The 2015 Subaru WRX remains one of the quickest all-wheel-drive vehicles you can buy for less than $30,000, but automatic-transmission shoppers will have to settle for a disappointing new CVT.
Redesigned for 2015, the Subaru WRX catches up to the fourth-gen Impreza on which it’s (finally) based. The current Impreza went on sale in October 2011; its turbocharged sibling remained based on the prior generation for three model years, so a redesign has been a long time coming. The WRX comes in base, Premium and Limited trims, and all-wheel drive is standard. We tested a Limited with the optional continuously variable transmission, an automatic that’s new for 2015. The WRX also offers a six-speed manual. We cover the higher-performance WRX STi separately in the Research section.
While the Impreza comes as a sedan or hatchback, both turbocharged siblings are sedan-only. Click here to compare the Impreza, WRX and STi, or here to stack up the prior-generation WRX with this 2015 redesign.
Inside and out, the Impreza’s econobox styling factored into its sixth-place overall finish among seven compact sedans we tested in 2013 (click here to read more). Subaru went to great lengths to differentiate the Subaru WRX, which is a visual smorgasbord of performance and clutter. The car gets a slew of unique body panels, including the hood, front fenders, doors and bumpers, and the results bear only a passing resemblance to the Impreza. The functional hood scoop integrates nicely into the hood. The headlight accents carve a mean expression, and the deep bumper extensions integrate well with their surroundings. But the oversized bumper portals have a cluttered mix of lighting elements and obviously faux carbon fiber. Around back, a hodgepodge of tailpipes — four! — and off-color diffusers look just plain silly.
Standard 17-inch alloy wheels wear factory-installed Dunlop SP Sport Maxx RT tires. Limited models have LED low-beam headlights.
Performance enthusiasts might set their Subaru effigies ablaze for the automaker’s decision to pair the WRX with a CVT. In the 268-horsepower Subaru WRX, it’s all about hitting a sweet spot around 3,000 to 6,000 rpm. That’s when the Subie surges ahead, though it falls short of really hauling ass. The transmission employs driver-selectable modes, and our editors agreed the efficiency-minded Intelligent mode treats the car’s power like ABC Family would treat an airing of “Blackhawk Down.” Engine revs climb late, and it takes a good prod on the gas before you reach higher rpm. The rubber-band sensation familiar to anyone who’s driven a CVT — wait, here it comes — is alive and well in the WRX. SI-Drive’s Sport mode hurries up the rev climb, but it still exhibits a soupy nonlinearity that’s anathema to driving fun.
Subaru says both modes adhere to six fixed gear ratios like a stepped automatic if you push the accelerator past a given point (40 percent down in Intelligent, 30 percent in Sport). That leads to more conventional-feeling acceleration and highway kickdowns, but it takes a consistent lead foot to bring it about. Around town, get used to the rubber band.
SI-Drive’s raciest mode, Sport Sharp, is really the only way to drive the WRX. It holds eight fixed gear ratios all the time, upshifting and downshifting like a responsive eight-speed automatic — with kickdowns free of gear hunting, something that plagues many conventional automatics. It even blips engine revs on downshifts as you decelerate. Sure, it’s as contrived as the smiles in a family portrait, but I’ll take it — especially because the WRX doesn’t default back to the fun-siphoning Intelligent mode when you turn it off. The next time you drive, it’s right how you left it. Still, one editor said Sport Sharp spoils some of the revving fun by sending you well past the engine’s power band to a point where things peter off, then upshifting to a point where the revs are still too high.
Subaru’s all-wheel drive splits power 50/50 percent (front/rear) in cars with manual transmissions through a simple viscous coupling, and 45/55 percent through a more sophisticated electronic split in CVT-equipped cars — one benefit to getting the CVT. Both systems can divert full power to one axle or another. We threw our tester around in plenty of late-winter mud, and it handled split-traction surfaces with little excess wheelspin.
On the pavement, the WRX drifts with smile-inducing ease, though the winter tires on our test car ceded grip early. The automatic’s rear-biased power split delivers satisfying neutrality: Barrel through a sweeping turn, and the tail swings out nearly in tandem with the nose. It’s a controllable, natural process that rarely sneaks up on you — though some enthusiasts may find too much body roll accompanies it all, despite Subaru thickening the WRX’s front stabilizer bar compared with that of its predecessor.
The WRX rides firmer than it used to and firmer than the regular Impreza. Subaru says this version has stiffer springs, shocks and bushings than the last WRX, and our car did indeed bounce harshly through ruts and potholes; that minimizes daily-driver potential if you live around rough pavement. Still, cabin isolation at higher speeds shines; the WRX removes the turbulence from undulating pavement that many, and possibly most, compact cars allow through. That’s not to say it’s quiet: A headache-inducing exhaust howl intrudes on music or conversation, particularly as the tachometer needle descends below 1,500 rpm on your way to a stop. Even those accustomed to blatting exhausts will grow annoyed by this one.
Want to know more about the power story? Gearheads, read on. The new WRX adopts the FA-series turbo four-cylinder from the Forester XT. It’s still a horizontally opposed flat-4 engine, but like in the Forester, displacement falls to 2.0 liters from the 2.5 liters the WRX has displaced since 2006. Still, the turbo 2.0-liter gains direct fuel injection and variable valve timing (cam phasing only, no variable lift) on the intake and exhaust camshafts, versus the phased VVT on the intake valves only for the last, port-injected WRX. It also adopts unique camshafts and higher-rate valve springs versus the Forester XT, which enables a 6,700 rpm redline in stick-shift WRXs — up 700 rpm versus the Forester XT’s FA20 engine. Add it all up, and the WRX makes 268 hp. The increased compression ratio (10.6:1 versus 8.4:1 in the last WRX) helps to drive torque to 258 pounds-feet from 2,000 to 5,200 rpm. That roughly matches the last WRX’s horsepower (265 hp) and beats its torque (244 pounds-feet at 4,000 rpm) by a meaningful amount — not bad, given that Subaru says the new car weighs just 60 pounds more.
Our impressions of the Impreza’s interior (click here to read them) largely carry over to the WRX, which has excellent A-pillar visibility and — except for a discount headliner — high-quality materials. Changes versus the Impreza include a flat-bottom steering wheel and larger seat bolsters, particularly at the shoulders. Editors agreed they exhibit good lateral support without sacrificing comfort. Except for a large center floor hump that’s endemic of most cars with all-wheel drive, backseat room is decent.
Fabric upholstery with red stitching is standard. So are single-zone automatic climate control and a USB/iPod-compatible stereo with HD radio, Bluetooth phone/audio streaming and steering-wheel controls. Premium models add heated seats, a moonroof, fog lights and illuminated visor mirrors. Atop all that, the Subaru WRX Limited adds leather and a power driver’s seat. Options include a 6.1-inch navigation system, keyless access with push-button start and a Harman Kardon stereo. Consider the stereo upgrade; editors agreed the base system is a tinny mess.
Dual-zone climate control, something various competitors offer, isn’t available until you step up to the WRX STi. All cars have a standard 4.3-inch LCD screen with various displays, including a nifty boost gauge that also shows accelerator position in percent. Still, the screen is distant and can get washed out in sunlight — a problem for the standard backup camera, which displays on it.
The trunk measures 12 cubic feet. That’s up from the last WRX’s 11.3 cubic feet, but it’s still tight for a compact sedan — a Volkswagen Jetta GLI, for example, has 15.5 cubic feet. Note that trunks in the WRX’s hatchback competitors aren’t directly comparable because of how they’re measured (click here to learn more). A 60/40-split folding rear seat is standard.
The WRX scored top marks in all Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests, making it a Top Safety Pick. Seven airbags, an electronic stability system and antilock brakes are standard. Lane-departure, blind-spot and forward-collision warning systems — features increasingly available in other compacts — are unavailable, which prevents Top Safety Pick Plus status. The features are an odd omission on the WRX, given Subaru’s EyeSight system (available on the Forester, Outback and Legacy) packages most of them and ranks among the best active-safety systems on the market.
Click here to see a full list of safety features, or here to see our Car Seat Check evaluation of child-safety-seat provisions in the Impreza sedan.
The 2015 WRX starts around $27,000 with the destination charge, which is just $300 more than the 2014 WRX. Pile on the options, however, and the car gets pricey. Subaru WRX Premium models add $2,200, while the Subaru WRX Limited tacks on another $1,500. The automatic runs another $1,200, and it’s hard to justify — particularly because it’s not, as CVTs often are, the efficient choice. EPA gas mileage, which Subaru says is measured in SI-Drive’s Sport mode, is a modest fuel economy estimate of 19/25/21 mpg city/highway/combined, versus 21/28/24 mpg with the manual; Subaru recommends premium gas for best performance.
Still, if you steer clear of the automatic and many other options, the WRX remains a performance bargain. Outgoing editions of the MazdaSpeed3 and Volkswagen GTI ran about $25,000 and $26,000, respectively, in their final years — and both are slower, front-drive cars. The redesigned WRX is a compelling body-type choice, but stick with the stick.