The warning flashed across my weather app proclaiming biblical rains as I set out to drive the 2022 Subaru WRX just north of Kingston, Ont.
If it were just about any other performance car, these conditions would’ve been met with disappointment, but not so for this one. Wild weather and partly washed-out roads? Bring it on.
The first-generation rally homologation special WRX (World Rally eXperimental) was intended to be a multipurpose vehicle to be enjoyed on any road type, in any sort of weather – a philosophy that’s carried over to this new, fifth-generation car. It suggests that a bit (OK, a lot) of wind and rain shouldn’t dampen the spirits of anyone with the keys – er, fob.
Woah, Refinement? eXcellent
Where previous generations of this car asked a lot of their owners thanks to abundant turbo lag, choppy ride quality, and chintzy interiors, the new WRX has matured to be the most refined yet. The overall length, wheelbase, and width have all grown, giving slightly more rear-seat legroom, plus hip- and shoulder space that’s a little more generous than the last car. Headroom has been sacrificed somewhat due to a lower overall roofline, but by sports car standards, the WRX is spacious, airy, and easy to get in and out of.
The available front Recaro seats have been redesigned to reduce driver fatigue, and are finished in a faux-suede material that, when combined with the aggressive bolstering, hold a driver snugly in place even during aggressive cornering. Practicality is also improved thanks to a luggage hold that’s larger than before, and it’s easier to access with a lower liftover height.
Wind- and engine noise have also been quelled in this new WRX, and while road noise is still apparent from the 18-inch wheels that come fitted to all but the base trim, none of it’s intrusive. It all adds up to a sporty machine that cruises comfortably on the highway, enhancing the enjoyment of the crisp and powerful 11-speaker stereo in the top trim.
The base car gets a pair of seven-inch touchscreens stacked one atop the other on the dash, managing climate and infotainment duties, while Sport and Sport-tech models get a massive, vertically-oriented 11.6-inch system. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard across the board, and the big screen system is logically laid out for ease of use while driving. Plus, praise is owed to Subaru for keeping both volume and tune knobs.
There’s no doubt the brand has succeeded in creating a WRX that’s nicer for commuting and boring highway trips, and it can still get its owners (and their sporty gear) to the slopes, the cottage, or hiking trails; but can it still also deliver an impassioned performance when a driver demands it? The short answer is yes.
New Engine, Same Output
Then there’s the long answer. For 2022, the WRX receives a 2.4L horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. That’s nearly a half a litre more displacement than last time, and yet there’s barely more power and no additional torque. Subaru is quick to point out that peak torque is achieved with fewer revs, but both the torque and power curves appear nearly identical to the previous 2.0L engine.
If you’re cringing over this engine’s origins in the three-row Ascent SUV, consider that the internals are built to handle the burden of towing, and the WRX is tuned to a lower peak boost, suggesting those keen on tuning may find additional output as easy to unlock as ever (wink, wink). The engine doesn’t rev as freely as the snappy 2.0L turbo in the Hyundai Elantra N, one of the WRX’s newest competitors, and it can feel a bit lazy pulling away from a standstill without doing brutal, high-rev, clutch-dump starts. But once the turbo has spooled up, the mid-range thrust is generous, and when riding the wave between 4,000 and 6,000 rpm, tearing from gravel-strewn corner to corner is an absolute blast.
Most of my rainy drive day was spent rowing a rubbery six-speed manual transmission with throws that are long compared to the Elantra N or the new Civic Si, yet they suit the car. More importantly, the relationship between the clutch, throttle, and shifter help make it easy to drive the car hard and fast. The ratios have been modified for improved drivability, and they definitely feel better-matched at keeping the car in the meat of its powerband than the old WRX did. Best of all, the transmission’s brain has been reprogrammed to reduce rev-hang between shifts to the point where it’s not at all noticeable now.
Subaru is very careful to avoid uttering the letters C-V-T together, as in continuously variable transmission. Instead, it calls the new automatic the Subaru Performance Transmission (SPT) – otherwise known as a CVT. While the six-speed is still my preference, the improvements to the WRX’s CVT are surprising. Upshifts happen 30 per cent quicker than before, while downshifts take half the time they used to. In so-called sport-sharp drive mode, the WRX is wonderfully responsive, and in manual mode, the transmission won’t select the next ratio until the driver commands it with the paddle shifter, even bouncing off the rev-limiter if need be. At highway speeds, the CVT lets the engine cruise at roughly 500 fewer revs, too.
Strangely, those lower revs don’t equate to improved efficiency, with official figures of 12.7 L/100 km in the city, 9.4 on the highway, and 11.2 combined for the automatic, and 12.3, 9.0, and 10.8 for the stick shift, all of which are actually worse than the previous car’s numbers. The fuel tank has grown by a few litres to compensate for lost range.
Forget Efficiency, Focus on Fun
You’ve got to pay to play, though, and efficiency has never been one of the WRX’s strong suits. Instead, like every performance-oriented Subaru before it, this car truly shines when it’s grabbed by the scruff of the neck and shown who’s boss. Our drive route followed remote, winding gravel roads, and with the rain having carved ruts in some spots and sizable water features in others, the improvements to the new WRX’s suspension were both felt and appreciated.
On roads that would’ve simply shaken competitive cars to bits, the WRX’s long-travel suspension not only soaked up every abuse thrown its way but kept the car pointed exactly where intended, making it not only easy to drive fast, but sensationally fun. This is a sports car for real Canadian roads that aren’t billiard-table smooth, and yet on fresh pavement, the sticky summer tires offer incredible grip, while the limited slip differential and 50:50 split all-wheel drive directs torque where it’s best utilized to rocket the WRX from corner to corner.
There’s a simplicity to the stick-shift WRX that adds to its driving appeal. No gimmicky drive modes or adaptive suspensions here, just solid, functional engineering. Steering feel isn’t as razor-sharp as it is in the Elantra N, but it’s nicely weighted and there’s decent feedback through the thick-rimmed wheel. Braking power is strong, although a more initial bite would be nice.
A Face Only a Fanboy Could Love
Perhaps the biggest obstacle the new WRX faces is the acceptance of its styling. Overall, it’s mostly an evolutionary update from the last generation, with the front and rear both looking squatter and more aggressive. But the big, black plastic cladding around the wheel arches, along the side skirts, and around the rear valance caused a universal gasp when unveiled. Subaru has heard the complaints of course, and the brand’s reps more or less shrug it off with a function-over-form response, touting the durability of the black plastic, and the improved aerodynamics afforded by the fender vents and hexagonal design texture. Potential buyers offended by the cladding should just order their cars in black, and remember that it can’t be seen from the driver’s seat, anyway.
Subaru hasn’t completely reimagined the WRX with this new generation, and that’s good. Instead, it’s a highly functional and practical sports car that doesn’t ask drivers to make as many compromises as it did in generations past. It has matured into a better daily driver, yet gained improvements to its suspension and driveability that make it more engaging as a performance machine. And it’s still every bit as fun as always, no matter the weather or road conditions.
Best of all, Subaru has kept pricing quite aggressive for the WRX with a starting price of about $33,000 including freight, which represents one of the biggest performance bargains out there. The mid-level Sport trim offers all of the essentials and makes it the definitive value-leader of the lineup with a pre-tax price of $37,220 for the manual and $39,820 for the automatic. Then there’s the Sport-tech trim, which eclipses the $41,000 mark to start and touches almost $44,000 with the CVT. The 2022 Subaru WRX is on sale now.