TIM KAUGER
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Welcome to my pedestal. 

2017 WRX: Young at heart

If you ask a gearhead what their car represents to them, brace yourself. Grab a beer or a coffee, because you'll likely be barraged with a flood of expounding.  Somehow, we'll relate our need for symmetry and organization with a thorough explanation of a viscous center differential. We'll justify our purchase of an expensive exhaust system by telling you about how our minds are never as quiet as they outwardly seem. It'll usually be incomprehensible, and you'll walk away promising yourself to never engage in conversation with this particular brand of obsessive again.

Sometimes, it's simpler: it's because we struggle to contain our laughter when someone accidentally drops a sexual double-entendre in fancy dinner conversation. We can, and do, act as rational adults until someone farts. The years of growth and maturity crumble, and we're laughing like we did when we were ten. Our cars, to us, are a reminder that life isn't meant to be taken so seriously, despite the circumstances.

Case in point: the current-generation WRX doesn't look to have that wild-eyed enthusiasm that we associate with its earlier brethren. In more ways than one, it's conservative and low-profile; it blends in with the crowd. Peel back its layers, though, and you're greeted with - dare I say it - the best WRX ever. The mainstream dilution is a facade, and has done nothing hide the signature WRX personality. 

Outside

Let's address the elephant in the room: from many angles, this car does look like a Camry. It's angular and somewhat purposeful, but every muscular body line interfaces with something a little boring to balance the experience out. That neat contour on the rear fender blends into the most unremarkable doors I've ever seen on a car. The front has a square, purposeful jaw that gets swallowed into a strongly vanilla design language. The last WRX had the luxury of looking frumpy but pissed off; this one is like the ex-con that paid their debt to society, found a higher power, got a mortgage and made it to middle management.

It's inoffensive, but ultimately, that's its biggest undoing. Subaru has always been deft at making their cars just visually interesting enough to spark a conversation, for better or worse. This WRX comes close with a few neat angles, but it can't quite pull it off. It's having an identity crisis -- it doesn't know if it wants to look like a Subaru, a German sports sedan, or a grocery hauler. 

It's not all bad. The larger, 18-inch wheels look great, especially in the dark gunmetal finish. The hood scoop, while less prominent, still looks like it'll suck in squirrels and small dogs if given the opportunity. A few exterior mods go a long way in making the WRX look the part. Despite a thorough watering-down, the savvy car-spotter will still know exactly what this is. 

Inside

Turns out, idling is bad for fuel economy. Learned something new!

There's no such conflict inside the car. WRXs of old have made do with dour interiors plucked straight from the Impreza. This car didn't get an 'about-face' interior redesign, but the changes are welcome. Subaru gave it the upscale feel of the Legacy GT from the mid-2000's -- it's full of soft-touch surfaces, a clean layout, excellent (if nondescript) seats, and subdued implications of what this car can really do. Sure, there are plenty of plastics and inexpensive bits, but nothing is flimsy. 

If you're in the market, I recommend the Harmon Kardon sound system. After 15 years, Subaru finally realized that we're willing to pay extra for a stereo that doesn't sound like music being pumped through a wet cardboard box. The rear-mounted amplifier/subwoofer has decent kick for a stock system and the sound can be tailored for whatever you're in the mood for. The infotainment system, while sporting an outdated and clumsy UI (who actually uses 'aha music'?), does just fine when paired with the controls on the steering wheel. If you get a moonroof, be warned: Subaru placed its controls perilously close to the "SOS" and "Info" buttons, both of which will connect you to a representative. Press carefully. 

The gauges are clear, punchy, and bright, there's red stitching everywhere, and you get a neat little boost gauge in the center of the dash. That's all that really makes the WRX stand out from its slower siblings, but then again, it's never been about the interior or the exterior. 

The drive

I wasn't overly impressed when I test drove my first WRX back in 2012. Everything about that car felt mushy and vague; it was uproariously fun in a straight line (and in the snow), but I always felt disconnected from the action. Lackluster driving interfaces and a weird gearbox made me sell it for a Fiesta ST, which then promptly began falling apart. Shame. Sure, some bolts were half-tightened and the front suspension was already blown after 4,000 miles, but it was easily the best-driving car I've owned.

Thus, I was expecting history to repeat itself as I test drove this car, and thankfully, that didn't happen. It can't compare to the eagerness of the Fiesta, but for a car its size and weight, it does remarkably well.

Subaru has mercifully dialed out the numbness that hampered previous generations. Steering is still a little muted, but it's tighter and heavier. The shifter, while quick, is chunky and requires a lot of deliberate input, which might be a turn off for some; I relish the effort. The clutch is no longer like an on/off switch, and it can be modulated against the twitchy electronic throttle. The brakes are fine. They're just...fine. They were pretty timid in the last car, so the improvement is welcome. Chuck this car into a corner, and some natural body roll comes up. What it won't do, however, is get out of sorts. It'll just take you through entry, apex, exit, and line itself up for the next one with nary a whisper of discomfort. There's no voracious corner entry or lift-off oversteer shenanigans like in the Ford. Where the WRX lacks in hysteria, it makes up for in being predictable and composed when faced with bold inputs. 

In a track setting, it's easy to get into the groove. Body roll intensifies, but the car never protests or gesticulates wildly if prodded too hard. Rapid changes of direction introduce a floaty sensation, which isn't entirely pleasant but easily curable after your mindset adjusts to compensate. Sure, the lack of theatrics may turn off some more seasoned track day-goers, but I'm new to the game. The more unflappable car, the better it is for me; I'll learn with it. During a recent autocross lapping day at Lime Rock Park, the brakes only just began to fade a bit (and stink) after some of the longer sessions -- a cooler ambient temperature and some hi-temp brake fluid can easily cure that.

The engine is a mixed blessing. Subaru dropped their aged "EJ" engine for the new "FA" (plucked out of the little BRZ/GT 86), slapped on a turbo and other doodads, and dropped it in. The turbo is a touch more predictable and everything feels more civilized, which is nice. Combined with the 6-speed manual, 30+ MPG is a breeze on the highway. Two things are missing, though: the Subaru rumble and a decent power curve. The former isn't a big deal, as this engine sounds great with an aftermarket exhaust. The latter, though, is baffling. From the factory, the engine feels lurchy and unsure of itself at full-throttle, and after 6,000 RPM, there's a distinct power dropoff. Why give this mill a high redline if it falls flat on its face? Subaru would no doubt explain this away as, "because MPG and melting glaciers".  I'm not convinced, as several aftermarket engine tunes have eliminated this hesitation while preserving fuel economy. It's reassuring to have this option down the line, and it's not a deal-breaker once you learn the nuances of the weird stock tune. 

Practically, it's quite livable. The cabin is huge, the visibility is high, it'll get 34 MPG (if you're careful), and it'll haul quite a bit of crap thanks to a big trunk and foldable rear seat. Around town, it's comfortable and calm; the suspension can be a little crashy over bumps, but it won't ruin your day. The WRX is game for whatever you're game for.

Drivetrain noise, though, is still a problem. My old WRX had it, and while it's quieter in this new one, it's still very much present. 1st and 2nd gears have a distinct whine, especially when coasting -- a rattle from a heat-shield comes right along with it. Pity. Paired with some loud (but livable) road noise, It lends a ramshackle effect to an otherwise vastly improved driving experience. 

The conclusion

You’re only as old as you act.
— someone, a long time ago

Every time a new WRX is released, the automotive world goes through the same song and dance. We decry it for looking and acting too pedestrian, and then later, we pine for it as an even plainer WRX comes out. 

Subaru has fixed one of those problems: it's nondescript, but it's stupid fun. It's hard to complain about plain-looking doors and headliners when you can go this fast on so many different terrains. 

It's all wheel drive, it has tons of power, it gets great gas mileage, and it hauls a bunch of crap. I'll take the quirks and the minor inconveniences: for the money, this is about as good as it gets. Conservative design be damned. I love it and I'll be keeping it for a long time.

Now pardon me while I text a fart joke to my friends.


tl;dr

What's Good

  • Hugely improved driving experience
  • Great gas mileage considering the motor
  • Large greenhouse
  • Finally a good sound system option

What Needs Work

  • Drivetrain and wind noise
  • Wonky stock engine tune
  • You may fall asleep while looking at it from some angles

 

 

 

 

 

AutomotiveTim K.Comment