Four years of straight growth have put Subaru in an enviable position – one where it can introduce exciting new low volume models like the BRZ coupe and promise or deliver significant updates to each and every one of its sedans and crossovers within a short span of time. This includes the 2015 Subaru WRX, long the standard-bearer on the compact performance scene and a turbocharged automobile with a cult following that is as strong in Japan as it is in North America.
Even flush with the spoils of its recent success, Subaru is still a very small company, which means that when it comes to redesigning one of its most important models it still has to make decisions based on balancing the bottom line with the expectations of legions of repeat buyers. The 2015 Subaru WRX might not look much like the gorgeous concept car that put stars in our eyes at this year’s New York Auto Show, but it’s time that we all got over it, because what it brings to the table is the most complete version of the sport sedan that has ever worn the Subaru badge.
From The Ground Up
A solid foundation is the key to producing the kind of next-level handing that Subaru’s engineers had targeted for the 2015 Subaru WRX, and while the model shares its basic underpinnings with the more modest Impreza sedan, radical changes occur underneath the WRX’s skin in order to erase its pedestrian roots. Most prominent is the grafting of numerous high tensile strength steel reinforcements across the roof, the door frames, and other areas of the unibody, a move that improves torsional rigidity by 41 percent over the 2014 edition of the car. A much higher spring rate front and rear, combined with a thicker front anti-sway bar, capitalize on the new stiffness of the WRX’s bushings, crossmembers, and thicker struts, creating a package that delivers a much more intimate relationship with the tarmac than ever before.
It’s the 2015 Subaru WRX’s chassis that shines above all else. This is true whether punishing the car’s suspension system on some of the most challenging and narrow inland roads that Northern California’s Napa Valley has to offer, or simply cruising along at the speed of traffic on a six-lane highway. Perched at opposite ends of the WRX’s mission profile, each type of driving reveals much about the sedan’s exceptional character. Gone are the days when one would have been shaken to bits by rough pavement while shooting for the next apex: Subaru has dialed up the fun while canceling out the harshness that one expects out of a performance vehicle based on an economy-minded platform.
Grip For Days
Married to the 2015 Subaru WRX’s truly world-class chassis is the brand’s trademark all-wheel drive system, which comes in two flavors thanks to the reintroduction of an automatic transmission option (more on that later). The manual car benefits from a viscous-coupling in the center differential that splits torque 50:50 between the front and rear axles, while auto-equipped models feature a more complex electronically-controlled clutch that maintains a slight rear bias (45:55) in order to impart a more sporting feel. Both setups can of course redistribute power should slippage be detected, making it an effective weapon not only when carving canyons but also when fighting the snowy, slushy weather that the WRX has traditionally devoured with a smile.
There’s a new twist to the Subaru WRX’s handling package for 2015: an Active Torque Vectoring (ATV) feature that selectively applies the inside front brake while cornering. The effect is one of a basketball court pivot, and the system’s almost completely transparent action cancels out the understeer typically associated with an all-wheel drive layout while further sharpening the WRX’s chops.
Brand New Engine…
The 2015 Subaru WRX does away with last year’s 2.5-liter, four-cylinder unit and instead debuts a fresh 2.0-liter turbocharged boxer four-cylinder motor. Similar in many ways to the lump found under the hood of the 2014 Subaru Forester XT, the 2.0 can be counted on to produce 268 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. This represents only a slight improvement compared to the outgoing generation of the car, but of greater interest than peak power is where exactly the WRX’s output is available to drivers – torque is fat and plentiful from 2,000 to 5,200 rpm, and the engine also revs higher and more hungrily than in the XT.
…And Two Transmissions To Boot
Corralling this new engine’s might is a long-overdue six-speed manual transmission (standard with all versions of the Subaru). Well-spaced cogs and a more direct feel than any Subaru-sourced transmission to come before it are hallmarks of the gearbox, and characteristics that serve to highlight the turbocharged engine’s rapid throttle response and absolute lack of lag at initial tip-in. There’s no longer any need to wait for that surge of power typically associated with small-displacement turbocharged cars, as the WRX boasts a newfound immediacy that translates into remarkably drama-free acceleration.
The move to include a continuously-variable automatic transmission on the 2015 Subaru WRX’s options sheet is one that was taken as a sign that the car had gone ‘soft’ by some enthusiasts, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The CVT, also largely a carry-over from the Forester XT, offers three modes (i, Sport, and Sport Sharp), with the latter two featuring enhanced throttle response as well as stepped shifting through six and eight ‘virtual’ gears, respectively. Paddle shifters are mounted to the car’s steering wheel, and the entire arrangement works remarkably well with regard to simulating a traditional automatic.
The real bonus for CVT buyers – which Subaru predicts will compose 20 percent of owners – is the car’s launch control feature, which abandons any stepped simulations in order to offer pure and unfettered acceleration at full throttle to 60-mph. Subaru is predicting a low five second performance in this metric for manual WRXs, with CVT’s clocking in above the five-and-a-half second mark. With practice, I’m fairly confident owners will be able to best both of those estimates.
Lateral Moves Outside, Progress Made Inside
A fair amount of concern was expressed by Subaru representatives during my time in California regarding the question of attitude. Specifically, has the Impreza-based WRX lost the aggression of the older model by hewing too closely to the shape of its point of origin? On the whole, I would have to say no, for while the 2015 Subaru WRX lacks the visual impact of the wide-body-and-winged 2014 edition, it looks far better in person, outdoors and in its natural environment, than it did on the dais in Los Angeles where it was introduced. It’s not going to please everybody, but for a car that has gone from bug eyes to shields to smiles, it’s clear that styling has long taken a backseat to performance for the WRX’s core audience.
A bigger issue for Subaru WRX fans is the elimination of the hatchback body style – a model that represented 50 percent of sales for 2013, and one that has long been the preferred option for those who must balance their thirst for performance with the practical concerns of day-to-day living. It’s a puzzling omission that becomes more understandable when told flat-out by Subaru that there simply wasn’t enough money in the coffers to develop two versions of the car and still achieve the high degree of differentiation between the WRX and the Impreza that is so important to the continued success of the car. A hatchback isn’t coming – one of the firmest comments on future product development I have heard in a long time from any group of auto executives – but if building a five-door WRX meant diluting Subaru's performance targets, then I think the right choice was ultimately made.
Some of the money saved by abandoning the hatchback has also been poured into the 2015 Subaru WRX’s interior, which is in a different league when compared to that of any past generation of the vehicle. Soft touch surfaces abound, road noise is muted to an incredible degree (even in the preproduction models that I drove), and the sport seats were quite comfortable without being as restrictive as those offered by several of Subaru’s sport compact competitors. It would be a stretch to call the WRX luxurious, but it’s definitely much more livable than ever before, which is exactly what I wanted to see from the 2015 version.
The Best-Rounded WRX To Date
The Best-Rounded WRX To Date
It’s inevitable that those who shop for cars exclusively by the numbers will look at the 2015 Subaru WRX’s power output, acceleration times, and features list, and dismiss the car as being merely an echo of the vehicle that came before – particularly given the lack of a distinctive styling statement that so many expected from this redesigned model. This is a serious mistake, however, as the new Subaru WRX achieves that rarest of victories by surpassing the sum of its stats to present a driving experience that is head and shoulders above that of the model it replaces.
Subaru has remained mum on price, but has allowed that the WRX will be positioned very close to last year’s entry-level window sticker, further enhancing its status as a bargain. If you are looking for an affordable and fun car that you can drive to work every single day and still squeeze vast amounts of enjoyment from in more challenging driving situations – whether that be a road course, a favorite twisty road, or a drag strip – I recommend the new Subaru without any of the qualifiers I might have applied to the previous generation of the sedan. The 2015 WRX doesn’t rewrite the book on high performance compact cars, but it does tell a more mature and compelling tale than ever before.