The verdict: The 2018 Subaru WRX has performance chops but could stand a trip to polishing school.
Versus the competition: The WRX isn’t the most refined or sophisticated car, but it does have horsepower — a lot of it.
The 2018 Subaru WRX isn’t an immediately likable compact sports sedan. It took me a few days of thrashing on a World Rally Blue Pearl WRX Premium to scale the car’s learning curve, but once I started meshing with it, it was clear there are few cars in the $30,000 price range that combine no-drama acceleration and slot-car handling like the WRX.
For 2018, the Subaru WRX is mildly updated, with revised tuning to the suspension, power steering, manual transmission shifter and clutch. There’s also a new Performance Package with upgraded brake rotors and more aggressive front seats. These changes take the WRX further away from its roots as the 2012 Subaru Impreza, which was a practical but awful car to drive (I know because I own one of those 2012s). It’s worth noting that the 2018 is mostly the same WRX that debuted in 2015, not the next-generation WRX we hope to see soon based off the great-driving, redesigned 2017 Subaru Impreza. Compare the 2018 WRX with the 2017 WRX here.
Fast and Loud
The WRX’s 268-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine may not seem like a powerhouse given that a 2018 Ford Mustang with turbocharged four-cylinder makes 310 hp, but the Subaru plants all its flat-four power without drama thanks to standard all-wheel drive. Prominent turbocharger lag is a downer, with noticeable delay between romping the accelerator and feeling the surge of acceleration. Mitigating the turbocharger lag to quickly accelerate from a stop takes a lot of engine revs and a balance of clutch and accelerator to keep revs high. When you do nail the launch, though, the WRX rockets like it has more power under the hood than the spec sheet says. It’s not that the Subaru WRX’s turbo lag has gotten worse, it’s that cars like the Volkswagen Golf GTI have gotten better, with quick turbocharger response and sharper acceleration. Back to our Mustang comparison, the `Stang’s turbo four is really good and responsive — and for 2018, it has a lot more torque.
Once the WRX levels out at cruising speed, there’s loud humming from the road that sounds like massive, knobby off-road tires whirring away at all four corners. Wind noise isn’t as much of an issue in the Subaru WRX as road noise, which is loud enough to make conversations difficult. The thud of tire impacts suggests the car has hit something big when it’s just road tar. I can’t say the Dunlop Sport Maxx RT summer tires are the culprit because I haven’t driven a WRX without them, but I had similar tire noise issues from a set of Dunlop summer tires on a 2017 Nissan GT-R (SP Sport Maxx GT 600).
The noise is forgotten at a first flick of the steering wheel onto a highway ramp, where the WRX sticks like the tires are covered in glue. It takes a lot of effort to unsettle the Subaru WRX despite it not having the fancier all-wheel-drive system of the WRX STI. The WRX’s electronic torque-vectoring brakes the front-inside wheel in corners and helps reduce understeer to the great effect of lightening the nose of the car. For 2018, Subaru retuned the front and rear shock absorbers and springs, as well as the rear stabilizer bar (19 mm versus the outgoing 20 mm), to improve steering stability and ride comfort. It doesn’t transform the ride quality, and while it’s hard to say for sure without back-to-back loops in the old one and new one, steering effort is lighter than I remember but not bad. The handling still isn’t as razor-sharp as in the Subaru BRZ coupe.
Manual Transmission Quirks
Most new Subaru WRXs are sold with the six-speed manual transmission — which is how it should be, because the only other option is a slushy continuously variable automatic. My first takeaway on the new clutch tuning is that the clutch pedal engagement is too close to the floor and goes from disengaged to engaged within a half inch off the floor. Because there’s still the rest of the stiff pedal travel to go, I got a left-foot workout driving the WRX in city traffic.
The prompt clutch engagement is helpful, however, in clicking off quick shifts given the pedal doesn’t have to move far to engage the newly selected gear. The transmission responds better to fast, higher-rpm shifting, but it takes trial and error to figure out how to drive the car quickly and smoothly. That’s made difficult by the shifter itself, which has good engagement but long throws. In the end, I ended up liking the clutch engagement but only when shifting quickly. Driving this car slowly is a chore and a half.
For 2018, rubberized door handles replace the hard plastic ones, and a larger multifunction display is surrounded by imitation leather upholstery with red contrast stitching. They’re nice touches, but they don’t make the interior more competitive; the sophisticated VW Golf GTI remains the class leader in this regard. The WRX’s mediocre interior remains one of the off-putting aspects carried over from the 2012 Impreza that should be addressed in the next-generation WRX.
The Subaru WRX has a leg up, however, on competitors like the Golf GTI and Ford Focus ST thanks to its cavernous interior and great outward visibility due to thin pillars and a seating position that’s high off the floor. I actually wanted the optional Recaro seats in the Performance Package to sit lower to the ground, reflecting I was in a sports sedan rather than a regular sedan, but otherwise I was comfortable in the highly bolstered performance chairs — and they look good, too.
The Subaru WRX received top ratings in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crashworthiness and crash-avoidance tests. An optional EyeSight system includes forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, and for 2018 it adds auto vehicle hold, which holds the brakes at stoplights or on hills. There’s also a new LED system to show EyeSight alerts on the windshield. Unfortunately, EyeSight is available only on the most expensive trim level, the Limited, so our mid-level Premium package test car didn’t include it.
Worth the Money?
The Subaru WRX is available in base, Premium and Limited trim levels; compare pricing and equipment here. My Premium test car came with the optional Performance Package and had an as-tested price of around $32,000. For all its performance enhancements, the little quirks here and there in the driving experience mean the WRX isn’t a flawless performance package. I couldn’t help but think that if I bought one, I’d immediately have to dump money into a new shifter, quieter tires and some engine mods to get the WRX in a spot I’d be happy with.
Perhaps the fact that I drove a 2017 Subaru BRZ right afterward — a tight, perfectly balanced coupe with one of the best shifters in the game — tainted my perspective on the WRX. The Subaru WRX feels more like a juiced-up Impreza than a dedicated performance model. Yes, of course, it is a juiced-up Impreza — but cars like the Golf GTI and Focus ST feel more wholly transformed, and the BRZ is in a different league altogether. If the BRZ had 50-75 more horsepower, this would be a very different review — starting with, “If you don’t need four doors, buy a BRZ instead.” Still, it’s hard to refuse the WRX’s all-wheel-drive launches and flat, grippy handling in this price range, even if it means living with a few quirks along the way.