Never was that more clear than on the launch program for the new 2015 WRX, where Subaru pointed us down a long, somewhat treacherous stretch of road in the tree-lined mountains of northern California. Quick elevation changes were met with blind turns and washed-out shoulders, not to mention rogue bits of snow, ice and gravel that lined the apexes of nearly every turn. Here, I couldn't stop grinning, my co-driver and I switching between second and third gears, with precise steering inputs and judicious braking keeping us safely on the road and not plummeting nose-first into the trees. And the WRX simply devoured each inch of pavement with a ferocious poise that made me remember why I have loved this car so darn much.
But this sort of 100 Acre Wood perfection isn't the only way to experience Subaru's darling WRX. After a long stint of driving back down the California coast on Highway 1, I realized that Subaru's line about this being the best-driving WRX yet wasn't just a bunch of PR mumbo-jumbo. Of course, it isn't without a few compromises...
The WRX has never been a particularly pretty thing, and the new model does nothing to break that trend, despite its decidedly hot concept car roots. Then again, you don't have to look at the sheet metal while you're driving (I've used this same logic with prior versions of the car), and even Subaru's executives know that people aren't buying this thing for its glamor.
What's super sad, though, is that people won't necessarily be buying the new model for its functionality, either – the hatchback bodystyle is dead, and Subaru has no plans to resurrect it. When asked about the decision to kill the five-door, the company's engineers said that, basically, it came down to money – spend it on making two bodystyles, or pump that cash into the chassis and powertrain development. Subaru would rather have one great-driving car than two that are simply good. I get that logic, but let's just say I don't want to be the one to have to explain it to the 50-percent of previous WRX buyers who opted for the more functional, better-looking five-door.
The hatchback body style is dead, and Subaru has no plans to resurrect it.
Subaru says it's done a lot to further differentiate the new WRX from its Impreza roots (including removing "Impreza" from its name), and while there's proof in the pudding, that doesn't come through at first glance. The WRX is a touch larger than a stock Impreza – 0.2 inches have been added to the wheelbase, 0.6 to overall length, 0.4 to height and, most importantly, 2.2 to width. Nearly all of the sheetmetal has been changed in creating the car, with only the glass, roof and decklid carrying over from the Impreza. Given the amount of money and effort expended, it's fair to say we're disappointed that there isn't more visual separation between the Rex and its pedestrian Impreza cousins.
Other 2015 model year updates include newly designed, dark-finished 17-inch wheels, now with a five-lug pattern that matches the rollers of the current STI. (This was something owners had been clamoring for, apparently. Also, where are the WRC-spec gold wheels?!). Elsewhere, Subaru has incorporated LED headlamps (on top-trim models) and LED taillamps. Still, the end result is a car that looks... like a hot Impreza. That said, nobody will mistake it for anything but a WRX on the road – especially in its signature WR Blue.
Other Impreza-ness is apparent inside the WRX, where, despite many facets of the cabin being enhanced for the higher-performance (and higher-priced) model, there isn't anything to really rave about. Door plastics are just fair, and there's a new faux carbon fiber look to the center stack and dash trim. All in all, the interior isn't anything special, but it's organized neatly. Everything is easy to operate, correctly putting function over form. The rear seats are spacious enough for two adults or three small folks, and the bench folds down to allow large objects to pass-through from the trunk, though not with the ease and practicality of a proper hatch, of course.
Everything is easy to operate, correctly putting function over form.
Still, I must commend Subaru on some of the interior enhancements. First and foremost, the steering wheel has been redesigned, with a flat bottom, smaller overall diameter and thicker rim, all of which make it a lot easier to manhandle on back-and-forth switchbacks. Next, the new front seats are as comfortable and supportive as ever. Gone are the one-piece seatbacks of the old car, and in their place are new units with adjustable headrests. Better still is the new shifter for the six-speed manual transmission. It's closer to the unit in the current STI, and combined with shorter throws, it's simply a joy to use.
A vast majority of the WRX's driving excitement comes down to the new 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder engine, which is, essentially, a reworked version of what's found in the 2014 Forester XT. Here in the WRX, it produces 268 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque between 2,000 and 5,200 rpm – gains of only 3 hp and 14 lb-ft versus its predecessor. That engine is tasked with carrying an additional 59 pounds of heft compared to the 2014 model, with the base curb weight for the manual transmission model I tested coming in at 3,267 pounds. Because of this, Subaru estimates a 0-60 time of 5.4 seconds with the six-speed – a few ticks slower than the outgoing model. That said, Subaru fully admits that the 5.4-second time is extremely conservative, and my seat-of-the-pants observation agrees.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard (and hooray for the extra cog versus last year's five-speed 'box!), but a brand-new continuously variable transmission is also available. The question is, which will be the harder pill for enthusiasts to swallow: the fact that there's a CVT in a sport sedan, or the realization that it's actually pretty good? My money is first and foremost on the stick-shift (Subaru estimates that 80 percent of WRX buyers will agree), but I promise, the CVT isn't bad. And it's way better than the old four-speed automatic that Subaru had saddled the WRX with in the past.
The CVT is surprisingly good. No, really.
With the CVT, Subaru has incorporated its SI-Drive system, with three drive modes to choose from: Intelligent, Sport and Sport # (that's Sport Sharp, not Sport Hashtag, Twitterphiles). I spent the majority of my time with the CVT-equipped car in the latter of the three modes, where the transmission lets you work through a series of eight shift points ('gears') accessible through steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The setup is pretty engaging, with quick action on both the "upshifts" and "downshifts," and when left to its own devices, the CVT will snap to attention to put the tach needle right where it needs to be depending on throttle and brake inputs. It will also hold revs high during corners, proactively downshift under braking and keep revs planted in the heart of the powerband for accessible oomph at all times. It's surprisingly good. No, really.
Performance suffers a bit with the CVT, with Subaru quoting a 0-60 time of 5.9 seconds (again, conservative, they claim). The company even says there's a launch mode built into the Sport setting of the SI-Drive, where you can hold the brake and throttle at the same time, the engine will hold the revs, and you'll blast off (you know, the brake-torque method). I tried it, to an anticlimactic acceleration run with the engine revving as high as possible until I crested 60 miles per hour, but hey, it's a cool gee-whiz feature for the wanna-go-fast crowd, I suppose.
The CVT helps with fuel economy, too, though that won't be outwardly apparent. Official EPA numbers are forthcoming, but Subaru expects the CVT model to be rated at 19/25/21 miles per gallon (city/highway/combined). That's not great, but here's why: That's the car as tested in Sport mode, which Subaru expects the WRX will be driven in the majority of the time. The company states that in Intelligent mode, those numbers rise to 23/30/25, but since the car won't likely achieve that most of the time, they decided they had better go with the more attainable numbers. The 6MT car will net 21/28/24 mpg, which is respectable, considering how much fun it is.
The 6MT car will net 21/28/24 mpg, which is respectable, considering how much fun it is.
The beautiful thing about the manual-equipped WRX is that there are no drive modes to switch between. You get in, start it and go – no fuss, no drama, and the power is always there when you need it. The six-speed stick clicks into gear with solid action, and the nicely weighted clutch pedal is perfectly matched with the throttle input. There's a very natural-feeling clutch take-up point, and the throttle is extremely linear and easy to modulate.
A lot of work has been done to fine-tune the 2015 WRX and make it feel more aggressive and more confident than before. The steering ratio has been quickened to 14.5:1 (up from 15:1), and Subaru's own engineers admit that the WRX has sharper turn-in than the BRZ coupe. It's true – this thing goes exactly where you point it, immediately. There's plenty of steering feel from the new electronic power assisted rack, with linear build-up while turning and solid driver feedback.
Suspension tuning hasn't changed compared to the previous-generation car – there's a MacPherson strut type up front, and a double-wishbone setup at the rear. And that's fine. The thing I've always liked about the WRX's suspension is that it isn't overly harsh, and there's this soft feeling of forgiveness over bumps and dips that reaffirms you've bought a solid everyday driver. I'd have no issues driving one of these for five hours on the highway.
The WRX has sharper turn-in than the BRZ coupe.
That excellent tuning is put to good use with the more urgent boost of the 2.0-liter turbo engine, and Subaru has employed a new torque-vectoring system that, on roads like my forest run, was immediately noticeable. Rely on torque thrust to get you out of a corner, and you can actually feel the rear wheels pushing the chassis through the bend, allowing the Subie to quickly rotate around tight twists with little to no slip. Manual-equipped cars default to a standard 50/50 fore/aft torque split for the all-wheel-drive system, and CVT cars adjust that to 45/55. Of course, it's a variable affair, and 100 percent of the car's available torque can be sent to the rear wheels if required.
Braking performance has also improved for 2015, with the WRX now using 12.4-inch ventilated front rotors with dual-piston calipers, up from the 11.6-inch diameter units of its predecessor. The 11.3-inch solid rear rotors with single-piston calipers carry over from the old WRX. In street use, I was never left wanting for more brake performance, but improved pedal feel would have been appreciated. There's a disappointingly sizable moment of vagueness when you hit the stop pedal, and you have to dig your toes deeper into the footwell to get the sort of stopping performance required during spirited runs. As for fade, none was apparent, even after hours of caning the Subie around some of the best roads northern California has to offer.
Nothing about my first experience with the 2015 WRX really surprised me; it's exactly what I expected, in that it's a better car than the outgoing model, but it still has some of Subaru's trademark quirk (odd styling, bland interior). In recent years, Subaru has managed to move between 13,000 and 14,000 units of the WRX and STI models (sales are lumped together), and 2013 looks to be an even better year for the two. Subaru is expecting that same sort of sales momentum with the new car, despite losing the hatchback variant. Pricing hasn't been announced just yet, but the company says the new car should fall right around the same $26,000 threshold as the current model when it goes on sale next spring.
The all-weather capability makes it a no-brainer for folks desiring four-season fun.
The new WRX is one hell-of-a-fun car. Just about everything good about its predecessor has only been sharpened here, and everything bad about the old model is, well, still not perfect. And while you could easily compare the 'Rex to newcomers like the Ford Focus ST or the perennial-favorite Volkswagen GTI – cars that surely offer better interior refinement and more typical hot hatch dynamics – the WRX's all-weather capability makes it a no-brainer for folks desiring four-season fun. As far as street-legal rally cars go, there's still nothing better than a WRX.