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First drive: 2015 Subaru WRX returns larger, more powerful, and more mature

All-weather sports sedan grows up

Published: January 28, 2014 09:00 AM

Face it. Everyone has to grow up sometime. One day you turn around and your shorts, beer, and group house living situation are swapped for a suit, a martini, and a mortgage. Fortunately, some cars grow up with you, like the Subaru WRX.

We were reminded of this recently, having spent time in the latest WRX, based off the laudable Impreza. Clearly, what passed for acceptable in 2002, when the WRX first arrived in the United States, isn’t appropriate for today’s market. Back then, buyers willingly traded creature comforts for a semi-exclusive, high-performance small car with a World Rally Championship lineage and the practicality of four doors. It didn’t matter that there seemed to be zero noise insulation or that the WRX was the pure definition of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

The original WRX car put 227 hp down via all-wheel drive and a five-speed manual, and that’s what excited buyers wanted. The 300-hp STi (for Subaru Tecnica International, an in-house performance group) version that arrived in 2004 cranked up the performance and got every enthusiast hot and bothered. After all, it had gold wheels and a big wing spoiler.

But over the years, the WRX enjoyed its time in America. Like many of us, it gained some weight, outgrew its original clothes, got a bit soft. Regular and STi versions gained comfort gear, safety features, and more room for adults. It claimed to be the same kid as before, ready for anything, but it really was becoming an adult.

For 2015, Subaru has an all-new WRX coming to market in April that tries to do everything a bit better. We rented two versions from Subaru in order to take a first drive with the new model.

First impressions: The WRX has been about: turbo engines, all-wheel drive, and tenacious handling. Nothing has changed from that basic formula for 2015. It still uses a horizontally-opposed (boxer or "flat") four-cylinder, turbocharged engine. But the engine is now a 2.0-liter unit that puts out 268 hp -- a few ponies more than the previous car. All-wheel drive is still standard, as is the case with most Subaru models.

The biggest news comes in how that power gets to the wheels. Our sample cars demonstrate the two main variations. One has the new, standard six-speed manual—a welcome replacement for the five-speed found in the old car. The other car uses an automatic transmission, the first in a WRX since 2008. But for 2015, that gearbox is a CVT (continuously variable transmission).

The CVT gives drivers the choice of pure automatic or “time to play rally driver” modes. Drivers can choose from mild, medium, and hot shift modes, plus use the steering-wheel-mounted paddles to shift for themselves. It’s still a CVT, so the “gear shifts” are simulated. But it allows for fun, foot-to-the-floor driving where a mere pull on the paddle bring more power and speed.

The six-speed manual is a slightly notchy gearbox, not as smooth or satisfying as the ones found in a Honda Civic Si or Mazda MX-5 Miata. But it’s still nice to have the availability of a manual, even if it’s a dying breed.

At idle the engine has a throaty exhaust note. While it’s far from the growl of a V6 or V8, it isn’t the angry bees sound of a Civic Si or modified four-cylinder cars. It’s a satisfying auditory rush as the driver runs up through the gears and engine speed builds, but the cabin gets a bit loud as you approach redline.

New WRXs come with 17-inch summer tires as standard equipment, but even with all-wheel drive those don’t work very well with snow. Both press cars had snow tires, compromising ride and handling a bit for seasonal practicality. If the hood scoop, slightly flared bodywork, and engine note didn’t tell you this was not a regular Impreza, the WRXs ride gives it away for sure. It’s far stiffer than the comfortable Impreza, with nearly every road imperfection transmitted to the cabin. It doesn’t crash over bumps, but you certainly are aware if the road hasn’t been paved in a while. On our track, the cars understeer a lot, likely due in large part to the tires. Consequently, there really isn’t any way of evaluating the new Variable Torque Distribution system on the CVT-equipped version. We’re looking forward to seeing how the car really handles with proper tires when we buy our own to test.

Like the regular Impreza, this generation of WRX is roomier than the last one. It has the same good outward visibility, particularly to the front and sides as the regular car. The base seats are supportive and grippy, but don’t expect the buckets from the two-door BRZ sports car here. These are certainly wider, less aggressive, and more comfortable for long trips. Daresay, more mature perches. The optional leather seats feel even more grown up and comfortable, and further away from the rally heritage of the car.

The cabin is a mix of materials, and you can tell the development money went into the go-fast bits. Aside from a flat-bottomed, leather-wrapped steering wheel and a few soft-touch materials, the interior is constructed of a lot of hard plastic. A 4.3-inch multifunction display sits high in the center of the dash and can be toggled to display a variety of performance data, as well as infotainment content. Unfortunately, this is the biggest letdown in the car, as it’s saddled with the same convoluted touch-screen high-end radio as in the BRZ, while the basic radio makes it a challenge to pair a phone via Bluetooth. Subaru needs to play catch up in the audio and connectivity department.

Too bad the practical hatchback didn't make the cut to the WRX team this time. Pricing will be announced in mid-February, and the car should arrive at dealerships by May.

Enjoy the video below of our testers having a bit of fun in the snow.

Jon Linkov

   

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