Car reviews - Subaru - WRX
Far quieter cabin, more comfortable ride than before, light but accurate steering, still brisk acceleration, driving position and ergonomics, cargo and passenger space of wagon, sedan’s grippy sedan suspension and tyre combo –even on base grade, responsive braking action and pedal feel, chassis solidity
Room for improvement
Adaptive dampers only in conjunction with CVT, touchscreen can be hard to use on-the-go, spongey handling and tyres of entry-level wagon, no more Boxer warble, CVT not the ideal performance transmission, softer personality and performance than previous WRXs… and most contemporary rivals
Generation gap sees WRX mature with softer, more upmarket focus
13 May 2022
By MATT BROGAN
IF IT’S too loud, you’re too old.
Once upon a time, that was a simple and effective way to let you know that the music you’re listening to – or the sports sedan you’re driving (or want to drive) – no longer suited your demographic. But what if, rather than alienating the “listener”, the music was simply turned down, played at slower tempo and more sophisticated?
That’s exactly what Subaru has done with its latest WRX – and, what’s more, the Shibuya-based manufacturer makes no bones about it.
At the launch of the latest iteration of the Japanese sports sedan, the company openly admitted the fifth generation WRX was aimed at a “more mature” and “less boy-racer” audience than before. And in some ways, that’s completely fine. I mean, as a top-10 importer I am sure Subaru knows its customer better than I do…
But in choosing to cater almost solely to existing customers – and in softening the WRX while simultaneously axing its hardest-charging STi variant – Subaru has forgotten a rather important piece of the performance car puzzle… that halo models attract new and younger buyers to the brand.
To look at it another way, consider that the new WRX is only 5kW more powerful than the outgoing model. It has the same peak torque value and the same 0-100km/h time as before, but is, at the same time, specified with a 400cc larger engine, which, like the remainder of the package, is smoother and more refined, but not edgier.
Of course, the sales pitch is that smoother is better, and more refined is what the customer wants. But when you stop and consider the success rivals such as Hyundai and – I can’t believe I’m typing this – Toyota are enjoying from offering cars with a little more mongrel, it seems Subaru may have very well sold the farm. Time will tell.
Stepping away from the elephant in the room, the new WRX is indeed everything its maker claims it to be.
More comfortable? Check. More refined? Check. Quieter? Check. Slower? Well, it’s certainly no faster than the outgoing model. In fact, it’s 0.3 seconds slower in the 0-100km/h dash than the second-generation WRX (circa 2000) – and, interestingly, “boasts” exactly the same combined cycle fuel consumption figure (10.0L/100km).
It is also the least powerful and torquey all-wheel drive entrant in its competitor set, and the second least powerful and second-slowest accelerating model behind all front-wheel drive rivals apart from the Volkswagen Golf GTI (see table below).
But that’s all somewhat immaterial when you’re selling a car to people who’ve already owned or have always desired to own your hotted-up small sedan (or wagon, which supersedes the Levorg). Subaru Australia says WRX buyers will shop a WRX almost irrespective of the competition on offer elsewhere, and insists the changes made in “maturing” its latest Rex are entirely what its target market wants.
Given I almost fit the target audience, let’s find out if at least that much is true.
We’ve heard a lot about the WRX in the lead up to its launch. We’ve heard about the 56 changes made to the larger-capacity, lighter 2.4-litre engine, its electronically controlled turbocharged wastegate and its STi-inspired intercooler plumbing.
We’ve heard about the quieter and more refined six-speed manual gearbox, and been informed (in detail) about the upgrades made to the continuously variable transmission, whose new chain and variator arrangement and more precise fluid control system enable 30 per cent faster upshifts and 50 per cent quicker downshifts.
And we’ve also heard about the smarter all-wheel drive system, which is preset to deliver a front-to-rear torque split of 50:50 in manual variants and a 45:55 split when paired with the paddle-shift enabled eight-step CVT.
But what we didn’t hear on our drive of the latest WRX was the tiring road noise, or grin-inspiring Boxer warble, familiar to WRXs of yore… and I really miss the latter.
Okay, so the new-generation sedan’s body styling is on point; and with functional vents here and there, a familiar top-mount intercooler intake on the bonnet and shouty (in appearance, at least) quad exhaust tips, there’s no mistaking that this is indeed a WRX. However, when you hit the starter and get out on twisty country back roads, the driving experience is varied – depending on suspension, and body style.
The sedan and wagon run different suspension tunes – even in standard guise – with the wagon offering a softer spring and damper rate, narrower track (and narrower body), differing body heights and ground clearances, and even different tyres. The sedan has grippy Dunlop SP Sport Maxx (245/40), the wagon Yokohama Blue Earth GTs (225/45).
The difference is chalk and cheese, with the family friendly five-door version more susceptible to pitching and wallowing motions than the four-door, whose cornering grip and body control is far more resolute. Understandably, that also means the ride is firmer in the sedan, but not so much that it’s a deal-breaker. The Subaru marketing line that this car is more mature and better rounded than before rings true, although just how purists (who want a seat-of-your-pants experience) will feel about that is another matter entirely.
The adaptive dampers do make a big difference, especially in the wagon. The top-spec tS five-door is a sharper tool than the entry variant, but the sedan remains the pick of the bunch for sportier driving – especially when paired with the improved six-speed manual ‘box.
Which isn’t to say the CVT is a disappointment. For a CVT, it does quite a good job of delivering smooth and steady power to the wheels. But it lacks the engagement that comes with the row-your-own ‘box and, as good as it is, the transmission feels out of place in a sporting variant like the WRX, especially given its 70kg weight penalty.
What doesn’t feel out of place is the WRX’s electrically assisted steering setup. Sure, it’s light, but it’s also direct with feedback levels that provide the driver with an accurate sense of the front axle’s grip. Like the throttle, transmission, EyeSight safety technology and dampers, the steering is variable with the driver’s chosen mode – it was, not surprisingly, most impressive in its sharpest setting.
So, what of this larger displacement engine? Well, the good news is that (acoustics aside) it fits the WRX bill nicely. Power delivery is linear right up to the redline and there’s plenty of torque from low in the rev range to keep the CVT engaged. But it’s truly an engine that works better with the six-speed manual, giving the WRX (sedan) more purposeful in-gear acceleration and more responsive drive on corner exits.
It's not the shove-in-the-back experience WRX fans might have hoped for, but we wouldn’t say the engine is underwhelming. It’s just not what you might expect.
And what of the manual transmission? Well, it’s the same gearbox as offered before, which is to say it isn’t buttery smooth. But Subaru have reprofiled the ‘box’s cogs to provide quieter and crisper shifts, and those who will move up from the outgoing WRX model are bound to notice the difference. To us, the manual-box sedan in mid-spec (RS) is the pick of the litter – let’s call it the sweet spot of the range.
The braking action is sharp, but with enough modulation to trail brake accurately in the tricky bits. A little variance between the vacuum assisted brakes of the manual and the servo-assisted CVT versions is discernible, but makes very little difference to the overall pedal response – and certainly none to the stopping power of the car.
While the stated improvements to the WRX are evident, and its more-polished package compared with preceding models beyond question, we’re just not sure that Suby’s newbie is the rally-bred go-getter that fans adore and revere.
For some, that might be a good thing. But in creating a car that young buyers lust after – and of which legend has been made – this new model is now less of a cult classic than it’s ever been before. If owning a WRX means blending in, the fifth-gen car is for you. But if you want to stand out, you might do better elsewhere.
Subaru WRX performance stats (1998 – 2022):
Quick guide to Subaru WRX rivals (2022):
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