The back-road and gravel track brawler is back and this is what you need to know.
Before the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, the Golf R, and the Ford Focus RS came another crazy fast all-wheel-drive take on a family car. The Subaru Impreza WRX, now simply the Subaru WRX, was a pivotal car for Subaru and a pivotal point for car culture. For Subaru, it put the brand's logo on the map worldwide through its success in rallying and, for car culture, it brought a new type of performance to the road. It showed you didn't need to be a supercar to be fast, and that you didn't need to be slow to be affordable and practical. And the icing on the cake was an all-wheel-drive system that could tackle any loose surface, just like the rally car. Now, it's sold as a separate model from the Impreza but still holds true to the recipe of a turbocharged boxer engine, an all-wheel-drive system, and a ton of practicality. Having just driven the new WRX and with a new WRX STI imminent, here's everything you need to know about the WRX.
Subaru has been around since the 1950s, and for a long time, it was all about building family vehicles. In the 1970s, Subaru introduced its excellent Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, and it's still a large part of why people buy Subarus today. Subaru is also famous for its four-cylinder boxer-style engines. With the automaker's signature being all-wheel drive cars with loose road surface capabilities, going rallying made perfect sense as a way of elevating brand awareness. First, the Subaru World Rally Team campaigned the brand's Legacy model and started making a statement with the established driver Ari Vatanen and a newcomer called Colin McRae at the wheel. Just after McRae got his first win for Subaru, the team switched to the Impreza in 1993. It achieved a podium finish at the Impreza's first event, the 1993 1,000 Lakes Rally, and both McRae and the Impreza went on to become legends. McRae got his first driver's championship title in 1995, and Subaru cleaned up three consecutive manufacturer's titles in 1995 through 1997.
The first road car with the WRX badge arrived in 1992 and was based on the Impreza sedan. It came with all-wheel drive, stiffened suspension, and Subaru turbocharged the four-cylinder engine to produce 236 horsepower through a viscous center and rear differential. The engine was built to be more robust, the gearing shortened, and better turbo cooling was added for the rigors of rallying. The Japanese market also got a hardcore racing version called the WRX Type RA which was stripped down for weight, including deleting the horn and the anti-lock braking system.
In 1994, Japan got the first WRX STi badged model Impreza and it took things to the next level with blueprinted performance-tuned engines, upgraded transmissions, and even more drastically tuned suspension. The Impreza WRX STi was as useful as a street racer as it was a track car, as Subaru Tecnica International was the division that had been prepping Subaru race cars since its creation in 1988. The US didn't get a WRX STi until 2004 and it arrived with 300 hp and 310 ft-lb of torque, a six-speed manual transmission, a helical limited-slip diff at the front, a driver-controlled center differential, Brembo brakes, Recaro seats, and a Momo steering wheel. Most importantly, you could get it with the iconic gold BBS wheels and blue paint color scheme.
There's a lot of car enthusiasts out there now that never saw live motorsport with direct cigarette sponsorship. The famous blue and gold scheme synonymous now with the Subaru performance cars comes from the UK-based State Express 555 tobacco company, which is still popular in Asia. State Express 555 (usually known as just 555) sponsored Subaru's rally cars from 1993 to 2004, but as it the sponsorship became less frequent, Subaru kept the colors and replaced the logo with its own. If you see photos of Subaru rally cars from that era with 555 replaced by three crescent moons, that will be from a rally where tobacco advertisement wasn't allowed. Subaru says that around 25 percent of WRX models on the road are painted in its Global Rally Blue. Over the years, the color has evolved, now known as WR Blue Pearl in its latest guise, although it has come to be an STI-specific shade.
Subaru announced it would be launching a "new sporty car in 2014," and that was the year that WRX officially became a unique model in the Subaru's lineup. While the WRX and WRX STi might be based on the Impreza, they have their own bodywork and performance enhancements. The latest generation, launched for the 2022 model year, is the most far removed from the Impreza. Despite riding on the same Subaru Global Platform, all of the bodywork on the new WRX is unique to the model and the performance enhancements are more than ever.
In 2010, Subaru revealed the Cosworth Impreza WRX STI CS400. The centerpiece was a Cosworth built and tuned 2.5-liter turbo-four making 395 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque and able to propel the WRX to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds - around 1.5 seconds faster than the standard WRX STI. It also came with Eibach springs, Bilstein dampers, and 13.9-inch AP Racing discs with six-piston calipers. Subaru and Cosworth only built 75 of the WRX STI CS400, and all were sold in the UK where it directly rivalled the Mistubishi Lancer Evo FQ400.
If there's any doubt that the WRX is an enthusiast car, you only have to take a look at the sales figures. An incredible 85 percent of the first-generation standalone WRX models were sold with manual transmissions. For some perspective, Porsche says its latest Porsche 911 GT3 model has a 70- percent take rate in the US while its global rate is 30 percent and non-GT3 911's only have a 20 to 25 percent take rate. That may have had something to do with the WRX's automatic being a CVT, but in an age where automatics dominate sales charts, it still speaks volumes that the manual sells so well.
For the new generation, Subaru has worked hard on its CVT transmission, knowing its existing customers will mostly prefer the manual. The reason why the CVT is even still an option, you might ask, is to lure in new buyers who simply don't want a manual, but didn't like the previous auto. The upside is, the CVT has a stronger rear torque bias, making it more eager to oversteer.
While most performance car makers hit the Nurburgring in Germany to try and find a lap time that impresses people, Subaru went in a different direction in 2016. Instead, stunt and rally driver Mark Higgins set out on a scorching lap on one of the most dangerous road courses in the world and usually reserved for motorbike racing. His lap of the Isle of Man TT course takes 17 minutes and 35 seconds minutes, and it's one of the most compelling driver's view videos we've seen. Seriously, take a break, go full screen, and check out Higgins giving a masterclass in setting an insane lap time. The course is 37.7 miles long, and that means he averages 128.73 miles per hour on back roads and through towns and villages.
If you're around Subaru enthusiasts for any amount of time, you'll hear references to the Bugeye, Blobeye, and Hawkeye models. These are different facelift versions of the second-generation WRX identified through nicknames for the cars headlight clusters, starting with the Bugeye that was here in the US from 2000 to 2002. Next came the Blobeye that arrived in 2003 and the Hawkeye of 2006. Later WRX models and facelifts haven't had nicknames that have stuck as hard, but you might hear Stinkeye and Raptoreye later on. Subaru likes Hawkeye and refers to the new generation's front light clusters as just that. However, if you look closely you can see headlight design on the latest generations are inspired by the boxer engine. The daytime running lights look like pistons while the Subaru logo dead centre is the crankshaft
While the first generation of WRX was directly influenced and bred from the World Rally Championship Impreza, following the 2008 season, Subaru withdrew from the WRC altogether, and due to changes in the rules regarding engine displacement, the WRX is no longer eligible for the championship. You'll still see the WRX STI in national Rally America championships, but we can't hang too much on the legacy of rallying anymore. In fact, the last time the WRX won a Drivers' Championship in the WRC was in 2003, and the last Constructors' Championship victory was all the way back in 1997. However, that isn't a bad thing as the WRX is first and foremost a passenger vehicle and Subaru has developed it accordingly as a performance car while keeping an eye on the past and what people expect from the model.