Napa, California -- Subaru's gritty, turbocharged, all-wheel-drive WRX has been a favorite ever since it arrived on our shores in 2002. (we pined for it even before then.) The WRX offers unbeatable performance bang for the enthusiast buck, but it has suffered some not-inconsiderable faults, chief among them loosey-goosey steering, awkward clutch/shifter action, and a low-rent interior.
With the all-new 2015 WRX, Subaru has delivered the most changed version of its enthusiasts' standard-bearer, and the comprehensive update has effectively addressed the items on our punch list. The new car's polish and refinement will surprise some current WRX owners, but the formula hasn't been altered so much as it has been elevated.
The Hatch is Scratched
One big change that might upset some of the faithful is that Subaru is dropping the hatchback. It's an unexpected move given that the hatchback/sedan split has been running about fifty/fifty. Subaru product planners explain that they had to sacrifice the second body style in order to get the greater degree of differentiation from the Impreza that they were seeking with the new WRX.
Indeed, the WRX enjoys greater separation than ever from its Impreza starting point. The list of WRX-specific pieces includes the wide-body front and rear fenders, the front and rear fascias, all four doors, the headlights, and the hood. You'll recognize only the roof, the glass, and the trunk lid as shared with the Impreza. Impreza has even been dropped from the WRX's full name.
Of course, the mechanical package is unique, and it starts with a 2.0-liter turbo boxer four-cylinder. Replacing the previous car's 2.5-liter, the new engine is a version of the unit that premiered in the Forester XT. Modifications for the WRX allow the 2.0 to rev higher (6500 or 6700 rpm, depending on transmission) and increase output slightly. With 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, the 2.0-liter barely exceeds the old 2.5-liter's 265 hp and 244 lb-ft, but it does so with 20 percent less displacement.
Two New Transmissions
That should lead to an increase in fuel economy, and with the manual transmission -- which has gone from five to six speeds -- it does. EPA ratings are expected to jump by 2 mpg in the city and 3 mpg on the highway, to 21/28 mpg. For the newly reintroduced automatic, testing conducted in its middle (sport) mode should bring ratings of 19/25 mpg. Subaru contends, however, that drivers who use the more efficient, "intelligent" mode could do better by 4 or 5 mpg.
The automatic, by the way -- the first in a WRX since 2008 -- is a CVT, again borrowed from the Forester XT. Its intelligent (I) and sport (S) modes offer stepless shifting at light throttle openings, but at larger throttle openings they imitate a conventional automatic with six speeds -- as they also do if you flick the lever into manual and start playing with the shift paddles. In sport sharp (S#), there's no stepless shifting and the transmission is always a virtual automatic, this time with eight speeds. It all sounds complicated, but the idea is that you get the smoothness and efficiency of a CVT at mild throttle openings, which won't trigger the droning that is such a CVT turnoff. Calls for greater acceleration bring responses similar to a conventional automatic. The automatic also offers launch control, and it's far more accessible than usual: just brake-torque it and let 'er rip. In practice, it all works quite well, and we have no doubt that an automatic option will open up the WRX to a wider audience -- even if Subaru is expecting only one in five WRXs to be so equipped.
We'll Stick With the Stick
We still prefer the stick shift, however, more so now that it's easier to row. The shift action still isn't as Teflon-slick as you'll find in a Honda, but we like the shorter throws and friendly clutch take-up. The manual version is also a bit quicker, reaching 60 mph in 5.4 seconds (the same as the current car), while the automatic does the deed in 5.9 seconds. That the manual time is the same as the outgoing car's is about what you'd expect given that the slight increase in horsepower corresponds to an equally modest increase in mass -- 59 pounds, with the base car now weighing in at 3267 pounds.
With either transmission, the WRX feels plenty quick. Although the new engine's power and torque peaks arrive slightly lower in the rev band, this remains an engine that relies heavily on the muscle of its turbocharger, which has been relocated to beneath the engine for quicker response. It's not huge off the line, but the turbo quickly comes into play and you're off to the races. Passing maneuvers are particularly invigorating.
Bombing from corner to corner on the mercifully empty and endlessly twisting two-lane roads near Napa Valley, the automatic even in sport-sharp mode isn't quite as aggressive and intuitive in its gear selections as one might hope (think Mercedes-Benz Speedshift MCT); shifting for yourself is the best way to keep the engine on the boil. What came into sharper relief on those roads, however, was the new car's improved chassis.
One Good Turn Deserves Another
The front and rear suspensions feature all-new components: subframes, springs, struts, antiroll bars, and bushings. With the car's stiffer structure, Subaru was able to firm up the suspension considerably (the front springs by 39 percent, the rears by 62 percent). An un-sports-car-like amount of body roll was the price you paid for the old WRX's long suspension travel, but no more, as the new car stays flat through corners. (Subaru claims that body roll is reduced 20 percent.) The ride can be busy and impacts are fairly sharp, but the way the WRX turns in aggressively and shrugs off midcorner bumps is impressive. The transformed steering may be the greatest improvement. Never mind that this is now an electric setup; the looseness has been banished, the ratio quickened, and efforts firmed up. Oh, and the new, flat-bottom steering wheel is smaller in diameter and features a thicker rim.
The nicer steering wheel is just one component of a much-improved cabin. The new seats have terrific lateral support. An available power driver's seat and keyless ignition are new. The interior isn't a design knockout; it's businesslike, but the cheapness is gone. Three round knobs control the HVAC, and the non-nav stereo has an easy-to-use traditional layout. The navigation unit (optional on Premium and Limited trim levels) is unfortunately the same one you'll find in other Subarus, with tiny buttons and touch points. A separate, 4.3-inch central LCD screen displays the image from the standard rearview camera, as well as other functions. With the move to the new Impreza's body shell, the WRX gets a one-inch-longer wheelbase that translates into greater rear-seat legroom; there's also a lower cowl and beltline making for better visibility.
More pleasant and more polished, the new WRX is definitely less raw -- but not at the expense of fun. Devotees of the hatchback might be disappointed, but otherwise Subaru's high-profile, low-volume sport sedan expands its appeal with this redesign. We expect all of this will come at some cost; how much the price will rise from the current $26,790 we'll find out closer to the car's on-sale date this spring. Look for a new WRX STI to follow shortly after.
2015 Subaru WRX
|On Sale:||Early 2014|
|Engine:||2.0L turbocharged flat-4, 268 hp, 258 lb-ft|
|EST. Fuel mileage:||21/28 mpg, 19/25 mpg|