First Drive: 2015 Subaru WRX

For the money, the 2015 Subaru WRX is perhaps the best handling, most fun cars on the market of any segment.

“I think I am going to be sick,” my driving partner moaned from the passenger seat, as I rallied the WRC Blue 2015 WRX through the canyons of Napa, California.

Riding right on the tail of the journalist in front of me, I slapped the steering wheel. “C’mon! Move, you imbecile!” I hollered.

“Can you slow down a bit?” My passenger asked again with a heavy sigh.

I cracked his window a bit. “Here, fresh air will help.”

I jammed the throttle and breathed a deep, victorious breath as the turbo whine permeated the cabin.

There was no way I was slowing. After only 10 minutes behind the wheel, I was already in perfect harmony with the WRX. Turn after high-speed rolling turn, I heard the breaths of my co-driver become increasingly labored as he pressed his cheek to the cracked window.

Finally, the journalist in front of me gave way and let me pass. “And Ryan calls himself a good driver. Ha!” I chortled.

It was on; I had the road to myself. Keeping mostly in third gear, I jammed the throttle and breathed a deep, victorious breath as the turbo whine permeated the cabin.

“You doing alright there, buddy?” I half-heartedly ask of the perfect stranger unfortunate enough to be saddled with not only me as a driving partner but also a keen case of motion sickness.

“Sure,” He whimpered.

I got back on the throttle and turned hard into a sweeping right-hander. “I love this thing!” I yelled. If I had the window down, I imagine my exclamation would have echoed through the canyons, ringing in the ears of anyone within earshot.

The slight whir of the turbo was the only real noise in the cabin, aside from my passenger’s mewl. Still only moments into the drive, I already could tell Subaru had absolutely nailed it.

Visual subtlety

“That’s it?” I asked out loud, standing in front of the 2015 WRX at its unveiling at the 2013 LA Auto Show. “That looks nothing like the concept we saw in New York.”

Although I reported for months that the WRX, by Subaru’s admission, would indeed not resemble its concept, I was a bit disappointed. Unlike the concept, the production car boasted no lime green accents and very few sharp, angular bodylines.

I could see the resemblance, sure. I, however, had hoped for more.

While certainly not as stunning as the concept, the production WRX is a looker. After studying its sinewy lines in person and through a lens, I now find the thing – surprisingly – stunning. Subaru changed nearly every piece of sheet metal, transforming the Impreza into the WRX. The result is a car that is still subdued but undeniably bossy.

It turns out, making the production car less shout-y than the concept was no backroom design compromise. It was a calculated move to appeal to the WRX buyer’s sensibilities.

Ask around and the WRX is widely seen as a boy-racer car. Tarted up, lowered, and loudened, the entry-level Subaru sports sedan is often associated with reversed baseball caps, street racing, and reckless driving.

This, Subaru is quick to point out, is the second-hand WRX owner. The guy who picks one up at the dealer is altogether different.

The boy who challenges you to a downtown drag race in the WRX is not the one who snagged it from the showroom. The original owner likes to keep his car much more low-key.

The average WRX buyer is in his mid 30s. He makes near $100,000 a year. He usually has a graduate degree. And he loves that his sporty little Japanese sedan is a sleeper. “No one knows what it’s capable of,” the average first-hand buyer might say.

While previous generations of the WRX were fun, few were keeping a dark performance secret. Looking at a stock WRX usually gave you a pretty good idea of what was underneath. Yes, it has always had a turbocharged four-cylinder and symmetrical all-wheel drive. But it was far from a rocket ship, far from a real ‘sleeper’.

A WRX for the WRC

The original Subaru WRX was created to win the World Rally Championship (WRC). I dare say the 2015 returns to that racing pedigree better than the last several generations before it.

A turbocharged 2.5-liter Boxer four-cylinder powered the outgoing WRX. A new 2.0-liter turbo Boxer, by comparison, powers the 2015. The outgoing model made 265 horsepower. The new one makes 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, thanks to direct injection, high compression, and variable valve timing. Most credit really should go to the twin-scroll turbocharger that makes just over 21 psi. But I’ll get to that later.

2015 Subaru WRX engine macro

Backing up that new 2.0 is either a six-speed manual, replacing the outgoing five-speed that felt like it was made of twigs and good intentions, and a new Sport Lineartronic Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) that can shift in six- or eight-speed modes.

As always, power is sent to all four wheels through an all-wheel drive system (AWD). In the manual WRX, it’s the mechanical symmetrical AWD that splits power 50:50. In the CVT, though, the AWD is called Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI-DRIVE) and is a bit more electronic. This system, interestingly, splits power 48:52 with a rear-wheel bias.

The 2015 WRX will do 0-60 in 5.4 seconds in the manual version and 5.9 seconds in the CVT when using launch mode. And, no, I never figured out how to use launch mode.

Canyon land

Coming hot into a corner, I jerked the manual shifter into second. I paused for a moment before letting off the clutch. The shifter throw – shortened by 12 percent  – of the new six-speed manual was almost deceivingly smooth and, well, short. Once I was sure I was in second, I quickly let the clutch out, looked to the end of the corner, and whipped the wheel around as the WRX followed my instruction without fuss.

Eventually, I did pull over to give my passenger’s stomach a rest. After all, I didn’t want him barfing all over the WRX’s interior.

“My god, this steering is good.” I beamed to my co-driver. I glanced over and I saw him cradling his belly. “Seriously. This is the best electric power steering I’ve ever felt.” He remained stone-faced.

I like to think my co-driver would agree, albeit begrudgingly, that the new suspension, improved steering ratio, and 40 percent stiffer body, improved the handling of the WRX beyond expectation.

In the presentation that morning, while I anxiously shifted in my seat, the Subaru engineers explained that they had pegged the Porsche 911 as the handling benchmark. While I initially rolled my eyes at the concept, I now understood what they meant.

A tight but wonderfully forgiving suspension, paired with a torque-y little engine and finished off with all-wheel drive and torque vectoring, made for an unbelievably good driving experience. Frankly, it was stunning.

Substantial interior

Eventually, I did pull over to give my passenger’s stomach a rest. After all, I didn’t want him barfing all over the WRX’s interior – and what an interior it is.

I’ve complained before that previous WRX interiors were like rallying in a North Korean prison cell. And I stand behind that.

This new one, though, is hugely impressive. I pushed and prodded every surface in the cabin while my co-driver gulped for breath by the side of the road. Every piece, every bit of trim, is substantial; nothing creaked, nothing gave way. Everything felt strong and – most importantly – looked good, too.

The satellite navigation is still a 1990s Nintendo joke. So don’t order that. Just stick with the standard stereo. And – perhaps – upgrade to the optional Harman Kardon sound system that was designed specifically for the WRX with extra bass. Aside from that, though, leave it be.

Driver connectivity … and I don’t mean navigation

The experience behind the wheel of the WRX wasn’t the auditory extravaganza for me that the Corvette Stingray Convertible had been the week before. In spite of this, I felt a bit more connected to the WRX.

The more I drove, the more I felt the WRX egging me on, pushing me to go harder and faster.

The WRX seemed to click with me a bit more. I immediately understood it. And the more I drove, the more I felt the WRX egging me on, pushing me to go harder and faster.

That is, at least with the manual transmission.

My passenger and I swapped into the CVT automatic in the afternoon, after he had caught his breath and let his stomach settle.

Where I felt in perfect harmony with the manual WRX, the automatic was harder to figure out. I mean; there’s nothing to misinterpret. Put it into drive and push the Sport button once for, well, Sport and then once again for Sport Sharp (S#).

After that’s engaged, you can use the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters to climb up and down through the artificial eight speeds. I say artificial because a CVT doesn’t really have different gears. Instead, engineers have used electronic trickery to make it feel like it was running through different gears.

2015 Subaru WRX front left macro

Aside from the audible CVT whine, I enjoyed the experience about as much as I expected. By that I mean, it was pretty squishy – and, yes, that’s the best word to describe the CVT.

I won’t say the WRX CVT is the best in the business – that award goes to the Honda Accord Sport – but it is definitely second best.

Would I choose it over the manual? No, never. But if you have to get the auto as a compromise with your wife, you’ll be happier with it than without having a WRX at all.

Subaru bested even itself

Subaru hasn’t yet set pricing for the 2015 WRX. The first examples roll into showrooms in early 2014, though. So I suspect that pricing isn’t far off. Subaru representatives have promised, however, that it will still be affordable.

The current one starts just over $25,000. If the 2015 is anywhere near that, it’ll be a steal.

Think about it this way: The 2015 WRX outperforms – by Subaru’s own admission – its BRZ sports coupe in almost every way: handling, acceleration, you name it. Plus, the WRX has four doors and a useable trunk.

The BRZ used to be my realistic dream car. And now, with the 2015 WRX, Subaru has essentially negated any reason to get the BRZ. And I’m OK with that.

Highs

  • Tight but forgiving suspension
  • Masterful electronic power steering
  • Wide-ranging power and torque band
  • Class-leading interior design and quality

Lows

  • Whiny CVT
  • Laughable satellite navigation system
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