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Now celebrating its twentieth anniversary on American shores, the all-new, fifth generation of Subaru’s “rally car for the road” wears its motorsport heritage on its sleeve (and fenders) now more than ever. But even with an engine swap and the transition to an entirely new platform, Subaru has largely played it safe here, sticking to the formula that has worked for the WRX for literally decades.
Sure, there’s more power on tap than ever before, and there are also chassis tweaks that provide even more poise to a car that’s already known for its excellent handling. But after moving more than 400,000 of these things since 2002, Subaru has developed a pretty detailed profile of the types of enthusiasts who are buying WRXs, and it’s an effort which has helped the Japanese automaker cultivate the youngest performance car customer base in the entire industry – full stop.
It’s no surprise that performance ranks at the top of the list of demands, and the fact that 85% of these buyers opt for the six-speed manual transmission (which Subaru says is also the highest manual transmission take-rate in the industry among vehicles that offer both manual and automatic options) is a testament to the fact that these folks have their priorities straight. But they’re also not one-dimensional. Many need a car they can commute in all year regardless of where they live, and for a great number of them, this car will also serve as the default hauler for their growing families.
So while the hood scoop, flared fenders, and aero bits give the new WRX convincingly aggressive intent, Subaru didn’t want to build a one-trick pony, so there’s a distinct sense of maturity along for the ride as well. To see how it all came together, we headed out to the switchbacks and rolling hills of the Mendocino National Forest to put the new machine through its paces.
The WRX’s new look has created some controversy among enthusiasts, but we found it to be easier on the eyes when viewed in person. Subaru also tells us that every vent, scoop, and aerodynamic component on the new WRX serves a functional purpose.
Even though the end result is more evolutionary rather than revolutionary, there are some big changes afoot for the 2022 WRX. They start with the foundation of the car, which has moved to the Subaru Global Platform architecture. The change improves the WRX’s lateral and torsional rigidity, thereby reducing the amount of work that the suspension needs to do to keep the car stable and planted during spirited driving, which in turn allowed Subaru engineers to use slightly softer springs and dampers for better ride quality. It also allowed designers to give the car wholly unique bodywork versus the Impreza for the first time in the WRX’s history – not a single body panel is shared between the two now.
It’s also three inches longer and more than an inch wider than the outgoing WRX – changes which yield improvements in legroom, shoulder room, and front headroom that make the cabin feel noticeably more spacious – and yet the change in curb weight is negligible when compared to the outgoing car. It’s actually a few pounds lighter than its predecessor in certain configurations.
The sport seats up from have been revamped to provide better lateral bolstering when cornering and more comfort around town. They also now feature three levels of heat intensity rather than two. GT models score a pair of Recaros instead.
That bodes well for performance, and so does the new, 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-four boxer engine that replaces the boosted two-liter in the preceding WRX. The Ascent-derived mill features an electronically controlled wastegate, beefed-up valve springs, and some other performance tweaks, but the peak numbers are admittedly a bit underwhelming: 271hp and 258 lb-ft still keep the WRX comfortably ahead of rivals like the Volkswagen GTI and Honda Civic Si, but those figures also represent an improvement of just three horsepower and no change in torque despite a 20% increase in displacement. Subaru is adamant that the bigger power plant yields a broader torque curve, though.
The new 11.6-inch infotainment display, which is standard on all models aside from Base, is a big step up from the optional 7.0-inch unit in the outgoing car – both figuratively and literally. Many of the car’s functions are now accessed through the touchscreen, but Subaru wisely chose to retain physical knobs and buttons for volume control and temperature adjustments.
The new engine is paired with a six-speed manual transmission as-standard, of course, but a revised automatic transmission is also on the menu. Now dubbed the Subaru Performance Transmission, or SPT, it is ostensibly a heavily re-worked version of the CVT that the outgoing WRX had on offer, but Subaru tells us that it now offers significantly faster upshifts and downshifts in its emulation of a traditional eight-speed automatic. In fact, the WRX’s new top-tier GT trim level is offered exclusively with the SPT gearbox. The package includes electronically controlled dampers, Recaro seats, drive mode customization options, and a number of interior trim upgrades as well.
Speaking of the interior, that’s seen some attention, too. The heated sport seats up front now offer three levels of heat intensity and have been revised to provide more lateral bolstering to keep you in place while cornering. Red stitching and carbon fiber-style accents help liven things up from an aesthetic standpoint, but the big news is the new 11.6-inch tablet-style infotainment system. Standard equipment on all trim levels aside from the Base model, this new system offers an expansive amount screen real estate and is a huge step up from the optional 7.0-inch unit in the outgoing car, but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto remain wired affairs.
A six-speed manual transmission comes as-standard on all WRX models aside from the new, top-tier GT. 85% of WRX opt to row their own, but Subaru is hoping to lure in more buyers with a heavily revamped version of their CVT automatic, which is now dubbed the Subaru Performance Transmission.
Despite riding on a new platform and being motivated by a new engine, the fifth-generation WRX feels immediately familiar at the helm. Excellent outward visibility continues to be a hallmark of WRX design, and it doesn’t take long to find an agreeable combination of seat and steering wheel adjustments to get situated for a fun drive.
The clutch is nicely weighted, but the shifter is a bit more notchy than I’d prefer when transitioning between gates, and the throws are relatively long. That’s nothing that the aftermarket can’t fix, and although the quad-tipped exhaust looks great, it’s not hard to imagine that many new buyers will also toss this surprisingly quiet factory system in favor of something with a bit more bark.
The turbocharged 2.0-liter that motivated the four generation WRX has been tossed in favor of a 271 horsepower version of the 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-four found in other Subaru vehicles like the Legacy and Ascent.
The suspension tweaks yield a noticeable improvement in ride quality around town, and the added compliance also worked in the car’s favor out on occasionally-slick forest roads we encountered during our drive. While the springs and dampers are less aggressive than that of the outgoing car, suspension tweaks like mounting the rear sway bar directly to the body rather than the subframe and reintroduction rebound springs (which were present on the third-generation WRX but absent on the last one, and designed to keep the inside wheels in better contact with the road while cornering) help to keep sway, squat, and dive in check and deliver rock-solid high speed stability. Paired up with the new dual pinion steering rack that’s designed to improve turn-in response and steering feel, the new WRX remains a precision instrument.
It’s not a much quicker one, though. It feels like there’s a bit more mid-range torque available here, and Subaru’s all-wheel drive system makes it easy to put the power down, but the improvements in straight-line acceleration are ultimately pretty minor. Subaru says peak torque arrives at 2,000 RPM and remains flat all the way to 5,200 RPM, but out in the real world the new 2.4-liter doesn’t seem to really wake up until after tachometer has swung past 3K, so don’t expect a ton of newfound power down low.
17-inch wheels with summer performance tires come standard on all WRXs, while 18-inch wheels come as-standard in Premium and Limited trims. GT models get a unique set of 18-inch wheels.
Although the changes haven’t proven to be transformative, the combination of a wholly unique visual identity, increased comfort, improved tech, and an upgraded chassis equate to a better WRX on the whole. Youthful exuberance can be fun, but with age also comes wisdom. The fifth-generation of Subaru’s sports sedan seems to have benefited from the latter on a number of different fronts, yet it still shows no signs of slowing down.