David Bowie 1947-2016: left only wonderful memories
In the motoring world, you’re only as good as your last launch, so Subaru’s latest WRX has something to prove as the latest in a line going back to 1992. The handsome little otter is muscular and powerful, and in STi guise that little something extra.
Please note: I didn’t use the “I” word. Subaru, like many before it, has spun off a model from what had previously been merely a trim level. Impreza remains a staple of the stable but enough of this horsing around, let’s get back to a real winner.
WRX looks absolutely gorgeous. Its big 18” alloys barely contained within the bulging haunches. The uber butch STi scores shiny Brembo brakes so it stops faster and looks hotter. The daytime running lights are halogen but the headlights get the full Monty LED treatment complete with a distinctive angled outline. It makes the front end look aggressive, as if the gaping intake and powerful bonnet didn’t look angry enough. There are vents everywhere to aid airflow both over the body, and into the engine and brakes. It is a work of art made even more striking by the STi’s enormous but completely unnecessary spoiler.
The sexy body wraps itself round a bijou cabin which serious yet classy. The plastic surfaces are good quality and although the there is some of that chromed plastic I dislike so much, it too looks good quality. The knobs and dials are all in easy reach with the top centre LCD giving auxiliary info. You use a small toggle to go from page to page.
Also in the centre stack, the audio system includes Satnav, rear camera and a generous 6.1” touch screen. There is no Apple Carplay but you can pair your phone in about 15 seconds without needing the user guide and big hugs. There are auxiliary LCDs for other driver info in the instrument cluster. I’d prefer one large LCD for all of the instruments as Audi does in the TT. The driver can tailor it to his own tastes more easily. Even so, the dash functions perfectly.
There is no doubting the snug quarters of the interior but there will be two on board most of the time, so no real issue there.
STi gets variable mode centre diff as well as the usual selectable driving modes which change engine response. You can turn off the traction control but only and expert or a fool who thinks he is an expert should do this. There are only so many mistakes AWD will save you from, and the electronics make accidents at the ragged edge a little less common. Taking away the safety net seems an act of lunacy popularized by English motoring TV.
In Sport# mode, the engine is sharp making each and every movement of the accelerator slightly less subtle then a kick in the head. While this is great on a track or on a mountain switchback, it gets tiring round town. SI drive also has a mode which leaves the intelligence to the computer. It still gives a decent response but rounds of the jagged edges that come with Sport or Sport#. City driving is still responsive, but has a gentle, more nurturing feel to it.
The seats are supportive with electric adjustment for the driver. As firm as they are, the leather/Alcantara cushions don’t feel so hard as to make your limbs numb. WRX’s of the past felt a little too focused on the drive and not enough on comfort. Love them though I did, I always felt as though I’d be compromising on an overall experience for the sake of the odd track day.
The new language includes all the mod cons. There is blind spot warning and Satnav, as well as other goodies like gauges to tell you what the wheels are doing and how much boost you have. It’s there in front of you and blasts into the life the second the start button is pressed. Yes, you even have smart entry and start. Now, even the STi doesn’t feel quite so hardcore. I thought I might be disappointed but not a bit of it. Having a bit of luxury and comfort made the STi more usable as a day to day driver. Perhaps Subaru realised the buyer with 60 grand to spend is not going to be a spotty teenager with a pocket full of loose change but rather an established bloke with a career.
The dash is a combination of plastics in many many finishes. There is a smooth hard plastic for instrument surrounds and a delicious soft-feel plastic along the top and sides. There is even a touch of carbon fibre to add authenticity, but it’s metal finish and red fabric highlights that give the cabin that certain verisimilitude. They all come together with the small flat-bottomed steering wheel to impress a sense of serious race attitude evocative of sporty rally cars of the past. Remember, Subaru kicked the rally world in the bum with it turbo AWD sedans. This was something only expensive Europeans had done before WRX appeared. Of course our car is a long way from a rally-prepared example, and believe me we are all the better for it. Rally cars are noisy and hot and very very uncomfortable. The seats are as hard as nails and the 5 point seat belts hold you tighter than a tax collector. There is no radio or air conditioning and no wind down windows, electric or otherwise. It’s probably why no one sells rally or care-ready cars.
The WRX boot is surprisingly capacious and easily managed an airport run. Friends in from France brought everything but the kitchen sink, and I feared the she might not cope. A few bits and bobs needed to be stowed inside the cabin, but a huge case and plethora of smaller bags were shoved in the back with room to spare.
The STi has the most powerful engine in the range with 221kw/407Nm coming from the 2.5 flat four turbo. The WRX scores 197kw/350Nm which may not seem much, but at 6.0ecs 0-100 (6.3 for the CVT model) is a full 1.1 seconds slower than the 4.9sec STi. Most of the time it makes no difference but the STi feels so alive especially in the tight bends. The agility is down to a slick 6 speed manual mated perfectly to the 2.5 turbo and a tight chassis and a brilliant symmetrical AWD system.
The more you take it by the scruff of the neck, the better it likes it. You get a lot of leeway from the electronics before they cut in. As you push into corners, you feel plenty of feedback from the hydraulic steering (electric in WRX), and because of the sophistication of the suspension, everything is felt through the seat of your pants. It feels like a go-cart, and I like it. The response from the chassis is almost psychic and there is a sense of motoring I haven’t felt for a very long time. It feels familiar, and then it hit me: it felt like I was actually driving the car, not merely being a passenger driven round by soulless computers.
There is something visceral about the chuffing sound from a boxer engine. Was it my imagination that at times it sounds like a small V8?
The real surprise was how easy it was in traffic. We expected it to be at home on a mountain bend, but thought it might be a bit too harsh on anything but the billiard table surface of a highway. Yes it was firm, but we didn’t feel like we’d shake ourselves shake our organs loose. In the city, both the manual and auto were as easy to use. You find yourself changing gears just for the hell of it. Using the clutch is a pleasure but I had the same issue as I’ve had in other Subaru manuals which is trying to find 3rd. After a few days experience, the problem disappears never to return. WRX was a pleasure at any speed and in any circumstance.
The WRX CVT simulates a more conventional 7 speed auto transmission and, while very convenient, takes almost all of the fun out of the WRX experience. Perhaps it is for this reason the STi only comes in a 6 speed manual. When this baby leaves the Bat Cave you want the full chili, but there will always be those who want a WRX, but can’t, or won’t drive a manual. To both of you I say, get a life.
In the end it made no difference, Subaru cracked the perfect balance between essential travel and motoring for pleasure.
There just isn’t a bad word to be said about the WRX. For my money I’d only ever consider the STi unless I’d been kidnaped by aliens for experimentation, and had my vitals removed with a spoon. If sitting in a WRX makes you feel butch, sitting in an STi makes you feel invincible. The looks is sexy, the cabin is comfy and the drive is mesmerizing. There was a time when WRX was driven by a backward-cap-wearing scally in synthetic sportswear with huge chunky chains. They always drove them like they stole them, because they stole them.
Not now. WRX has come over all gentrified, and has been beautified, and is cheaper so you get much more for far fewer shekels. You won’t get better unless you buy an BMW M, Audi RS of an Merc AMG or Jag R and all will cost much much more. It’s thoughtful design beautifully executed. The 0-100 time is as good as a top spec commodore with an engine 1/3 of the size, so if you want to go faster you’ll need extra zeros on the cheque. There is no way of having more fun for less money. The budget models still get the job done but the STi simply brilliant. For those who like being noticed, there is no shortage of admirers of all ages and it feels good. WRX is worth every penny.
Would I buy one? Yes. I usually add a qualification such as “if a convertible isn’t available” or “but I’ll always be a sports car lover”, but here, there is only a firm “yes”.
WRX $43,297man, $43,357cvt
WRX Premium $49,412man, $51,661
STi Premium $61,592