By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Sometimes, less is more.
The just-updated Subaru WRX, for instance. It has less engine than previously — but more power. Performance is better — and gas mileage has upticked noticeably.
Also noticeable is the new six-speed manual transmission, which has one more gear than the previous WRX’s five-speed box.
One other thing’s that’s less, by the way, is available body styles. The new WRX (and STi) are sedan-only deals now. The formerly available hatchback version isn’t.
Also of note, it’s just WRX now. Not Impreza WRX.
Just as Pontiac once upon a time cut the cord between the GTO and the grocery-getter Tempest it was based on, so also Subaru has decided it’s time for the WRX (and WRX STi) to be models in their own right rather than an optional package you can add to an existing model.
To emphasize the point, the all-new 2015 WRX (and WRX STi) was launched ahead of the 2015 Impreza.
WHAT IT IS
The WRX is a compact-sized, all-wheel-drive high-performance sedan inspired by World Rally Cup competition cars. Unlike traditional muscle cars — and sporty cars in general — the WRX is made to be driven really fast in almost any conditions –including snow and rain.
The WRX — along with its primary rival, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution — pioneered affordable all-wheel-drive high-performance and appeals to the same demographic today (the under 35 set) that bought GTOs and other muscle cars back in the day.
Base price for the 2015 WRX with six-speed manual transmission is $26,295. A Limited trim with continuously variable (CVT) automatic stickers for $31,195. The even higher-performance WRX STi’s base price is $34,495 — topping out at $37,395 for the Launch edition.
All versions of the WRX STi are manual transmission-only.
While the STi’s traditional competition is the Mitsubishi EVO (base price $34,495) others are about to enter the fray — including the almost-here 2015 VW Golf R, which will also feature a powerful turbocharged engine as well as standard all-wheel-drive.
However, neither Mitsubishi nor VW offer a direct WRX competitor.
The regular Golf maxxes out at 170 hp (vs. 268 for the ’15 WRX) and is not offered with all-wheel-drive. You can buy a Golf GTI ($24,395) and get 210-220 hp, but not all-wheel-drive.
The highest-performing non-EVO version of the Mitsubishi Lancer, meanwhile, is the Lancer Sportback. It’s much less expensive ($18,595 to start) but much less powerful (148 hp) and also automatic-only.
The ’15 WRX is completely redesigned.
Improved economy doesn’t come at the cost of diminished performance.
Six-speed manual… finally!
A sporty car that’s also a great snow-day car.
Historically, these Soobies are tough — and can take hard use without falling to pieces.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Similar straight-line fun (if not snow-day capability) can be found in FWD “fast and furious” sport compacts such as the Ford Focus ST and MazdaSpeed3 for thousands less.
Just the one body style now.
Manual six-speed clutch is either in — or out. Takes some time to learn to drive it smoothly when you’re not driving it Banzai! style.
Standard infotainment LCD display is small (4.3 inches) and an upgrade is only available in the more expensive trims.
Choose the optional CVT automatic and lose 3 MPG on the highway.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Soobie’s turbocharged “boxer” (horizontally opposed) four-cylinder engine is smaller now — just 2 liters vs. the previous WRX’s 2.5 liter engine. But there’s been no down-sizing of power, or performance.
The new engine makes 268 hp — three more than the old 2.5 liter engine — and (interestingly) 14 ft.-lbs. more torque, which increases to 258 ft.-lbs. from 244 ft.-lbs. previously. Why is this interesting? Because — usually — a smaller engine makes less torque than a larger one, all else being equal. But here, the smaller engine makes more horsepower and torque.
The triple play comes when you mash the accelerator. The ’15 WRX is even quicker than the outgoing WRX, launching itself to 60 in about 5.2-5.3 seconds (depending on the driver and which transmission you opt for, either the standard six-speed manual or the CVT automatic).
The old car did the same deed in about 5.4 seconds.
It was also thirstier.
Too thirsty for comfort given the government’s not-far-off mandate that all new cars average 35.5 MPG. The ’14 WRX was in the high teens in city driving — and best-cased mid-20s on the highway. The smaller-engined 2015 delivers a much more palatable 21 city and 28 on the highway, the latter figure not too far removed from the golden-aura’d 35.5 MPG average figure demanded by Uncle. It’s not quite there — and people shopping a performance car like the WRX probably won’t care. But the gap is narrow enough now that the new WRX doesn’t stick out too much for its consumptiveness — and any punitive “gas guzzler” fines ought to be tokens rather than massive burdens.
One caveat: The WRX’s optional CVT automatic lowers the WRX’s EPA fuel economy numbers. They drop to 19 city, 25 highway — same as the old car’s.
This is also interesting — unusual — because these days, usually, it is the automatic-equipped variant of a given vehicle that will deliver the best gas mileage. Especially when the automatic is a CVT, which is a direct-drive automatic that does not use hydraulic fluid to transmit engine power to the driven wheels. CVTs were brought to market specifically and chiefly to increase fuel economy vs. traditional/conventional hydraulic automatics.
But — strangely — that’s not the case here.
Another interesting thing about the ’15 WRX is that the STi ultra-performance version still uses the larger 2.5 liter engine, which carries the same 305 hp and 290 ft.-lbs. of torque ratings as previously. Why not a pumped-up version of the WRX’s 2.0 engine instead? Probably because the STI’s larger engine can produce that kind of power with a bit less turbo boost — and a bit less stress on the internals. This is a production car, after all. Durability (and warranty) concerns are as real — and perhaps even more important — than how much power it makes and how quickly it goes.
As before, the STi is manual (six-speed) only. This fact ought to please the hard-core, as well as steal away some of the sunshine from the soon-to-be-here 290 hp/AWD 2015 VW Golf R, which — reportedly — will only be offered with an automatic.
ON THE ROAD
You can do things in a high-performance AWD car that are harder to do — or not doable at all — in rear-drive or front-wheel-drive performance cars. You have the RWD car’s cornering advantage — being able to use the throttle to increase traction to the rear wheels by transferring force (and so, weight) from front to rear — without the RWD car’s disadvantage of not being able to kick power from rear to front when the drive wheels begin to lose traction. And of course, a FWD car has both the disadvantages not being able to use the rear wheels to throttle steer or use all four wheels to maintain traction.
The driver-adjustable AWD system lets you fine-tune the power split via a sliding “C. Diff” control on the center console. Send more — or less — power to the rear (or front) wheels, as you like. There are also driver-adjustable multi-mode settings (Sport, Sport-Sharp. etc.) for throttle tip-in and so on.
The Soobie’s only deficient in one respect that will only matter to the few hoons (an Aussie term; look it up) who still care about being able to lay rubber. This the WRX cannot do — or at least, it’s a lot harder to do it than it is in either a FWD or RWD car. It can be done — just try it sideways rather than straight ahead.
But it’s not all about performance — or hooliganism. The WRX is actually — surprisingly — a pretty practical car. Because unlike most FWD and RWD performance cars — which are disasters in winter and iffy even in the wet — the Soobie is at home in both. It will even take to grass and dirt, with ground clearance being the car’s main handicap there. But on paved roads — rain, snow or sun — the thing is all-but-unstoppable. Fitted with winter tires, it’s almost better than a 4WD truck or SUV. Is better, actually — in everything but deep snow (with ground clearance once again being the car’s only real weakness in terms of dealing with that sort of thing). Remember: truck-type four-wheel-drive is set-up chiefly for off-roading, on even terrain. All-wheel-drive is optimized for on-street driving.
And high-speed cornering.
Yes, yes. The ride is stiff. It’s supposed to be. What were you expecting? I read bitch reviews by overweight old men who ought to have given up this gig 20 years ago complaining about how hard the seats are to get into, how the seats hurt their backs. It’s as silly as a 22-year-old kvetching about the S-Class Benz being too quiet.
The one gripe, driving-wise, I’ll spew about the car is the too-small standard-issue LCD screen. Get your ruler out and measure 4.3 inches. Size matters. For reference, the display screen in the Kia Soul I tested out a few weeks ago had an 8 inch screen. There’s only so much you can fit on 4.3 inches — and most of what you can fit has to be small. Which makes it hard to read, no matter how eagle-eyed your eyesight. The optional screen is much better — but it costs extra. And it’s not available at all on the base trims, which is a mean trick in my book.
One other small thing. The clutch is fairly sensitive and — if you’re new to high-performance cars with manuals — you might do the herky-jerky until you master the nuances. But the payoff is positive engagement and track-car communication, which is what people who buy cars like this want in a car like this.
AT THE CURB
The new WRX’s styling is (pardon the term) evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The molded in body haunches and other souped-up stuff looks less added-on (as in the past, to transform a grocery getter Impreza into a WRX) and that’s good. The new car has enough visual distinction — in addition to its mechanical distinctions — to set it apart from the Impreza.
Two areas of objective departure are the increased width of the new car (70.7 inches vs. 68.5 for the outgoing ’14) which — oddly — doesn’t translate into increased hip/shoulder room inside the car (specifications are nearly identical for the 2015 and the 2014) and the take-it-or-leave-it sedan-only bodystyle.
Subaru must believe the sedan’s what people want — or rather, that not enough people want the five-door hatchback to make it worth building. Then again, it arguably gives potential competitors — like the VW Golf — a leg up. Or at least, something to tout that they’ve got (i.e., multiple bodystyles) that the Soobie hasn’t got.
Which includes trunk space.
There’s not much — only 12 cubes’ worth. About the same as in a Miata — and that’s a two-seater. The outgoing WRX hatchback wagon, in contrast, had nearly 20 cubic feet of cargo capacity and more truly usable interior space by dint of the hatchback layout.
I’ll miss it.
The dash and center stack are pretty conventionally laid out and combine an analog main cluster with an LCD upper info center that can be toggled through various displays, including a turbo boost gauge and “power split” graphic that shows how the AWD system is putting the power to the ground. Other than the too-small size of the base LCD display, everything’s sensibly positioned, attractive if not knock-your socks off and most important of all, does not distract from the business of driving — which is ultimately what a car of this type is all about.
As before, the WRX is more under-the-radar than the STi — especially the special edition (limited to 1,000 copies) Launch Edition, which comes with contrast-gold anodized BBS wheels and, of course, the 747-style wing on the trunk lid.
Both the regular WRX and the STi can be ordered with a freer-flowing (read: louder) exhaust that makes the car sound faster, even if it’s not actually any faster.
The STi is as impressive as ever but now has several direct cross shops to contend with, including the ’15 VW Golf R. Its price point also puts it into the same ballpark with a number of other performance cars that may not be directly comparable in layout but which nonetheless offer comparable acceleration, visual sizzle and fun-to-drive factor. These run the gamut from traditional muscle cars like the Chevy Camaro to sport-lux sedans like the Infiniti G.
It’s the WRX that truly stands alone. There is nothing — literally, no other car — that packs the same whallop — or delivers it the way the WRX does — for just over $26k, sticker. As impressive as the STi is, with a little tuning and tweaking, one could probably obtain STi-esque performance — in a straight line at least — in the regular WRX without paying anything close to STi money.
Either for the car or to insure the car.
Another thing that must be mentioned in praise of both the WRX and the STI is that — unlike the Mitsubishi Evo — they don’t seem to break. How many six-year-old Evos have you seen on the road lately? And how many older WRXs?
THE BOTTOM LINE
Subaru hasn’t done anything to mess with success. Except, perhaps, for deciding to go with one-body-only.
Time will tell.