I love a small, fast car with plenty of cornering capability, so was more than thrilled to attend a press drive event for the 2015 Subaru WRX in Northern California. The long-awaited newest generation of the WRX met the public eye at the Los Angeles Auto Show last month, two years after the launch of the vehicle on which it is based, the newest generation of the Subaru Impreza. Unlike the Impreza, the WRX only comes in a sedan format, 80 percent of its sheet metal is different, and it 268-turbo-boosted horses are stabled under the hood.
Flooring it out of the staging area, I was immediately disappointed.
The acceleration felt meh, the ride felt soft, and the continuously variable transmission had the typical lifeless feel of its breed. That's right, I was driving the CVT version, despite having the option to drive the manual. That may seem like a perverse decision, but I was curious, as the CVT-equipped WRXes also use a different version of Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system than the manual transmission version.
Before writing off this WRX, I started tapping the steering-wheel-mounted buttons that changed up the drive mode between I (Intelligent), S (Sport), and S# (Sport Sharp). I and S were not particularly engaging, leaving the car feeling like a typical CVT-laden commuter vehicle.
Hitting S# changed things dramatically.
Suddenly, the WRX came into its own, holding revs high and letting all the horses out of the stable. With the power available, the WRX showed off its cornering, and OMG it is excellent. Although the suspension had a soft edge, it kept the car very flat, holding all four tires to the road. A little bounce in the springs felt like rally tuning. The all-wheel-drive system let all four tires claw at the asphalt, and what Subaru calls torque vectoring, in reality inside-wheel braking, gave the WRX an extra tug around the turns. It was glorious to hold the wheel of this car and power through a series of tight bends.
Stepped versus variable
The reason for the sudden change in performance has to do with the CVT's three modes. It can operate with continuously variable ratios with virtual shift points, stepped mode as Subaru calls it, using six or eight fixed ratios. In I drive mode, the CVT remains variable. S drive mode uses variable until the driver applies heavy acceleration, then automatically goes to the six-virtual-gear mode, while S# remains in the eight-ratio mode all the time.
The variable mode is as boring as it sounds, and I didn't find it easy to predict the CVT mode change in S. But the CVT in S# was just brilliant, dynamically downshifting and letting me hold revs up to redline. I could also manually shift with steering-wheel paddles, which worked well enough, but felt like I was using a shifter in a video game.
WRXes with the manual transmission use Subaru's standard, purely mechanical all-wheel-drive system. It defaults to a 50:50 torque split, but shuffles power back and forth between front and rear axles as necessary. In the CVT version, the mechanical center differential gets replaced by a planetary gear set and electronically activated clutch. The default torque split is 45 to the front and 55 to the rear. Instead of real torque vectoring through a differential, the car applies a little braking on the inside rear wheel in a turn.
Some people might be dismayed that the WRX gets electric power steering, but I say get over it. Electric boost really doesn't take anything away from road feel, as the mechanical link remains the same. Earlier electric power-steering systems suffered from poor tuning, but the WRX's was perfect. It felt extremely precise and complemented the suspension architecture, giving the car zero understeer. I would have preferred a little more heft to the wheel -- most automakers tune electric power steering for heavy boost. And Subaru didn't include a sport program for the steering, so it remained unchanged between the different drive modes.
My biggest performance criticism goes to the brakes, which have slightly larger front rotors than the previous-generation WRX. For about the first 40 percent of pedal travel the brakes grab only slightly -- I had to really mash it if I wanted any stopping power. And in a set of tight turns, when I was working brake and accelerator heavily, I got serious brake fade, with no grab at all going into a corner. That was a little frightening and tempered my driving the rest of the day.
My decision to drive the CVT version of the WRX was made in the knowledge I would spend the latter half of the day driving the stick. Subaru had defined the routes I was to drive, and chose an even twistier course, a narrow road along a river gorge, for the manual transmission-equipped car. I was impressed enough with the CVT that I would have been game to try it on the more challenging road.
The manual transmission in the new WRX gains one gear over the previous generation, to six speeds, and had a notchy feel. Like in the previous WRX, the shifter is a relatively tall pole with longish throws. I imagine this type of shifter is preferred by rally drivers over a slick, tight, short-throw shifter. A convenient display on the instrument cluster told me which gear I was in. The clutch was easy to work and had its friction point set about halfway down. The WRX seemed like a pretty good car to teach a beginner to drive stick in.
Driving this WRX, I kept it in second and third for long stretches, letting the engine run above 4,000rpm most of the time. Although Subaru said the exhaust note from the car was more aggressive, I couldn't hear it in the cabin. However, with the windows down the turbo whistled pleasantly.
Under acceleration, I found that, rather than turbo lag, I would say this engine shows turbo boost. With direct injection this 2-liter four-cylinder engine has plenty of boost on its own. The turbo also has a twin scroll, so it's adding power from initial tip-in. But a few seconds under way, the boost really kicks in. That makes the acceleration a little uneven, but I can live with that.
When I first heard of the WRX's engine configuration, I thought it was simply the BRZ's engine topped with a turbo. But no, the BRZ uses Toyota's direct-injection system. For the WRX, Subaru developed its own direct-injection system, then added the turbo, which actually sits underneath the engine.
268 horsepower peaks at 5,600rpm, and it's easy to keep the engine up there. 258 pound-feet of torque hangs on from 2,000rpm to 5,200rpm, giving the WRX a fat power band.
Subaru expects the WRX's EPA numbers to be 21 mpg city and 28 mpg for the manual, while the CVT gets 19 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. It seems odd that the CVT gets worse fuel economy, but a Subaru spokesperson said EPA rules gave the company the option of posting numbers achieved by testing the car in its least fuel-efficient drive mode, or going through a complicated process of posting higher numbers and then surveying owners after a year to verify. I would expect a mid-20s average for the CVT.
The WRX includes a neat little LCD at the center of the dashboard with screens showing tire pressure, fuel economy, and turbo boost, all selectable by the driver. The display also shows a standard rearview camera, a nice addition to the car.
A Bluetooth hands-free phone system and iOS integration with the stereo come standard, while an upgrade package adds a Harman Kardon audio system and navigation. I didn't get to test the upgrade electronics out during this drive, but these features will be same as in the Impreza.
As another high-tech goodie, upper-trim WRXes will have LED low-beam headlights.
No hatchback love
I am disappointed that Subaru will only offer the WRX as a sedan, part of an effort, as with the CVT option, to broaden the appeal of the car. But the excellence of the handling means I could live with the body style. The car has just the right amount of power to make tortuously twisty back roads a blast. Yet the soft edge on the ride quality lends to a comfortable ride on the weekly commute. The WRX has no problem serving both duties.
And I have to admit, the slick programming for the S# mode would make me at least consider the CVT, especially if I had a daily commute in heavy stop-and-go traffic. The brake feel is the one thing that would make me think twice about the WRX. That might represent an opportunity for a Brembo upgrade.
Subaru doesn't have pricing yet for the 2015 WRX, but puts it in the $25K ballpark. The WRX will start to show up at dealers in March or April of next year.