- Brilliant new platform
- Improved throttle response from gutsy 2.4L boxer, no turbo lag
- One of the world’s best handling cars for $36,000
- The design was toned down from concept car
- A bolder red on the seats would enhance interior design
- Export model won’t get latest EyeSight X tech
Few car names invoke as much passion, awe, and anticipation as the WRX. Just say those three letters and car nuts everywhere get sweaty palms as they know you’re talking about the road-going version of Subaru’s legendary World Rally Championship winning all-wheel-drive turbo. And for 2022, a radical new version will land in showrooms keeping that legacy alive.
The WRX outlasted its arch rival
The Impreza WRX (‘Impreza’ preface dropped in 2013) first appeared in 1992, at the same time as its arch rival, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. For the next two decades, with successive generations, these two pocket rockets battled each other in the WRC, on rally stages around the world, and for street kudos like two aging gladiators fighting for the ultimate honor in a colosseum. But the Subaru ended up outlasting the Mitsubishi when the Evo went out of production 5 years ago. Over a span of 9 years from 1995, the WRX won three manufacturer’s championships and three driver titles, putting those three letters—WRX—firmly on the map and giving the car cult-like status in sports car and gaming circles.
The car, however, was not always referred to as just ‘WRX.’ Up until 2014, the Impreza WRX and the base-model Impreza sat on the same platform. When Subaru decided to give the WRX a new platform in 2014 when building the fifth generation of the car, differentiating it from the base Impreza, they dropped the ‘Impreza’ preface, kept those three tell-tale letters, and added ‘S4.’
Now, some 29 years after the original version debuted, the fifth generation WRX export model has just been revealed in its final production form at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. And I got to test drive the range-topping WRX GT model to the limit at Sodegaura Forest Raceway, one hour southeast of Tokyo. Boasting a totally new body, enhanced 4WD system, all-new platform with stiffer rigidity, totally new interior and a new larger capacity 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-four engine, the new model aims for enhanced performance and handling while delivering better economy and cleaner emissions. More on that new engine in a moment.
WRX concept’s extreme body toned down for final production model
But before I get into the car’s performance and on-road manners, let’s go back a few years and see where this new model came from. First unveiled at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show, the extreme ‘Subaru Viziv Performance Concept’ (pictured below) gave us a sneak peek at what a new WRX might look like. With its wide and low stance, superb wedge-shaped silhouette, massively flared fenders, rugby ball-sized brake ducts, sharp, aggressive front end and quadruple exhaust pipes, the concept looked like a Scud missile on four wheels. Considered one of the best-looking cars of the show, and arguably Subaru’s most aesthetically appealing concept car ever, hopes were high in motoring circles that Subaru beancounters would retain as much of those sporty, in-your-face lines and edges as possible when the new WRX came to market.
However, while the new car does sit on the brand’s highly acclaimed Subaru Global Platform, shared by the Outback and Forester, the extreme styling traits were watered down. As so often happens when a new model is transformed from concept to road-going version, the new WRX did manage to keep some aspects of the concept like the concept’s sharp hexagonal grille and headlight contours, but saw those awesome flared fenders and over-the-top silhouette toned down for the mass market.
But while the production model now offers more conservative design influences, it does however still feature typically characteristic WRX styling traits like a large hood scoop to feed air to the intercooler, and chunky blacked-out trim on the wheel arches and side skirts is a nod to its off-road potential, according to one Subaru staffer.
Playing the devil’s advocate, however, at first glance these dullish black plastic surrounds take some getting used to and are rather controversial in the motoring world, to say the least. They make the WRX look more like an awkward Forester sedan than a high-performance sedan. On the positive side, these black parts do work aesthetically to give the car a slightly thinner-looking side profile, which in turn, makes the WRX seem as though it means business. The rear wing has also been subtly integrated into the trunk design to help shift the car away from its long-time boy racer image. Although we can expect to see a snow board-sized rear wing on the hot WRX STI model slated for launch in a year or so.
Subaru’s design department also highlights a few functional styling upgrades that help to elevate the new WRX’s dynamic performance. In addition to new functional brake ducts at the front corners of the car that channel air into the wheel arches to cool the brakes, new air outlets behind the front wheels reduce lift on the front tires and improve overall stability at speed. In addition, new air outlets at the rear of the car help to streamline the WRX and stop air from getting trapped under the rear bumper. One designer even pointed to the special aerodynamic texture of the engine under tray that reduces air resistance to improve front-end downforce as a special feature of the aero package. To further reinforce the new WRX’s image into an increasingly discerning market, Subaru has also added a new ‘solar orange pearl’ body color to a range of eight colors.
WRX gets a more driver-focused cockpit with flat-bottomed wheel
It is inside the car where the WRX’s reinvention is most obvious. Aiming to bring the new model into line with more upmarket European sports models, the new cockpit features a driver-focused layout with a flat-bottomed steering wheel and a generous amount of leather, faux-leather, and soft cloth with bright red stitching gracing the seats, steering wheel and dashboard. The idea behind the cloth finish on the seat base is to hold drivers better in their seats when cornering at high speeds.
Carbon-fiber and chrome accents around the air-conditioner outlets, doors, center console, and steering wheel add a touch of class while the huge iPad-sized 11.6 inch HD touchscreen delivers Subaru’s latest Starling infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto built-in. The touchscreen provides high-quality clear graphics and a quick to the touch reaction time when selecting menus.
Two-tone burgundy and dark grey optional seats are made by Recaro and offer excellent lumber and back support. To be honest, however, I feel Subaru could have been more adventurous with their color choices, especially the dull burgundy hue on the seat. Given that Subaru is trying to take the WRX upmarket and appeal to a slightly more mature buyer, it would have been good to see a brighter red used to contrast with the seat’s dark grey and black tones, while a red or signature STI-style dark pink stripe on the seatbelts would have enhanced the interior ambiance no end.
One feature that certainly does enhance the driving experience is the premium Harmon Kardon audio which uses a high performance class-D amplifier pumping out 504 Watts of power that sends your music through its 11-speaker sound system.
The Driving Experience
With the new WRX’s powerplant, don’t expect to find any electric motors or hybrid options. This car packs a new Subaru 2.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder boxer engine – a format employed by every WRX since the original 1992 model. In this new guise, it pumps out 271-hp (up 3hp over the predecessor) and 258 lb-ft (43-hp and 74 lb-ft more than the naturally aspirated unit in the BRZ) and boasts a twin-scroll turbocharger. The torque curve has been broadened to deliver peak output from 2000 rpm to 5200 rpm and it is clear to see that the extra 400cc of displacement, along with a new electronically controlled turbo wastegate and bypass valves, all combine to improve throttle response and nullify turbo lag. Keep the turbo purring above 3500 rpm and you’ll have a gutsy instant boost of acceleration every time you need it. Off the line, the WRX is noticeable quicker and the extra punch exiting corners is addictive. Power goes to both axles via a 6-speed manual gearbox or a new 8-speed automatic Subaru Performance Transmission (SPT) said to offer 30% faster upshifts and 50% quicker downshifts.
Unfortunately the Japanese spec I drove only offered the SPT as the 6-speed manual is not offered in its home country. This 8-speed gearbox is basically a rehashed continuously variable transmission, but meticulously tuned to offer eight distinct gear ratios, which are surprisingly distinguishable, but with a more aggressive shift logic that provides quicker and beefier throttle response across the entire powerband.
The U.S.-spec model might not get the all-new ‘EyeSight X’ technology fitted to the Japanese spec WRX GT, but it does get a tweaked version of the predecessor’s EyeSight Driver Assist Technology that monitors traffic, optimizes adaptive cruise control, and warns you when you sway outside of your lane. This tech also offers automatic pre-collision braking and automatic emergency steering that can steer away from an oncoming obstacle when there is a clear path and braking alone may not be enough to avoid an accident.
On the road, the WRX can only be described as masterful and gripping. The new WRX GT really does handle superbly and delivers its power effortlessly and seamlessly thanks to its new 2.4-liter turbo boxer that feeds power to the road through a new rapid shifting 8-speed auto transmission. It may not be as quick or convincing as, say, a VW DSG 7-speed gearbox, but it certainly does the job.
The WRX GT is fitted with a bespoke drive-mode select switch which adjusts the car’s powertrain, electronically-controlled dampers, and power steering to suit the driver’s needs. With overhauled front suspension, 18-inch Dunlop SP Sports Maxx tires, quicker steering, and ventilated disc brakes all round, Subaru claims the WRX boasts “the highest levels of dynamic performance and ride comfort in its history”. I might have to agree. This car gets the business of going quick safely with the minimum of fuss. When pushed to the max, the WRX jumps off the line faster than its predecessor, stays flatter in the corners than any WRX before it, and resists understeer more than any other Subaru before it.
Its steering is quick and pinpoints with plenty of feedback from the road while its power delivery is instant and effortless. What will impress more discerning buyers is the top-class ride quality that the WRX offers thanks to its new platform and suspension setup.
Prices and Options
Prices have not been released yet, but in the U.S. we can expect the WRX GT to slot into its flagship role at around $36,000, with the entry-level model starting at around $30,000. Expect the WRX STI to hover around $40,000. Competitors to the WRX include the Volkswagen Golf GTI and the new Hyundai Elantra N which is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter developing 276-hp.
As pressure is being put on automakers to switch to electrification and phase out their gasoline engines over the next decade, I asked an engineer why he and his team went to so much trouble to produce such a thrilling car. “We wanted to go out on a high, extracting everything possible from our decades of continuous development and accumulation of high performance technology and all-wheel-drive handling from our rally program. We wanted to squeeze every drop of passion and pace out of our flagship sports car and honor its WRC successes while paying tribute to our legions of fans around the world that have stuck with us over all these years.” Good way to go out fellas. Can’t wait for the stonking WRX STI in a year or so. That’ll be something really special.