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2015 Subaru WRX First Drive

The WRX…with a CVT. Whaat?

What It Is
The WRX comes of age with a more polished look and feel.
Best Thing
Exciting handling, improved interior.
Worst Thing
Outdated infotainment, excessive road noise.
Snap Judgment
The WRX appeals to a wider audience with some major changes under the hood and inside the car, but it retains its brawny growl.


Year after year, the WRX acts as an Impreza with a chip on its shoulder. Yes, it is loud; yes, it ignores basic creature comforts on the inside; and yes, it actively fights against the trend set by BMW and Mercedes sports cars with their subtle looks and abundant refinement. Its image is only enhanced by its wild scoop hood, flashy flared fenders, and daring creases. But like every bad boy, it eventually has to grow up and adapt to the realities of the world. For the 2015 model year, Subaru is making significant alterations to broaden the appeal of the boy racer, including adding an optional continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), the car's equivalent of settling down and having three kids. The new WRX also features a polished interior with soft-touch materials, a welcome change from the previous version. The car is also no longer available in the hot hatch model, leaving the sedan as the only option for the upcoming year.

On a cold and clear day in Napa, we had the opportunity to test drive the all-new 2015 WRX in both the manual and CVT versions. For the new model year, the WRX comes in standard, Premium, and Limited trims, the latter two of which we were able to drive. Although official pricing has not yet been announced, Subaru said it won't be too far off from last year's numbers.

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Walkaround

Although so many changes have been made for the new model year, the most notable ones were made under the hood and in the interior. When we first saw the WRX, our initial impression was that it perhaps wasn't dramatic enough. For 2015, Subaru added trapezoidal vents in front, revised lighting, and a more raked windshield that pulled the front pillars forward for better visibility. LED taillights adorn the back of the car, which looks very similar to the previous version.

The hood, fenders, doors, bumpers, and lights on the car are completely unique from the Impreza, Subaru says. The car also has its signature deep-set scoop in front, which is changed slightly from last year. This year, the car also features a one-inch-longer wheelbase, which although it changes the interior space quite a bit, does not make a noticeable change to the size of the car on the outside.

Overall, the new car is certainly recognizable as a WRX, which is a good thing. While we would have liked to see a few more aggressive lines on the front and side, the car was intriguing enough from the outside to want to investigate further.

Sitting Down

Refined and well-designed to please WRX owners, the interior surprised us with premium materials and overall comfort. Even while sitting in the WRX for six to seven hours on the course route, we felt comforted and supported in the high-grip sport seats. A D-shaped steering wheel and larger sport brakes enhanced the sporty feel. Soft-touch materials padded the headliner and door panels--just in case the driver takes too harsh of a turn on those long twisty roads. Pure cosmetic pluses include red stitching on the gear shift and steering wheel as well as red accents on the gauge and certain controls. Chrome interior door handles and smooth metallic accents retain the car's edgy feel, but give it more sophistication than previous versions. One complaint we do have? The models we tested had a 4.3-inch touchscreen with outdated controls and an analog-style screen. And that's considered a premium option in this car.

Subaru increased space in the interior for more shoulder room, passenger space, and rear legroom. In the trunk, there are 12 cubic feet of space, which doesn't sound like a lot, but it is roomy enough to fit four golf bags. It also beats out one of its main competitors; the current Honda Civic Si sedan comes with just 11.7 cubic feet of space and lacks all of the componentry that takes up space in the form of the WRX's standard all-wheel drive.

For the WRX, it is impressive that a rear camera is standard along with keyless entry, HD Radio, performance seats, Bluetooth, and automatic climate control. Premium models tack on heated front seats and mirrors, fog lights, power tilt/slide glass moonroof, and a rear trunk spoiler. Buyers opting for the top-of-the-line WRX receive leather-trimmed seats, an eight-way power driver seat, LED headlights, and sweet red ambient lighting.

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Driving

When we first saw the WRX debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show, as we have said, we weren't particularly moved by its looks. But we figured our ultimate opinion of the car would rest on how well it drives. Overall, we were pleased but not electrified. No doubt the car handles well, easily conquering twisty mountain roads and showing other cars on the road who's boss. We found the car was quite noisy, and not in the good way. Road noise emanated throughout the cabin, sometimes making it difficult to carry on a conversation at freeway speeds. But hey, it's a WRX, a car that doesn't want to be well-behaved.

Driving the CVT was a particular pleasure, considering how much it surpassed our expectations. The transmission was smooth and really didn't feel like a conservative, fuel-sipping CVT that we've come to know in so many economy cars. However, we were impressed by this very same transmission when we drove it in the 2014 Forester earlier this year. The transmission is aided by three driving modes available on CVT models. The SI-DRIVE system features "Intelligent" mode, which maximizes fuel economy, "Sport" mode which enhances driving feel, and "Sport Sharp," featuring stepped automatic shifting eight pre-selected ratios. Paddle shifting also helps a little bit in making the car feel more "manual."

In both the six-speed manual and the CVT versions, acceleration was smooth and immediate. The manual is a bit faster, as Subaru is estimating a 0-60 acceleration time of 5.4 seconds compared to the CVT at 5.9 seconds. At 268 horsepower, power is improved by a mere 3 ponies. But the car really isn't about acceleration or brute force power; it is about the excellent handling and turning. Whether behind the wheel or seated as a passenger, the car feels remarkable on tight roads.

For 2015, Subaru improved the steering ratio for quick 2.8 turns to make the car quicker-reacting. A much stiffer chassis and tighter suspension deliver a firmer feel on the road. The WRX felt confident over road imperfections and even the stray bit of ice we experienced on the mountain roads.

One note on fuel economy: Subaru is providing estimates that put the manual transmission car at 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway, more fuel-efficient than the CVT. But Subaru says that in fuel saving "Intelligent mode," the car should be able to reach 30 mpg on the highway. Official EPA numbers have not yet been released.

Summary

Comfortable on the inside and confident on the road, the WRX we tested made major improvements over the previous generation. Does this change our opinion of the car as a college boy racer, despite Subaru's demographics pointing towards high-income engineer-types as primary shoppers? Only somewhat. While the car has gotten more refined, we still think it retains that essence of growl and unbridled performance that buyers will enjoy.

Unfortunately, we didn't get a good feel of what the base model looks like, but we do know it comes with a host of standard features. We really enjoyed the upgraded look and feel of the Premium model and would recommend drivers sticking with this level, particularly those in cold weather climates that can benefit from the all-weather package. The Limited model adds a few extras, including some fierce interior lighting, but we think this is just a bonus. When Subaru releases pricing information, we may then get a better indication of which trim offers the best value for the buck.

Basic Specs

2.0-liter turbocharged boxer four, 6-speed manual or CVT, all-wheel drive, 268 hp, 21 mpg city/28 mpg hwy (manual estimate), 19 mpg city/25 mpg hwy (CVT)

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