The irony of this review is that the people most interested in the car are probably the ones least interested in reading about it.
Such is the cult following of Subaru’s WRX, its army of admirers know all about this new model – and knew about it long before the car even arrived in Australia.
A friend of mine is one such WRX devotee. When he learned I was driving the latest version of this all-wheel-drive hot-rod, he instantly quoted me the engine’s upgraded power output, the changes the car had undergone since the previous model and, most importantly, that the WRX was being offered with an automatic transmission for the first time in a decade.
Few cars engender such fanatical loyalty among those who own them, as well as among those who wish they did.
So let’s forget, for a moment, about preaching to the converted. For the rest of the Australian population, the new Subaru WRX is, in a word, terrific.
It’s always been a fast car – and one with an intoxicating blend of punishing acceleration, dogged all-wheel-drive grip and enough equipment to justify its reasonably accessible price tag.
This fourth-generation “Rex” is all of those things. And more. But less.
More power, yes. More handling. And more equipment. But less thirsty.
And, amazingly, less expensive. In fact, Subaru claims that its $38,990 entry-level price is less than when the car was first launched 20 years ago – and $1000 cheaper than the model it replaces.
The WRX (roughly translated it stands for the World Rally Championship where the car first made its reputation) – is now 20 years young.
This is the fourth all-new version – although there have been countless updates, tweaks and fine-tunes on a virtually annual basis since the car was first unveiled in 1994. Each successive model has, almost without exception, been more impressive in one way or another than the one it replaced.
There have been ugly ones (remember the bug-eyes, the pig-nose?) and controversial ones (the previous model’s surprisingly soft suspension, the brief departure from a sedan variant).
But it’s fair to say that no WRX has impressed me more than this one. Why? Well, for a start, there’s that automatic transmission. Yes, an auto in a WRX. That might sound like heresy to the died-in-the-wool Rex devotees.
But it’s not as out of place as you might imagine. In fact, it’s an enhancement rather than an impediment to the car’s legendary performance.
It uses a version of Subaru’s seamless, Lineartronic constantly-variable (CVT) gearbox, although one that seems to have been perfectly tailored to the WRX’s turbo-charged powerplant.
It takes full advantage of the new engine’s low-down torque, yet still allows you to access that high-rev range when fully motoring – part of an entirely more refined, more cultured driving experience than previous models.
Transmission response can be adjusted via the Si-Drive system, while paddle-shifters allow even greater driver involvement – where eight stepped ratios are available in “Sport Sharp” mode.
We drove both the CVT and manual versions of the “Rex” and came away slightly more impressed with the car.
It’s probably not quite as quick or explosive as the manual – but its ease of driving far outweighs any performance sacrifice – and it’s substantially more fuel efficient.
The manual, mind you, now enjoys the six-speed short-throw gearbox previously found in the Sti version – although a particularly heavy clutch pedal detracts slightly from the driving experience.
It is lethally quick, though – particularly in the mid-range where the engine’s torque is seen to full advantage. What the new WRX doesn’t have is a hatchback version.
That’s the opposite of a few years ago, when a softer, cuddlier WRX was launched in hatchback-only form – angering the many loyal supporters for whom a boot and massive rear spoiler is as much a part of this car as the chug-chug note of the famous Boxer engine.
The spoiler, incidentally, on the latest WRX is much smaller than we’re used to – no more than a subtle lip on the rear boot lid.
You’ll need the STI to get the full rear-wing treatment. Not to worry, though, because that four-cylinder Boxer engine remains and is substantially better than ever.
It returns to a 2-litre capacity (the previous model was 2.5-litres) but delivers marginally more power while reducing fuel consumption by 11 per cent and emissions by 14 per cent.
It’s interesting to note that the WRX-STi – the Subaru Technica International tweaked version of the Rex – created a stir when it edged over the 200kW power mark a few years back.
This latest “garden variety” Rex almost does the same at 197kW, complemented by 350 Nm of torque. But it’s more the way it delivers its performance that most impresses.
The engine isn’t nearly as peaky as models past – its acceleration is still exhilarating but in a more controlled, linear way. The punch from the 2-litre four is brutal, almost regardless of when it’s applied.
At low revs the torque kicks in to hurl the car forward then, as the revs rise and that engine note begins to infiltrate the cabin, it’s an entirely different, more violent sensation.
Yet it’s quieter than ever – almost disappointingly so for fans of that familiar exhaust burble.
Inside the WRX cabin, it’s by far the most plush and refined WRX we’ve ever driven – quieter, more comprehensively equipped (impressive soft-touch surfaces, Fujitsu audio, centre-mounted multi-function display, more legroom and boot space).
Rib-hugging sports seats are better than ever and almost rival the Recaros you get in the full-cream STi model – and the chunky steering wheel is one of the best we’ve tested recently.
We tested both the basic WRX and Premium models – the latter gaining leather trim, a sunroof, satellite navigation, automatic LED headlights, power seats, push-button start, rain-sensing wipers and Harmon Kardon sound system for the extra spend of $5000 – which seems like money well spent.
We had few quibbles, although we found the Bluetooth connectivity for mobile devices tricky to activate and, in our case, it had to be re-connected every time you got back in the car.
Perhaps it was user error. On the road, the WRX seems less harsh than in the past, soaking up bumps competently yet still maintaining its beautifully planted, flat-riding characteristics.
Steering is razor-sharp and the chassis is admirably stiff – yet the ride is surprisingly compliant over all but the harshest of road surfaces.
The symmetrical all-wheel-drive has been substantially tweaked, with torque vectoring enhancing power delivery to the wheels with the most grip. Brakes have been upgraded as well – and seven airbags contribute to its five-star safety rating.
Clearly, this new WRX is making its mark. Last month, it achieved an all-time sales record for the model in Australia – with 691 sales smashing the previous mark of 469, set in the car’s heyday in 1999.
Some variants are now on a three-month waiting list. Presumably the army of WRX disciples approve.
As for my WRX-loving mate? Well, after I gave him a quick burst in the CVT automatic version, he delivered an overwhelmingly positive verdict: “Awesome.”
“You’d have to seriously think about buying that ahead of the manual.”
Mind you, he probably knew that already.
SUBARU WRX DETAILS:
Four-door, five-seat compact sports sedan with four-cylinder turbo-charged engine and choice of six-speed manual or constantly-variable automatic transmission.
TECH STUFF: 2-litre, four-cylinder horizontally-opposed “Boxer” engine with twin-scroll turbocharger, double overhead camshaft and direct injection produces 197kW@5600rpm, 350Nm@2400-5200rpm; six-speed manual or Lineartronic constantly variable transmission with wheel-mounted paddle shifters; permanent symmetrica all-wheel-drive with Limited Slip Centre Differential or Variable Torque Distribution (CVT model).
FEATURES: Seven airbags, Vehicle Dynamics Control, ABS with brakeforce distribution, electric windows and mirrors, premium audio with Bluetooth connectivity; sports seats and multi-function steering wheel, 4.3-inch LCD multi-information display, automatic headlights.
PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h in 6 seconds. THIRST: 9.2L/100KM (manual model); 8.6L/100km (CVT).
VERDICT: Bound to win over a whole new group of WRX devotees.
BOTTOM LINE: From $38,990; Lineartronic (as tested) $40,990; Premium models add $5000.