2015 Subaru WRX First Drive

December 16, 2013

The 2015 Subaru WRX may be the most perfect shelter ever ginned up for Internet trolls. We're already super-familiar with their super-tired take on the new turbo all-wheel-drive sedan. To paraphrase: "This car, which is not substantially changed in feel or intent, and which I do not own, is ruined!!!!" Exclamation points theirs.

Rise up, basement-dwelling sock romancers!

And hold up, while you're at it. We're about to lay down the latest chapter of Who Moved My Cheese? The Lactose Intolerant Edition, and to correct some faulty impressions formed mostly out of thin air: That the WRX has been totally invalidated because it now offers a sort of automatic transmission (again). Because it's a little bit bigger than before. Mostly, because nothing has ever been as good, is as good, or will be as good, as the 22b these nonfictional creatures use as desktop wallpaper.

Here's the truth. The WRX is still the hemispherical and cultural opposite of the Camaro and Mustang. It's still a certifiable blast--a whizzy, turbocharged, all-wheel-driver. It's still the plasticky Ziploc slider that forms an airtight lock between the road and the sky.

But in all fairness, it does gives the trolls some room to judge. Some air to breathe.

They're oxygen-starved by the WRX's new turbo four, which is the same tart performer that's in the 2014 Subaru Forester XT--the Best Car To Buy over at The Car Connection. There's nothing not to love here, outside maybe of the warm blast of forced-induction noise that drops by with anything more than a hair of throttle. The 2.0-liter four has direct injection, a twin-scroll turbo and intercooling, and its own cam profiles and valve-spring rates, for a net 268 horsepower, and peak torque of 258 pound-feet that hangs around from 2,000 rpm to 5,200 rpm. We'd say this thing pulls like a train--if trains weren't run by ginormous diesels, and didn't sound instead like David Coverdale's own Conair hair dryer, on the Tumble Dry High setting he seems to prefer.

The WRX's stock and trade transmission is a six-speed manual. It's a cog over the five-speed unit in the last WRX, and its first- and second-gear carbon synchros don't mind a little slam-shifting through its long lever action. In this transfer case, the WRX's all-wheel-drive system has a viscous coupling at the center that splits power 50:50 front to rear, and can shuffle torque front to back as traction needs arise. All told, the manual WRX hits 60 mph in about 5.4 Subaru-estimated seconds, about the same as the last-generation car.

So here's where the trolls begin to win over some of the weaker members of the herd. There's an automatic transmission back on the options list, not just an automatic but a continuously variable transmission.This CVT is not as inequal as other CVTs, though. As we've found in the Forester, it's cleverly programmed (in "SI-Drive") to act like a paddle-shifted automatic when it needs to, and to relax into a fuel-saving CVT idiom when it doesn't.

In "Intelligent" mode, it does the fuel-economy thing, adjusting its pulleys more gradually, tipping in throttle more hesitantly. In Sport mode, the throttle response quickens--and when the lever's moved to Manual, it actuates a program that uses paddles to act like a six-speed automatic. (The WRX will snap into that mode any time throttle use goes higher than 40 percent, too).

Then there's the Sport Sharp mode, the one that feels most convincingly like a good dual-clutch transmission. It actuates an eight-step program for the CVT, with full manual control via those paddles, delivering clean ratio changes without any of the shift shock a conventional torque-converter automatic might dole out. It's no PDK in terms of shift quickness or sheer mechanical complexity, but it must be the CVT that's most fully realized the possibilities inherent in the design.

All told here, the CVT-equipped WRX in its most aggressive mode can reach 60 mph in about 5.9 seconds. It also has a different all-wheel-drive system, one with a planetary-gear center diff and a 45:55 torque bias, and linkage to the WRX's steering and yaw sensors to change torque split.

Gas mileage isn't super wonderful: the manual's rated at 21/28 mpg or 24 mpg combined, the CVT at 19/25/21 mpg. Subaru says if you left the CVT in Intelligent mode all the time you'd edge closer to 24 mpg combined--but who has that kind of self-restraint anymore?

2015 Subaru WRX handling

If the WRX powertrain didn't sway you, maybe the big-diameter anti-sway bars will. In concert with the WRX's very good electric power steering, and its defeatable traction systems, the WRX's drum-tight suspension setup gives it awesome transient responses and the elusive road-glue formula so, so lacking from anything with "Si" in its name these days.

From electronica to hardware, the WRX goes overboard to deliver godly grip. Both WRX AWD systems have electronic torque vectoring--not active side-to-side torque distribution, but a light application of brake to the inside front wheel to tighten up the WRX's cornering line, to a point. And the WRX's stability and AWD systems get their own control: Normal, Off, and a Traction mode that lets you flip off the stability nanny aids but leave on torque vectoring.

Aside from the obvious props given to the WRX's all-wheel drive and low center of gravity, there are higher-rate springs and stiffer shocks; beefier crossmembers and subframe bushings; stouter strut tubes; and more front-end body structure that tightens up the basic Impreza body for small-overlap crash tests but also pays dividends in handling. All of those make it easier for its electric steering to do more with a motor and a rack than most compacts: it feeds in natural amounts of weight and reaction from the road from a tighter ratio than the one in the basic Impreza. It follows kinky roads with admirable precision, though like a lot of electric systems coupled to summer tires, the WRX finds every groove in textured concrete roads and wants to follow most of them.

That might not be as frustrating as it sounds, because the WRX is set up so stiffly, you'd do well to debate its use as a daily driver.

Frigid temps are no friend of first drives, but we had no choice but to flog our WRXs through some sub-freezing numbers, to work it out of a funk and back into one. They took a while to warm up, but the 17-inch, Dunlop SP Sport Maxx RT tires weren't the limiting factor in our hairpin- and pothole-filled path across Napa County. The brakes were. Oppressively numb, with poor pedal stroke and feedback, they discouraged any nuanced footwork. It could have been the ambient temperatures, at least for a little while, but until we learned to stomp on them remorselessly, we couldn't carry WRX-grade speed into the tastiest corners.

The biggest opening for haters is the WRX's body shell. You can fault Subaru for showing off a fabulous concept and then chucking it, as if to say, frankly, we're exhausted by all the work we put into the CVT and steering and suspension tuning. This is the place where a little James Brown would be helpful. James Brown might say he can't go on any longer, but he would. He would work out the exterior until it proved as funky as the underhood. James Brown would come in wearing a cape. Perhaps seven capes.

The WRX comes in wearing hand-me-downs from the Impreza, and that's because Subaru says it's designing it for the first owners who are a little older and more mature than the second owners you see in the stereotypes of WRX drivers cascading through your frontal lobe. It's a refreshing acknowledgement that automotive marketing often aims younger and richer than the real target customer, but it's still disappointing on many levels, like the one in which there's no hatchback model coming at all--it's not even in development.

The WRX isn't strictly a twin of the Impreza, though, it's just unexciting. At least at the front end, the air intakes have never looked quite so massive, or the fenders quite so pronounced. The WRX has its own hood, fenders, bumpers, and lighting to distance it from the Impreza, and also wears a hood scoop that's set more deeply than before and is still functional; LED low-beam headlights are available, and 17-inch wheels are now standard. The front fenders wear vertical vents, the taillights are LEDs, and there's a tall rear diffuser.

Inside, the WRX claims about an inch more of wheelbase, which translates into more interior space in a cabin that's also better-finished than in the last-generation Impreza and WRX. In the WRX, sport seats are specified and are covered in grippy upholstery. A power driver seat is an option, and so is leather upholstery, in case they're absolutely required for your next rally. Versus the last WRX, the new car gains almost two inches of rear-seat leg room, and a bit more trunk space (up from 11.3 cubic feet to 12 cubic feet).

The WRX should carry on with the Impreza's excellent crash-test scores--very good on the NHTSA scale, top-drawer according to the IIHS. It adds a driver knee airbag to its standard-equipment list, as well as adjustable front headrests and a rearview camera. The camera's output is displayed on a small 4.3-in. LCD screen that doubles as a boost gauge display, a VDC monitor, and an audio readout.

It's serviceable, but a prettier display takes over some of those functions when the optional navigation system's installed. We're no fans of Subaru's stabs at infotainment, but the display is bigger, and adds harman/kardon audio with 9 speakers and 440 watts of sound, along with Aha smartphone connectivity.

Among other standard features, the WRX now comes with standard automatic climate control; a flat-bottomed steering wheel that tilts and telescopes; Bluetooth; HD Radio; a single-CD player; and steering-wheel audio and phone controls. Other major options include a power driver seat; heated front seats; a sunroof; and pushbutton start.

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(c) 2013, High Gear Media.

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