taking this WRX on a banzai run down a couple gravel roads, I appreciate its wheel travel much more and am more forgiving of the body roll on dry pavement.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
I’ve had a soft spot for the Subaru WRX ever since I piloted a digital version in Gran Turismo. Now that I’ve driven one in real life, I’m happy to confirm that the turbocharged rocket is an absolute riot. The level of performance and fun for the price (only $26,841 as tested) is really outstanding, and the WRX is the sort of car that I didn’t want to stop driving.
The reason is simple: the WRX is huge fun on any road at any time. I find the unique wail of the turbocharged boxer engine addicting, and though it makes “only” 265 hp, the Subaru feels very quick when the turbo is spooled up. There are lots of little touches that make the interior feel sporty: a large central tachometer; cool aluminum pedals that are aligned so even a novice can heel-toe; and a direct, if somewhat rubbery, shifter.
When the snow falls, you feel like a rally driver because you’ve got plenty of grip. The WRX will even slide its tail out in low-speed turns in a fun but controllable manner. This really is a four-seasons sports car.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
After Nordlicht and Blackwell bombed around on the dirt roads, this WRX was left with a nasty 70-mph shake from the thick pancake of mud inside each of the wheels. To fix that, I took the car to the coin wash on a blustery 16-degree night and blasted away the crud. Then, I gave it a night off from the usual grind, choosing to instead flog it around on some paved roads.
Even on pavement, Subaru’s experience in rallying pays off. Having dropped 40 degrees in a matter of days, Michigan was showing some massive frost heaves in the roads — the kind that cause you to wince right as you approach them. That is, unless you’re driving a Subaru WRX. Then you look like a fool for tensing up. The WRX’s generous wheel travel and compliant suspension bound over it with all the drama of running over an ant. For as forgiving as the suspension is, the WRX boasts seriously impressive body control and handling.
As much as I love the Volkswagen GTI’s upscale interior and polished powertrain, the fact is that this WRX produces more power and puts it to the ground better with four-wheel drive, all for a similar price. The WRX’s turbocharged, flat-four engine emits a delightfully uncivilized exhaust note and yet it’s quite refined in terms of smoothness. Compared to more modern turbocharged engines, however, the Subaru boxer exhibits quite a bit of lag. While 265 hp is pushing the practical limits of a four-cylinder engine, the power curve would benefit from direct injection and more sophisticated variable valve timing. Like Zenlea, I’m hoping Subaru sharpens the steering, tightens up the shifter, and improves the interior with the next WRX. Adding one more item to that list, I’d also like to see more linearity in low-end power delivery.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
It’s obviously been awhile since I’ve driven an Impreza because, unlike my colleagues, I actually think the cabin in this WRX looks pretty good. There is still a significant amount of hard plastic but it’s a bit more matte than what I remember and the controls have a higher quality feel to them. Overall, the cabin has a sense of style that was absent from earlier models which really helps it feel like a more complete package.
It was serendipity that I was in possession of the WRX for one of the few snowfalls that we’ve had this season. A couple of inches had accumulated and the temperature was hovering around the freezing mark so it was slushy but still a touch slick in spots: the perfect conditions to have a little fun in the explosively quick, all-wheel-drive WRX. When the roads are sloppy like this, few cars rival the WRX in terms of fun for the money. It’s less than brilliant on dry roads where it’s poorly tuned steering and vague shifter lack the precise feel that its Mitsubishi competitor, the Evo, has in spades.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
It’s been ten years since we named the Subaru WRX our Automobile of the Year. Back then we called it “a scrappy street fighter…that smashed the established order and took a torch to conventional thinking.” We also said that “this car, at this price, is the best performance bargain in the land.”
Since then, other performance-tuned compacts – think Mitsubishi Evo and VW Golf R, not to mention the WRX’s own sibling, the WRX STI – have joined the party, but the WRX is still a performance bargain. In fact, back in 2002 the WRX was going for $24,250. Adjusted for inflation, that comes out to about $30,000 in today’s money, and yet the example we drove this month cost less than $27,000. Plus, its 2.0-liter turbo four produces 38 more hp and 27 lb-ft more torque.
The WRX could be just the right answer for someone who wants a performance compact that is easy to live with every day but isn’t ready to shell out the $35,000-plus that the Evo, Golf R, and STI command. It’s fun and frugal. And still a performance bargain.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
MSRP (with destination): $26,345
PRICE AS TESTED: $26,841
2.5-liter turbocharged DOHC flat-4
Horsepower: 265 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 244 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
WHEELS AND TIRES:
17-inch aluminum wheels
235/45OR-17 Dunlop Graspic DS-3 tires
FUEL ECONOMY (city/highway/combined):
Cargo (rear seats up/down): 19.0/44.4 cu ft
Legroom (front/rear): 43.5/33.5 in
Headroom (front/rear): 40.3/37.6 in
Dark Gray/Carbon Black
Automatic climate control
Auxiliary audio jack
Tilt-and-telescopic steering column
Power locks, windows, and mirrors
Performance-designed front seats
Height-adjustable driver’s seat
60/40 split folding rear seats
Tire pressure monitoring system
Vehicle Dynamics Control
OPTIONS ON THIS VEHICLE:
SiriusXM satellite radio kit- $427
All-weather floor mats- $69
KEY OPTIONS NOT ON THIS VEHICLE:
10-inch subwoofer- $499
While the Impreza is redesigned for 2012, the WRX and STI remain unchanged for the most part.