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2017 Subaru WRX: Fast, but not easy

By Chris Chase

Sep. 12, 2016

It didn’t take long for the Subaru WRX to become one of the most desirable entry-level sports cars in North America following its introduction here in 2002. Before then, the WRX was forbidden fruit, a car that inspired lust in sports car fanatics here through its high-profile position in the World Rally Championship race series.

North America’s third-generation WRX (the fourth in overseas markets) arrived in 2015. As before, it was based on the Impreza compact car, with styling that more clearly differentiated the performance model from its economical starting point. Style-wise, one of the more significant changes was the elimination of a hatchback option; all WRXs are now sedans.

The formula remained the same under the skin, where there’s a turbocharged engine mated to a manual transmission and all-wheel drive.

Yet for all that, the WRX isn’t even the most intense car in Subaru’s lineup. That honour goes to the WRX STI, an even more powerful version of this car, which we have covered in its own recent review.

For 2017, Subaru brings a few minor updates to the WRX, including a revised manual transmission it says offers improved shift feel, and new smartphone connectivity functions with Siri Eyes free and MirrorLink.

Pros & Cons

  • + Value for money
  • + Comfortable front seats
  • + Generous low-end torque
  • - No cutting-edge technology
  • - Road noise
  • - Bland exhaust note
Read the full review
  • Walkaround

    Styling differences between the WRX and Impreza are subtle enough that only those who know what to look for will know you’re not driving a garden-variety Subaru compact.

    Unfortunately, most of those people are young guys driving their own sporty cars — like the Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen GTI — and who often seem to want to challenge you to stoplight drag races. This gets annoying very quickly.

  • Interior

    Inside, the most notable upgrade over the standard Impreza is a set of heavily-bolstered front seats that I prefer to those in many sports car seats, whose overly-aggressive bolstering can be uncomfortable for daily driving.

    My tester was done up in Sport-Tech trim, which includes leather upholstery all around and eight-way power adjustments for the driver; the front passenger gets a four-way manual seat. As nice as leather is for dressing up a car, I prefer cloth in one designed to be driven quickly, as it’s better for holding you in place during enthusiastic cornering. Base and Sport trims both get cloth upholstery.

    Since it’s based on a practical compact sedan, the WRX has a perfectly useful back seat and trunk, neither of which give up any space to the Impreza.

    Demerits include a lot of road and engine noise; having driven the plainer Impreza not long after this WRX, the former is better at keeping that soundtrack out of the cabin.

  • Tech

    As its name suggests, Sport-Tech is the most technology-intensive version of the WRX, bringing navigation, passive keyless entry with push-button start, and a stereo that pumps 440 watts through nine speakers, including a subwoofer.

    Those features build on the Sport model’s blind spot detection, sunroof, LED headlights, and eight-way power driver’s seat we mentioned earlier.

    But Subaru’s most impressive piece of tech isn’t offered in the WRX. That’s the company’s EyeSight system, which uses cameras at the top of the windshield to monitor what’s happening in front of the car and enables features such as adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, and automatic braking and lane departure warning. If you want this in a small Subaru, you’ll have to settle for the slower Impreza.

  • Driving

    The WRX was designed to go fast, and that’s never more obvious than when you’re trying to drive it slowly. Both the throttle and clutch are difficult to modulate, and the car goes from sleepy to psycho with a twitch of the right foot. Smooth launches from a stop take some practice. The six-speed transmission’s shift feel is good, though.

    WRX’s 2.0-litre turbocharged engine generates 258 lb-ft of torque from as early as 2,000 rpm, and beyond that point it provides impressive acceleration in the transmission’s lower gears. Below the 2,000 rev mark, however, the engine doesn’t do much of anything, and there’s a flat spot somewhere around 4,000 rpm.

    And unlike most sports car engines, there’s no sensation of a swell of power as the engine revs toward its redline, nor does the engine’s sound change appreciably. That makes it hard to know when to shift by ear alone: A couple of times I ran the engine up against its rev limiter in enthusiastic driving, simply because I was looking where I was going instead of obsessively eyeing the tachometer.

    For all of my complaints about the WRX’s engine, its AWD does get that power to the road efficiently. That happens through open differentials, though; only the more powerful STI model gets front and rear limited slip diffs.

    Ride comfort is decent, thanks to a more compliant suspension than I remembered from an earlier fourth-generation WRX, which I drove in summer of 2014. That translates into lots of body motion if you encounter uneven pavement in the middle of a quick corner, which can be disconcerting.

    Against official Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption estimates of 11.3/8.5 L/100 km, my test car averaged 11.0 L/100 km in mostly city driving.

  • Value

    WRX pricing starts at a shade under $30,000, which is a good value for this level of performance.

    A VW Golf GTI kicks off at $28,595, but with only 200 hp and front-wheel drive. If you want a Golf that can match the WRX’s combination of power and traction, you’re looking at the 292-hp, $39,995 Golf R, at nearly $4,000 more than my WRX Sport-Tech’s MSRP.

    Normally, Honda would have a horse in this race, but its Civic Si is on hiatus as Honda continues to roll out the range of its all-new Civic lineup.

    If going fast is a higher priority than a car with four doors and five seats, Nissan’s 370Z boasts a 332-hp V6 for as low as $29,998. If you want a coupe with a back seat, try the Ford Mustang, which can be had with a 310-hp, 2.3-litre turbo four-cylinder for well under $30,000.

    And if you’re okay with a sports car that puts its power to the front wheels, Mini will sell you a 228-hp John Cooper Works hatchback for $33,240.

    For my money, the GTI’s extra refinement and smoother power delivery trump the WRX’s extra horsepower and AWD traction.

  • Conclusion

    The WRX is less of a novelty now than when it arrived in North America 15 years ago. For better or worse, what makes this latest generation special is that it’s not always an easy car to live with, despite its practical shape. The question is whether it’s the kind of special you want your sports car to be.

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