The Subaru WRX is a high-performance sedan based on the all-wheel-drive Impreza, with its roots in World Rally competition. It stuffs a twin-scroll turbocharged intercooled version of the 2.0-liter boxer engine into an Impreza shell, with a stiffened chassis and suspension. It uses either a 6-speed manual transmission or a CVT, the latter programmed to cruise like an automatic or shift and feel like a twin-clutch transmission.
There are competitors on the market, namely the Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen Golf GTI and GTI R, but they’re hatchbacks and more based on front-wheel drive. The new Mercedes-Benz CLA45 is dynamically a rival, but it’s considerably more expensive. The 2016 Subaru WRX starts at $27,390.
The WRX has been around since the turn of the century. It was last redesigned in 2015, when it was given a couple inches more room inside and outside.
For 2016, WRX gets a rearview camera, driver knee airbag, and 6.2-inch touch screen. The optional infotainment system is improved. Premium and Limited models get 18-inch wheels with summer tires for big grip. New safety features are available for 2016, including Subaru’s camera-based EyeSight, that incorporates pre-collision braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist andlane-departure warning. It comes in a package with navigation, lane-change assist, rear cross-traffic alert, and blind-spot detection.
In crash tests, the WRX was all good, including a Top Safety Pick in the government’s new small-overlap test.
Standard interior equipment includes automatic climate control, USB port, steering-wheel audio and phone controls, and Bluetooth. Options include heated front seats, sunroof, pushbutton start, and 9-speaker harman/kardon audio system with navigation and Aha Radio smartphone connectivity.
Subaru WRX looks big and boxy for a compact sedan, while the scoop on the hood shouts what it’s all about, and the pronounced fenders echo the sentiment. Almost all the sheetmetal is unique to the WRX, not borrowed from the similar but mundane Impreza. The grille, air dam, hood, fenders and headlights (LED on upgrade models) are all WRX only. The standard wheels are 17-inch alloys, but some models have 18-inchers that look more aggressive.
The flat-bottomed steering wheel is the first thing that catches your eye when you climb in the car. The manual sport seats are covered in a grippy fabric, so good that the optional leather not only isn’t necessary, it steals some of the car’s character. And most WRX owners won’t need power seats, as they’ll be the only one driving the car.
Forward visibility is good thanks to the hood scoop going shallow, not tall; and to slim A-pillars and a somewhat low shoulder line. There’s lots of elbow room up front. There’s reasonable space for two adults in the rear, but three will be pinched.
On the dash, there’s a cowl over the main gauges and a smaller cowl over the 6.2-inch touch screen. Vast expanses of black plastic come off handsomely, with matte-silver trim.
There’s high road noise inside, to remind you what kind of car you’re in.
There’s an average amount of storage space, even with generous bins and trays. The trunk is 12 cubic feet, and it opens to the cabin over the fold-down rear seats. This is where the hatchback WRX is missed.
The turbocharged 2.0-liter engine makes 268-hp and 258 lb-ft of torque over a very broad range, from 2000 rpm to 5200 rpm. It is a tart performer; Subaru claims 0-to-60 in 5.4 seconds. It will arouse every joint in the car’s suspension, and use every gear in its box. There might be four of them, depending on how you count. The standard six-speed manual gearbox or the eight-step CVT. The center differential comes in two types, to go with the transmissions.
The six-speed mates with a viscous-coupling center differential that splits torque 50:50 front to rear, while being able to vary that split side-to-side as grip demands. The shifts are reasonably short.
The CVT isn’t a gearbox because there are no gears, just pulleys and belts that simulate gear changes. It’s the first CVT that Subaru has built, and it responds probably better than any CVT we’ve tested. In Intelligent driving mode, it constantly alters its gear ratio to deliver the best fuel mileage, an EPA-estimated 28 mpg Highway. In Sport manual mode, it allows the driver to paddle-shift through six pre-set ratios that act and sound like gears. In Sport Sharp mode, it responds like a dual-clutch transmission (for example the Volkswagen/Audi DSG), with eight virtual gears, as well as super-swift throttle response. With the CVT, the WRX gets a different all-wheel-drive system, one using a 45:55 front-rear torque split and more sensitive stability/traction control.
The WRX loves switchback situations. The electric power steering is tight and the handling composed. With firm shocks and springs, stouter brakes, and big anti-roll bars, it feels almost stiff on some road surfaces. Hard-core drivers might light up at this, but daily drivers might suffer from dampened enthusiasm. To add to the fun, there is electronic torque vectoring, or undetectable braking on individual wheels that helps turn the car into a corner.
The Ford Focus ST can match the WRX in acceleration and grip, but it doesn’t have the Subaru’s beautifully balanced handling and spot-on steering. Part of that comes from the boxer design of the Subaru engine, with horizontally opposed cylinders that lie flat and low in the chassis, bringing down the center of gravity.
The standard 17-inch Dunlop SP Sport Maxx RT 45-series tires seem well matched to the suspension, but the brakes in two WRXs we drove felt numb and demanded a strong leg. The brakes on the Focus are more fun.
The Subaru WRX has no match, as an all-wheel-drive bare-bones high-performance sedan, true to its competition roots. It’s got a great paddle-shifting CVT or 6-speed manual gearbox. Acceleration is awesome, handling is tight, and the ride is not too firm except over rough stuff.
Driving impressions are by Internet Brands Automotive Editorial Director Marty Padgett; New Car Test Drive correspondent Sam Moses contributed to this report.