Once it was being ruthlessly caned on a tortuous bit of tarmac called Skaggs Springs Road on a cold, clear day near the Pacific Ocean, it became clear that the 2015 Subaru WRX restores the faith. The original Subaru WRX gave American enthusiasts the car for which they'd been clamoring. Various permutations in intervening years had, well, uneven success in replicating that result.
What Makes This a Sharper WRX?
The 2015 Subaru WRX sheds the word "Impreza" from its model name, but the approach remains the same. Subaru engineers took the current Impreza, ran it through the fast-car operating room and produced a WRX that nods at previous ones, yet goes its own way.
For starters, the engine that has powered every previous WRX, known internally as the EJ-series, is gone. There's no five-door body style either. And you can get leather seats and an automatic. So, has the WRX gone soft?
Actually, it's stiffer. Reinforcements to the Impreza's body shell have resulted in torsional rigidity that is up by 41 percent, while bending stiffness increases some 30 percent over the old WRX. It's all in pursuit of improved handling, as a stiff chassis allows the suspension to better respond to inputs from the road.
It also allows that suspension to effectively exploit higher spring rates. In the case of the new WRX, engineers did just that, stiffening the front springs by 39 percent and the rears by a whopping 62 percent. Handling, then, is the focus of the new car.
And at the risk of giving away the plot early, yes, this is easily the sharpest, most precise WRX ever. The somewhat ropey body roll and rubbery driveline lash of previous cars is a memory. The new WRX's body stays impressively flat in corners, and it changes direction with newfound alertness. And there's grip: Subaru says the new car orbits its skid pad at 0.93g, just 0.01g less grippy than an Evo on the same surface, while exhibiting a roll angle similar to a BRZ or Porsche Cayman.
The flip side of all this precision is a ride that's stiff-legged and busy in casual driving. Yet the car somehow soaks up all the bumpiness when you go on the attack. Pound it down truly crappy, wondrous roads like Skaggs Springs Road and it stays faithfully on line and never loses its composure.
Uses the Brakes To Turn. Here's How
Suspension travel is said to be similar to that of the outgoing car, while there's a noticeably firmer brake pedal backed by a 1-inch-diameter master cylinder (up from 15/16 of an inch) and bigger, thicker disks.
Turn-in is assisted by what Subaru calls Active Torque Vectoring, which drags the inside front brake to help point the nose, reducing initial understeer. Its electrically assisted steering's ratio is quicker, too. The outcome is that response from the helm is immediate and very precise.
What's more, the chassis remains alert even when cornering loads are high, allowing minute adjustments to your line that would have been lost in the syrupiness of the old car. Steering effort from the new rack is a shade light and it could use more feel, but that's just being fussy. This is one capable car.
The New Engine Is a Noticeable Upgrade
The new car's direct-injected 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, known internally as the FA20, is borrowed from the Forester Turbo with minimal changes. Stiffer valve springs and revised cams support higher revs (6,700 rpm redline versus 6,000 in the tall wagon), while the Honeywell turbo huffs out a max of 15.9 psi boost pressure.
In the 2015 Subaru WRX this flat-4 generates little more peak power than the EJ25 2.5-liter four in the outgoing car (268 horsepower at 5,600 rpm versus 265 at 6,000 rpm) but its 258 pound-feet of torque from 2,000-5,200 rpm is a meaningful improvement. The new car's additional 59 pounds isn't enough to sap the fun out of the broader torque curve.
The torque is more accessible in day-to-day driving, especially as there are now six forward gears rather than five in the old car. This cable-shifted manual gearbox is an adaptation of the Forester's six-speed, adding carbon-lined synchros and a shifter with shorter throws. After rowing the lever on our drive in Northern California, we're pleased that it moves through the gates free of notchiness or resistance.
A Better CVT Than We Expected
And then there's the automatic, a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is Subaru's way of expanding the WRX's appeal that's got the fanboys all abuzz. With paddle shifters, two modes, three levels of aggression and a clever calibration that switches to stepped ratios when the throttle is depressed beyond a certain point, the CVT actually works astonishingly well.
In fact, based on our time with both transmissions, we reckon it's possible the CVT car could be quicker point to point than a manual one on a tight, technical road with lots of gearchanges. The reason? There's no torque interruption during gear ratio changes in the CVT, whereas in the manual there's a brief pause following a gearchange before the floodgates reopen in earnest.
Nevertheless, Subaru's stopwatch tells a different story. Sixty falls in 5.4 seconds with the manual and 5.9 seconds with the CVT in "launch mode," activated simply by two-pedaling the car on the line and then releasing the brake and flooring the gas.
Both versions of the new car are deceptively rapid, as the flat torque delivery spells less drama when you squeeze the throttle. It's responsive and enthusiastic, not abrupt. The engine note has lost the characteristic flat-4 warbling chuffle, too, due to the pairing of exhaust pulses within the twin-scroll turbo. Consider it the price paid for the new mill's more tractable power delivery.
Your Mileage Will Vary
Fuel economy takes a jump forward. Manual-equipped WRXs are projected to turn in 24 mpg combined (21 city/28 highway), an increase of 3 mpg over the current car. Things get murkier for CVT-equipped cars, but suffice it to say that in the real world you can expect better than the numbers on its sticker of 21 mpg combined (19 city/25 highway).
Left in "Intelligent" mode it is said to unofficially achieve 25 mpg combined (23 city/30 highway). For a more thorough explanation, read our First Look at the 2015 WRX.
It Wouldn't Be a WRX Without Styling Controversy
Exterior changes are comprehensive. Relative to the Impreza upon which it is based, the WRX gets a unique hood, headlights, front fenders, doors, fascias, rear blisters.... In fact, every panel is new save for the roof, deck lid and glass.
All that work has resulted in styling that's charmless and anonymous, lacking even endearing quirkiness like that of previous WRXs. If styling could be a color, the new WRX would be beige.
There's no shortage of wind or road noise in the cabin, but the panoramic visibility on offer is terrific. Its slender A-pillars, low cowl and door-mounted mirrors afford a great view that allows you to place the car with confidence. The thick-rimmed, smaller-diameter steering wheel feels great, though its leather wrap has been processed to within an inch of vinyl. And the seats continue the WRX tradition of offering lateral support beyond what you'd expect from looking at their bolsters.
More Variations Than Ever
Three trim levels bring new levels of creature comforts to the once-basic rally special. You'll be able to have leather seats with heat and power adjustments in the range-topping Limited trim, along with LED headlights.
The CVT gearbox, navigation and 440-watt Harman Kardon boom-boom audio system will be optional on the upper two trim levels. No word yet on pricing, though it's likely the Limited will stretch the model's MSRP to new heights.
Despite the added features, the new 2015 Subaru WRX has decidedly not gone soft. In fact, its driving experience and capability is arguably closer to that of a (gasp!) Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution than previous WRXs. How this twist of irony plays out among die-hards of either brand is something we're looking forward to watching.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.