The cabin is a pleasant place to spend time--even 1300 miles' worth of time--with generally decent materials and good fit and finish. Some of the knobs and switches that have carried through from the 2002 WRX don't meet the high standard set by the Subaru Legacy (which was totally new for 2005), but nothing is woefully chintzy. Everything is laid out within easy reach, though we do wish there was a better place to stash cell phones than the ashtray--this is a vestige of the four-year-old design. The car boasts some mighty comfy seats: four- and five-hour shifts in the saddle were accompanied by nary a whimper from our backs or backsides. Our only complaint is a radio tuning knob on the top-level audio system that makes stations slide by so quickly that you can't stop before you're listening to 50 Cent instead of Frank Sinatra.
THE DRIVING EXPERIENCE
On the freeway, the WRX is stable at high speed and not easily diverted from the intended path, but it suffers from excess wind noise. (On our long flog across Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, we also learned that the cruise control can't be set above 92 mph.) In manually shifted WRXs, the clutch is hard to modulate for quick shifting--you really need to take your time to keep the shifts smooth. We also discovered that it's sometimes annoyingly difficult to put the gearbox into first and reverse. Most of the time, however, the five-speed manual is unobtrusive, if not as slick as a Honda's or a Mazda's.
On the outgoing car, very few people opted for the automatic transmission. We understand why: people choose autoboxes for the convenience of disregarding their transmissions, but with the old 2.0-liter engine doing its best impression of an emphysema patient in the low range, that wasn't an option. Subaru expects many more takers for the automatic in the new car, as the new 2.5-liter powerplant now has some low-end grunt. The smooth-shifting four-speed autobox isn't as quick as the five-speed stick, but if it's a sporty experience you're after, a lever labeled with a "D" won't be on your wish list anyway.
We can't help but love the WRX's increased refinement, but at the same time we lament the loss of some of its wild-child flair. (We're hoping that some of that rough-around-the-edges character may still be present in the stripper TR, but Subaru didn't have any examples available for us to test.) And while the WRX may no longer represent four-wheel-drive anarchy, it still offers tons of fun at a considerably reduced price.