Review: ’16 Subaru WRX is spicy, but no automatic hit
Some growling, howling Subarus blow the leaves off protected species of trees. They spew gravel into pristine skies and track mud into suburban garages — when they’re not doing doughnuts in the Pentecostal church parking lot.
I speak, of course, of the WRX and WRX STI sedans, the outlaw brothers that fled the factory before anyone could download Subie’s smiley, earth-friendly programming into them.
While most of Subaru’s gentle crossovers and sedans whisper politely down the street, the brothers slide full throttle around corners at midnight, roaring like one-eyed rally racers. I really like them. They are the raw salt and bacon grease on Subie’s egg-white vegetable omelet.
Subaru must have run out of patience with them, though.
As you probably know, the STI is the angrier of the two and the slightly less powerful WRX the marginally more civilized one.
But the WRX is usually the better daily driver — slightly less stiff and peaky than the militant STI, with a less intense personality. It’s the one you might let move into your garage, as long as it didn’t bring a cat and a bunch of stuff.
Then, starting last year, Subaru took the WRX’s lusty turbocharged flat four and bolted it to a continuously variable transmission, the most despised “transmission” in the auto industry.
Darn. I don’t mind dark and conflicted, and have the checkered, tattered, battered past to prove it. But I’m not so sure about bipolar.
The dark blue 2016 WRX Limited I had recently looked just fine — sort of fetching in a blocky way. And that was kind of a pleasant surprise. Like way too many Japanese cars, the WRX appeared awkward and exaggerated when the current version was unveiled in 2015.
Subtle it is not. Fierce, scowling headlamps push hard against a blacked-out horizontal grille, while squared-off front fenders give the bulky sedan a vaguely industrial look.
Meanwhile, a nifty “get-the-hell-outta-the-way” scoop for the engine’s intercooler tops a short, sloping hood like a black bandana on a biker’s shaved head.
Although the Subie’s sides were mostly flat, a whimsical line — one of three on the car — formed a slight scallop in a lower portion of the rear door.
In back, four 2.5-inch-diameter exhaust pipes — two on each side — bristled from a black tray, while dark-gray 18-inch wheels rolled on meaty 245/40 tires.
I was ready to be abused.
The all-wheel-drive WRX packs a two-liter turbocharged, horizontally opposed four-banger that cranks out a hoarse and healthy 268 horsepower. It delivers good punch initially, leaping away from stops with the sort of modern muscle you expect from a vehicle with faint ties to road rally lunatics.
In fact, for a while, I thought CVT technology might have finally gotten good enough to stand in for real transmissions with genuine gears.
As you may know, CVTs are essentially single-speed automatics that use constantly changing pulley sizes to keep an engine in its most efficient range. But lacking real gear changes, they drone, quickly becoming as irritating as your in-laws at Thanksgiving after a couple of bottles of wine.
In the WRX, that happens about 4,000 rpm. Though the car continued to accelerate fairly well beyond that, it sounded as if it was trying to clear its throat on a spring day — or chanting something it learned at a California commune.
Still, 60 mph arrives in a reasonably quick 5.5 seconds, according to Car and Driver.
But that is a full 0.7 of a second slower than a WRX equipped with a proper six-speed manual. Matter of fact, a Ford Edge Sport crossover will beat it to 60.
At least CVTs can improve your fuel economy a little. The WRX, which tends to be pretty thirsty, is rated at 18 miles per gallon in town and 24 on the highway, and I managed to average a bit over 21 mpg, according to the readout on the dash.
But I think my mileage was helped when I simply gave up on pushing the engine hard to dodge the drone.
Fortunately, the WRX does maintain some of its spit and swagger, even with a CVT. One of the first things you will notice is a resolutely firm ride — often a sign of tossability.
The 3,400-pound Subie cornered about as flatly as any sedan I’ve driven lately, charging unperturbed through fast curves with all-wheel-drive grip and a stable body.
As I drifted around a tight entrance ramp onto the freeway one night, I realized I probably wasn’t even close to the WRX’s limits. I tried to keep that in mind while bouncing stiffly down the road later, feeling the WRX’s yin and yang in my spine.
Fortunately, the Subie exacts a smaller toll with its heavy steering, which is quick, precise and offers a fair amount of road feel. I couldn’t help but wonder, though: How good would the WRX be with a real transmission?
Fast-growing Subaru has sought to establish itself as a premium Japanese brand, and it wanted $36,858 for the Limited model I had. That struck me as a bit pricey for a sedan with a CVT.
Though the black interior in mine displayed lots of hard surfaces, they were well executed in quality-looking plastic.
The dashboard featured a conventional hood over the instrument panel, rolling down gracefully onto the glove compartment and curving around a 7-inch display screen at mid-dash.
Like way too many Japanese brands, Subie reverted to distracting touch pads for tuning the radio. But, hey, it also provides a reinforced platform if you happen to drive off a cliff while trying to get that blankety-blank hippity-hop music off the stereo.
The leather seats in mine featured perforated centers and red stitching, with spare door panels in slightly pliable plastic.
Moreover, the leg- and headroom in back were good, even for slouching real-life people with backpacks and big feet.
But here’s the deal, kids: If Subaru’s considerable charm and personality attract you, and you really want a spicy WRX version, opt for the manual transmission. You and the car deserve it.