I grew up liking cars; my dad had a running subscription to Car magazine and I used to page through each issue eagerly, not understanding much of what was being talked about. I liked them, but it wasn’t until my late teenage years that I developed a passion for them – and even then I never really had any preference in the ‘Subaru vs. Mitsubishi’ war. I was one of the few petrolheads that didn’t have a side in the war; in fact I couldn’t care less.
In recent times Subaru have endeared themselves to me though; good vehicles like the XV and Forester have formed their bread and butter, and they’re great vehicles, but the WRX was always something I didn’t care for much – maybe because my experience with the previous generations was one of dissatisfaction. I found them expensive and crude, and very understeery. But this week I found myself staring at the latest iteration of the WRX parked in my driveway as the sun set in the distance, and I was completely besotted.
The light caught its metallic pleats and creases magnificently, each degree of the sun’s shift mapped an altogether different view of the WRX, each better than the last. Photos haven’t done the WRX any justice, but in the metal it seems to have it all. It’s low, it’s wide, it’s angry, just as you’d expect. But it’s also un-Subaru; it’s elegant, it’s professional. It is, in an unusual way, beautiful. Every time I looked at it I fell in love just a little more; it was the first time a Subaru had done this to me and the first time in a long while any car had – this was a raunchy assault on the senses that oozed sex appeal.
By the chapter of this week that I stood and watched the sun set over the WRX, I’d already long since fallen in love with the overall package. It wasn’t merely a visual attraction, it was something far deeper. I found any excuse to go for a drive in the middle of the day, I ‘forgot’ certain items at the shops so I could make a return trip the long way round to go get that carton of milk that had apparently, semi-consciously slipped my mind.
Each short trip saw me probing the WRX’s abilities more than the last, and each time it rewarded me with an undiscovered ability to go harder than I’d have thought. 197kW and 350Nm from a 2.0-litre turbo boxer engine with a twinscroll turbo and direct injection, and permanent all-wheel drive with brake-assisted torque vectoring sound like they make for an impressive package, but the WRX was more than merely the sum of its parts.
The engine alone was potent, yet a bit flat and prone to small amounts of turbo-lag. The CVT-equipped model I had on test went some way to keeping the engine in its torque band consistently, but it still hit a flat spot at around 6000rpm and it didn’t feel decidedly rapid. The performance figures wouldn’t suggest so either – despite the AWD, the 0-100km/h time in the CVT model is a mere 6.3 seconds, slower than even a FWD Renault Megane RS265. It was quiet too, definitely a boxer, but it just lacked that hearty engine tone we’ve come to expect as the Subaru signature. One can opt for a performance exhaust with a more aggressive note, but even that won’t disguise the engine’s quiet nature.
Electronic steering, always an iffy topic in ‘connecting’ with a car, was an area of concern after the first few drives in the WRX. It wasn’t particularly bad; I knew exactly where my front wheels were pointing, even if I couldn’t really feel them, but the drive felt just a little cold, and the wheel felt very heavy to the turn. It was a stark contrast to the fact that the newly invigorated interior boasted a new ‘D-shaped’ steering wheel that seemed to be moulded to my grip from the onset – far and away the best steering wheel Subaru has designed and a polar opposite to the initial numb feel it transcribed to me.
But something happened, somewhere in between the cold steering and the demure engine, somewhere after the somewhat sluggish 0-100km/h time – if a sub-7 could ever really be called sluggish. It happened on one of the many kilometres I drive home each day, not at a particular moment in time nor on a particular stretch of road. From that happening forth, on every drive I asked more of the WRX, through every turn and every curve I pushed it a little more, and each time it responded better than the last, humbly requesting more. It began to come alive.
The platform with its all-wheel drive and electronic steering that seemed so cold yielded to a different sentiment; not cold but in fact planted and confident upon the road surface. This settled nature allowed for the WRX to be comfortably pushed on any road surface, gripping at every point along the way, and communicating subtly with me as to exactly what the wheels were doing. The steering went from numb to informative, but unobtrusive – it was working with me rather than overloading me with information.
The engine, seeming flat when I initially judged it, seemed to perfectly apportion its power to the road, voraciously reeling in the horizon with urgency. It still had that air of demure about it, and at times I yearned for a bit more ferocity; but it erased the straight roads between the bends with relentless vigour and stitched twists and turns together in a fluid tapestry of handling bliss. Around the twists the WRX came to life, carving up the roadway with vicious resolve – it had the ability to dash across the apex of a corner at ungodly speeds, the AWD enabling early throttle application that simply launched the car out of corners. Understeer, something that has been a plague in previous WRX models, was a non-issue at the worst of times as the torque-vectoring system pinched the brakes on the appropriate wheels to nip understeer in the proverbial bud.
But it felt natural, almost unnoticeable – in stark contrast to the likes of the Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG, which feels decidedly false in its torque-vectoring mechanism. Tighter tests of the WRX’s handling would not see the Subaru undone – it tucked its nose keenly into changes of direction, and the mechanical grip on offer never failed to surprise. The rear-biased torque split on the CVT equipped model (45:55 front:rear) yielded slightly oversteery handling characteristics, the rear end pivoting when dipped into corners sharply, and sliding round controllably on lift-off.
In spectacular fashion the WRX was, for lack of a better phrase, completely chuckable. At outrageous speeds for the corner ahead, it would dip in and in a flash it would be out. It became a repeat affair; a guilty pleasure to go seeking the tightest of turns and throw the WRX in as hard as possible. But even in the wildest of circumstances there was a controllable resolve about the situation. The WRX was a rapier in the hand of a musketeer, flashing across the road surface with flamboyance; all the while I could control it with a single hand on the wheel.
It was an orchestra of ability and I was the conductor, and I knew that I would run out of talent long before the WRX did.
Of course none of this would be possible without the ability to jump on the brakes ahead of dipping into a corner. The brakes on the WRX were well and truly brilliant, with exemplary brake feel and plenty progressive bite; but too much toying about and brake-fade did come into play, placing a damper on the mood. But even though capable, they were comfortable with daily commuting, never biting too soon or too sharply.
The CVT transmission, something I’d been highly sceptical about prior to testing, was decidedly un-CVT in its behaviour. Had I not known it were a CVT I’d have happily believed it to be a well-engineered torque-converter automatic. It flicked through up-shifts with smooth rapidity, and downshifts were timeous and well judged. The SI drive system comprising of 3 modes, Intelligent, Sport, and Sport # (pronounced Sport Sharp) found frequent use in my hands. ‘I’ provided fuel-efficient power delivery and 6 ratios, whilst S# went all out with 8 ratios and a wall of torque with flat power delivery thereafter – it was a bit too vicious and fidgety, and as such I left the WRX in S mode for the most part, delivering sharp throttle responses, eager gearshifts, and a usable balance of power and subtlety in tandem with a 6-ratio configuration.
When using the manual shift-paddles mounted behind the wheel, the WRX’s shifts were quick and accurate. Delays between the paddle-pull and the actual shift were kept to a minimum, and on the whole the CVT proved to be a worthy transmission – not quite as good as a VW DSG, but better than many a dual-clutch transmission on the market at present. If I were to have my way, I’d still opt for the hands-on manual shifter, but my doubts were cast aside on the CVT, and it became a pleasant inclusion in the overall package.
The performance antics of the WRX were uncanny; assimilating seemingly average parts and figures into a whole that went above and beyond what mere numbers could ever explain. But the skilled manner in which the WRX was able to handle and perform was only one side of its person – the Mr. Hyde to its Dr. Jekyll. For as much as it could stitch together incredible handling aspects and chassis characteristics when in all-out attack mode, it could be equally as civilised.
The planted suspension that gripped the asphalt so well under duress could be calm and subdued – definitely on the firm side of comfortable, but damped well enough to absorb road imperfections and prevent clattering teeth. The steering was heavy, but only ever became cumbersome at crawl-speeds, and the subtlety of its communication became appreciated on the day to day trundle.
The interior, a mature approach compared to efforts of the past, was suited to everyday living, with a standard reverse-camera, sunroof, cruise control, electronically adjustable driver’s seat and climate control. The optional touch-screen navigation and infotainment system, priced at R8000, was a definite must-have, and despite being sluggish it did its job agreeably. Leather upholstery and sport seats – the same ones that held me in place through the most vicious of turns – provided comfortable support for the work commute, and the massive boot and large amount of rear leg room meant passengers and luggage could easily be accommodated. The WRX has grown up into a genuine executive sedan; but it wears its running shoes underneath the antique leather-topped desk of its corporate appearance, raring to go at a moment’s notice.
Fanboys may rue the maturing of the WRX moniker, but the newest iteration of the famous badge is better than any that have come before. It isn’t a robot-to-robot racer, and it may be outdone in the quality stakes by the likes of the Audi S3 sedan, but the WRX has an allure than no other vehicle currently offers. It’s the kind of car that makes you find excuses to go for mid-day drives; it leaves you day-dreaming of slicing over apexes and racing through long, swooping curves. It connects with the driver on a spiritual level, evoking emotions of a carnal nature. It’s not perfect; but for all its shortcomings there are few, if any, other vehicles that can be so pure a driver’s tool and yet be so professional on a day-to-day basis.
Turbocharged, Horizontally-opposed 4 cylinder
197kW @ 5600RPM
350Nm @ 2400-5200RPM
6-speed CVT (8-speed in S# mode)
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