2019 Subaru WRX Test Drive Review: The Art of Compromise

Test Drive

Modern amenities with the bones of a sport compact.

Over time, cars grow up with their customer base, the manufacturers listening to owners and giving them what they want to keep them in the family. Cars that start off fun and raw gradually grow in size from generation to generation, new features are added as technology becomes more affordable, and consumers demand the latest gadgets to go along with the practicality or performance they are looking for in a vehicle.

Wild or Mild

Subaru has an incredibly loyal and passionate fan base, both for their practical, rugged crossovers and their rally-racing derived WRX STI performance cars, not to mention their unique drivetrain. It has taken many years to go from a car adapted for rally racing being homologated and sold to the public in order to qualify for racing to a two-tier performance sedan lineup with a number of trims and options, but here we are.

For the truly hardcore, there is the WRX STI, a manual-only, boxer-engine, adjustable-AWD hooligan just as happy clipping apexes as it is sliding around in dirt or snow.

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The milder WRX can actually be a lot of things to a lot of people depending on trim. The base-trim manual-transmission is the cheapest way to get into a 250-horsepower AWD performance car at $27,195 and $975 destination, and might just be the best performance bargain on the market.

In base form with a manual transmission, you get raw, undiluted power from the 2.0-liter, boxer four-cylinder rated at 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. A quick exhaust swap will crank the character up to suitably raucous noise levels, and you’re just a chip away from about 300 hp or more. This is the one you buy if you want it to hone your skills on tracks or rallies and to save budget for upgrades, tires, brakes, and gas.

The WRX I drove was an entirely different proposition. Someone trading in their 2002 WRX hatchback might mistake this for a luxury car (assuming they’ve been living in the forest at the end of a winding gravel road and haven’t seen any new cars in years). The model we drove was the $31,795 WRX Limited, but two optional packages loaded up the feature content and padded the price quite a bit.

The Limited already adds things like keyless access with push-button start, steering-responsive LED headlights, and 10-way power driver's seat on top of the Premium’s 18-inch alloy wheels, power moonroof, heated front seats, fog lights, and 7-inch touchscreen infotainment display, while Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard.

What a Difference a Transmission Makes

Probably the biggest change you can make to the WRX is the “Lineartronic” CVT transmission, which is an added $1,900 on the Limited or $29,495 Premium trim, and unavailable on the base WRX. The transmission itself has different characters based on the drive mode you choose. In regular Intelligent mode, it operates like a typical CVT, swinging up and down freely when accelerating, then keeping the revs at a steady peak efficiency and droning away a bit when cruising steady.

Along with a very delayed throttle response, it maximizes efficiency, which the EPA estimates can be as good as 21 mpg in city driving, 27 mpg on the highway, and 23 mpg overall.

Switching to Sport or Sport Sharp (S#) Mode brings up different throttle mapping and transmission characteristics, the engine leaping to attention as soon as you prod the gas pedal in S#, and only a little less frantic in Sport. Instead of simply running the engine at the most efficient or powerful rpm, Sport simulates six fixed ratios and S# gets eight so that you have distinct climbs up the rev range, then kick downs like shifting to a higher gear in a conventional automatic or dual clutch.

When braking into a corner, you can use the paddle shifters to downshift in advance if you don’t feel like the electronic brain is shifting early enough.

In theory and in most cases, it’s great. It can ‘shift’ quicker than any manual or conventional auto, and you have the best of both worlds, incredibly smooth, relaxed acceleration when just driving to work, and a chance to flex the engine a bit more with the sport modes, keeping it up in its peak power band above 4,000 rpm. But when driving aggressively, the transmission sometimes seemed to hesitate and hang up a bit before finding that right ratio, and other times it just didn’t feel like it was keeping up and I had to switch to manual mode.

However, getting the automatic here is more than just a different transmission, because it comes paired with Subaru’s EyeSight suite, which has safety and convenience benefits. The feature that will get the most use is adaptive cruise, and it’s complemented by lane departure warning, lane keep assist, and lane sway assist, which keeps you a safe distance from the car in front of you on the highway and provides warnings and steering support to keep you in your lane.

Features we’ve had the pleasure never to experience outside of a testing environment are pre-collision braking and pre-collision throttle management, which will brake if you are approaching a vehicle ahead too fast, or cut throttle if you try to accelerate when there is an obstruction immediately ahead (for example, if you are in the wrong gear in front of a store, or mistakenly get on the throttle too early when stuck in traffic).

Loaded, But Still Fierce

There is one more big package available on the WRX, and it adds navigation with traffic info to the touchscreen, a 440-watt, nine-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, and reverse auto braking for $2,400. Fully loaded, the WRX I drove came to $36,980, and $500 more will get you into a base WRX STI, which elevates the performance and handling another notch at the expense of comfort and conveniences.

Or for $100 more, you can get a Volkswagen GTI, losing the all-wheel drive but still getting good power and decent handling and a whole lot more practicality. Yes, some of us are still bitter that Subaru abandoned the hatchback this generation.

Then again, even in this commuter-friendly guise with CVT and Eyesight, the WRX is more powerful, faster, and more raw than any GTI. That 268 horsepower peaks at 5,600 rpm and that 258 lb-ft of torque hits its stride from 2,000-5,200 rpm, but off the line and after gear changes, you will get some turbo lag before the full wallop is uncorked. You’ll reach 60 mph in under six seconds, but the manual transmission knocks off half a second and does 0-60 mph in 5.4 seconds, and even on a road from hell or banana peels the manual does it in around six seconds. The CVT saps much of the immediacy off the line, but you still get a heck of a pull once the CVT and turbo get over their initial hesitation.

The WRX keeps on giving when you find your favorite roads. Cornering is incredibly flat, the horizontally opposed arrangement of the engine contributing to an incredibly low center of gravity, and stiff, low-sprung suspension focused on sport first and foremost. Coming out of corners the all-wheel drive makes sure one tire or even just two tires are scrabbling away and upsetting the balance.

Manual cars have a fixed 50/50 torque distribution, but CVT cars can vary the torque from 55% rear-biased to an even 50/50, and brake-based torque vectoring prevents any one wheel from spinning uselessly if it’s in a slippery spot. Few cars at this price point will feel so planted and dominant in the corners, but the WRX gives you the confidence to mess around in the snow or on gravel, because it simply does whatever you want.

If there’s one flaw in the driving experience, it’s the steering, which turns in quickly and precisely, but in extended curves like onramps it gets loose and imprecise, so you don’t have the kind of mid-corner steering control that you definitely want in a car that is so balanced and capable at holding a line in the corner. In terms of performance the stiff ride is no flaw, but it does make for a bouncy, jittery ride on poorly paved roads, so you really have to want the performance to put up with that aspect on a daily basis. The lowered suspension means you’ll want to be careful which dirt roads you venture onto – it can handle loose surfaces, but it is not designed to clear big rocks or dip into deep ruts.

The interior, on the other hand, is no kind of sacrifice at all. The quality of materials is much improved over previous generations and completely acceptable for this price point and class. I found the leather seats particularly inviting, though the optional Recaro sport seats sound like a tempting substitution to me as the stock seats could use more bolstering for aggressive driving.

The long list of tech gives you some entertainment options to play with during commuting, but I most appreciated the upgraded sound system, which was a sore spot on older Subarus. The touchscreen controlling the entertainment is a bit slow and we had it freeze up one time and freak out another, but it was a brief nuisance compared to the slowness of the first Starlink systems. In addition to phone, navigation, and music on the central touchscreen, the WRX has other screens for ancillary info like the all-wheel-drive power distribution, boost and power gauges, and trip computer info, which is also fun to geek out on every once in a while.

Although it gave up the hatchback option this generation, the WRX about as practical as a small sedan can be, the backseat offering plenty of leg and headroom and decent comfort in the outboard seats. The door openings are wide and tall to make it easy to get in or place a child in a car seat, but I am not a fan of the way the child seat anchors are hidden behind a flap of leather that makes it hard to get the seat connectors in there. Parents that switch car seats between cars might find this irritating; those without kids will appreciate the clean look.

The trunk is a modest 12.0 cubic feet, but the trunk lid opens wide and the rear setbacks split 6/40 and fold down to offer space for longer items, though the WRX looks badass with roof racks, so that is the way to go anyway.

Pick Your Poison

The 2019 Subaru WRX can be different things to different people. Performance enthusiasts on a budget can stick to a base model for under $30K and still drive away with 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, all-wheel drive, and a chassis that has a ton of capability to explore before you even consider modifications.

Drivers that want something a little easier for commuting or road trips with features to pass the time and keep you entertained can load up the WRX with competitive safety features and creature comforts, but that chassis and power are still ready and waiting at a moment’s notice.

Then there’s the WRX STI, but you'll already know if you want that or not, it is awesome, incredibly capable and unforgivingly punishing, but also available with many modern amenities.

Personally, I’d skip the fancy features and get the cheapest option and a good old-fashioned manual transmission, but there is no denying the appeal of the luxury and tech for those that spend more time stuck in traffic than at the track. For the typical buyer, the WRX CVT offers a compelling balance of convenience and performance but it’s not a clear-cut favorite in the segment, with the Volkswagen GTI, Honda Civic Si, and even the Hyundai Elantra Sport offering alternatives with less power and performance, but better refinement and value depending on the qualities you value most.

Lastly, this 2019 model is the tail end of the current generation that was launched in 2014, so no doubt an entirely new generation based on the new Subaru Global Platform is nearing completion. If the recent Viziv Performance Concept and Viziv Performance STI Concept preview the future WRX and WRX STI models expected to arrive by 2020, it'll be another leap in astounding performance, though it will take a lot of power to convince loyal traditionalists to accept hybrid power if that is the direction Subaru takes.

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