When something appears too good to be true, it usually is. Or so they say. But that old adage doesn’t apply to Subaru’s fourth-generation WRX, which is bigger, roomier, safer, quieter, more efficient, more refined, better equipped, cheaper and therefore better value than ever before.
Despite all that, it offers even more of the turbocharged, all-wheel drive appeal that made its three predecessors so famous, thanks to a more responsive engine, stiffer body, sharper steering, flatter cornering, smoother ride and better brakes. No, there’s no hatchback this time round, but the first (and best) automatic Rex in more than decade more than makes up for that.
Two decades and four generations since it made its World Rally Championship debut in 1994 in the hands of the late, great Colin McRae (who became the first Brit and the youngest person ever to win the WRC driver’s title the following year), Subaru’s now-iconic WRX remains the quintessential ‘rally rocket’ for the road.
Subaru’s now-iconic WRX remains the quintessential ‘rally rocket’ for the road
Its styling has never been far from controversy and the previous generation was criticised for going a little soft, but the WRX never wavered from the turbocharged all-wheel drive formula that has long made it one of the best driver’s cars available for under $40,000.
On the face of it, the fourth-generation WRX remains closer to its WRC roots by downsizing to a 2.0-litre turbo boxer engine and emerging only in four-door sedan guise, but that’s where the similarities with McRae’s Impreza 555 end.
While the forthcoming STI displaces the same 2.5 litres as the previous WRX and STI, the new WRX is powered by the newer FA-series direct-injection turbocharged boxer engine first seen in last year’s new Forester XT.
Although its outputs are just 2kW and 7Nm higher than before, it matches the turbo Forester’s healthy 350Nm torque peak while bettering its power output by 20kW to 197kW. More importantly, power peaks 400rpm earlier than in the previous WRX at 5600rpm and maximum twist arrives at just 2400rpm and lingers all the way to 5200rpm, rather than topping out at 4000rpm.
Fire up the new WRX (via a traditional ignition key in the base model and a push-button in the Premium variant) and there’s a hairier-chested note from the sexy quad exhaust outlets that sounds less like an original VW Beetle and more like the Toyota-injected BRZ.
Better still, as the figures suggest, the new engine feels stronger and less stressed at all times, offering more responsive power delivery right across the rev range and a satisfying turbo surge from lower in the rev range.
The new engine feels stronger and less stressed at all times
A noticeable drop-off in torque production above 4000rpm in first gear is the only complaint we have with the new WRX engine, which redlines at 6500rpm in the auto and 6750rpm in the manual, although in both versions the engine spins cleanly beyond the 7000rpm-plus rev-limiter.
Like WRXs of old, the manual’s clutch pedal feel heavy at first use and requires some finesse to avoid driveline snatch between lower gear changes. The extra engine flexibility makes wide-open throttle action even more rewarding when you get the chance, and minimises the need for gear shifting via the slicker, shorter-throw STI-spec six-speed manual gearbox.
The only downside of the latter is that it now requires third gear to hit the national highway speed limit (the old Rex did it in second), meaning the 0-100km/h sprint takes a few tenths longer than before in six seconds.
Those that like gears changed for them will be happy to know the first automatic WRX in more than 10 years is only three-tenths slower to 100km/h – despite coming with a much taller final drive ratio (3.900 v 4.444) and weighing 58kg more than the manual.
Priced $2000 higher, the two-pedal Rex also consumes more than half a litre less 95 RON premium unleaded per 100km – 8.6 versus 9.2L/100km for the manual, which itself is down from 10.5L/100km in the old WRX five-speed manual.
Better still, because Subaru already builds one of the best CVT transmissions available, the WRX’s is a surprisingly good match for the turbo-boxer engine, offers up to eight ‘ratios’ in sports mode and can be manually overridden via tactile steering wheel paddle shifters.
While the manual WRX’s AWD system features a traditional viscous centre coupling, CVT models employ a mechanical differential with an electronic clutch pack that by default sends 55 per cent of torque to the rear wheels and up to 50 per cent to the front.
Therefore, while both models benefit from torque vectoring (in which the inside wheel is braked to improve at-the-limit traction), manual models have a more variable torque split, but we didn’t notice much difference in corner exit grip between the two.
Indeed, on the press launch that took in a number of cracking Targa Tasmania stages, all WRXs we drove displayed a dramatic step up in body rigidity, handling, steering and ride quality.
Subaru says the new WRX bodyshell is up a big 40 per cent in torsional stiffness and there’s no doubt it feels tauter, quieter and classier inside. But the tighter body has also allowed Subaru to re-engineer the chassis, which features beefier rollbars, firmer springs, reinforced mounts and revised geometry.
The result is much better body control – the new WRX sits far flatter and remains far more composed in corners than before – and, at the same time, ride quality that takes a huge step forward, remaining compliant on all surfaces, including sizeable dips and bumps.
The new WRX sits far flatter and remains far more composed in corners than before
A new electric steering system with quicker 14.5:1 ratio also extracts the most from the more unyielding body, delivering sharper turn-in and more feedback while remaining free of rack rattle and bump steer.
The bigger front brakes also felt like an improvement to us, although at least one car suffered serious overheating issues after descending the downhill hairpins near Hellyer Gorge at a similar pace to us.
Yes, the base WRX increases in weight by 14kg, but we’d challenge anyone who reckons that relatively minor base weight gain isn’t worth the massive lift in standard equipment and overall refinement.
Befitting its far more accomplished ride/handling compromise, the new WRX brings a vastly better presented interior that’s not significantly different from the latest Impreza and offers the same improvements in visibility and space.
But there’s also a nice and chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel, a cool turbo boost pressure gauge in the hooded Multi-Function Display atop the centre stack and full trip computer functions – including digital speedo — in the 3.5-inch colour LCD screen between the metallic-ringed, red-backlit speedo and tacho dials.
All contact points and dash are covered in elegant, soft-touch surfaces and the large central screen displays the reversing camera view in all models. While the standard cloth sports seats are nicely bolstered, for an extra $5000 the WRX Premium steps further upmarket with full leather trim, a powered driver’s seat, sat-nav, nine-speaker 440-watt Harman Kardon sound, auto headlights and wipers, smart-key entry and a sunroof.
Apart from the five-star safety afforded by seven airbags and all the usual driver aids (but no advanced technologies like autonomous low-speed braking, lane departure warning, blind-spot monitoring or radar cruise), there’s other new tech like LED low-beams, tail-lights and indicators, plus daytime running lights, front/rear foglights and the latest infotainment connectivity.
There’s no doubt the new WRX is the most polished, most complete and most fun-to-drive example of the breed yet seen. The fact it costs $1000 less than before could make it the sub-$40,000 performance car bargain of this year.
2014 Subaru WRX
Price: $38,990 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel: 9.2L/100km (ADR Combined)
CO2: 213g/km (ADR Combined)
Safety Rating: Five-star (ANCAP)
What we liked:
>> Better value than ever
>> Outstanding ride/handling
>> Improved response and refinement
Not so much:
>> Slightly heavier than before
>> Slightly slower than before
>> No hatchback option
This article first appeared in motoring.com.au