WRX= love. But CVT= hate.
Can they get along?
For Subie’s sake!?
Few cars are as enamored by enthusiasts as the WRX.
While the rest of the world had enjoyed Subaru’s extreme rally car for the street, it wasn’t until 2002 that we got one here. It was worth the wait. While it had a cult following for the in-the-know, the majority of the population had no idea.
We have happy memories of terrorizing a Porsche 911 with a silver, bug-eyed 2002 test sedan. It was so unassuming, yet with its turbo-four cylinder and all-wheel-drive, immensely capable and fast. What’s not to like?
Well, 15 years have passed and everyone knows what a WRX is. Over the years, the ‘rex has grown faster, smarter and bolder. A restyle for 2015 gave an even more chunky, solid look. But there was resentment in the ranks.
First of all, it was decided that the new WRX would only be offered in a sedan body style. And with a near 50/50 split in sales between hatch and sedan, that can’t have been an easy decision for Subaru.
They went sedan.
Fans of hatchbacks sat and groaned. Some may have gone after the Forester turbos, but most telling – the prices of used WRX hatchbacks skyrocketed. Supply and demand in action.
To appeal to more buyers, Subie announced that it would be offering an auto transmission option – something you couldn’t get on a WRX since 2008. Automatic fans stood and cheered. Then Subaru announced the automatic would be a CVT. Cue tumbleweed rolling through.
OK, it was a shock. CVT transmissions don’t get much love in the enthusiast community. In the regular car-buying world, the smoothness and enhanced fuel economy are appreciated. Heck, many folks don’t even know they have a CVT.
In the performance segment though, CVTs have been few and far between. Most notable may be the Maxima. Nissan is one of the first engineers to seem to be able to get a CVT to work well with a big powerful engine.
That said, despite the “4-door Sports Car” moniker, the Max is really a powerful, well-tuned GT. You might try Sport Mode, even dabble with its paddle shifters, but pretty soon you realize, the enjoyment in the big Nissan is to let it pretty much handle the dirty work, and you just point it, squeeze the throttle and waft along on a big fat cloud of torque.
Which is kind of the antithesis of the WRX. Participation isn’t requested, it’s mandatory. A WRX makes you want to drive. It’s vibrant, aggressive, fun.
So can WRX CVT work, or does it spell disaster?
Well, you’re not going to kick yourself over how the WRX looks. From a fly-low-under-the-radar sedan and wagonette in 2002, the current model proves if you keep going to the gym – and not just hanging out in the Jacuzzi – you will see results.
The current model looks solid, muscular and mean. Squared off edges, pronounced blister flairs, a hood scoop that looks like a shark hunting for a Scuba diver, and quad tail pipes out back (not Outback) add up to a chunky, serious presence. Standard black wheels look the business and probably mean less time cleaning and more time keeping them moving. Cool. Our Limited model got a little eye candy in LED headlights, and finished in a deep Lapis Blue Pearl, looked classy and menacing.
Inside, the mood is equally serious. This is a well laid out driver’s cockpit, with a nice fat 3-spoke, flat-bottomed steering wheel, big analogue speedo and tach with a useful 3.5-inch LCD screen in-between relaying key stats.
What enthusiast doesn’t love loads of info? So there’s also a 4.3-inch driver-configurable multi-information display at the top of the dashboard. Our fave was the oversize boost gauge – vital information on turbo goings-on.
The large 7.0-inch, navi screen in the center console is easy to read, and the current Subaru info-tainment system that bowed in 2016 is state of the art, and miles ahead of the clunky versions in previous models. The optional, thumping 9-speaker, 440-watt harmon/kardon audio system sounded great.
More goodness includes front seats that are supportive and comfortable, and a good size rear seat – folds too – and trunk that make the WRX a very usable real-world vehicle.
Our only complaint – many of the plastics and materials, while looking extremely durable and up to years of abuse, have a cheapness about them that belie that WRX’s econo-car roots. The interior won’t be keeping VW up at night.
Well the interior guy at VW, at least. The other VW engineers have plenty to sweat about. The WRX is a terrific drive.
Let’s start with the turbo 2-liter, 4-cylinder. Push the ignition and it roars to life – part in thanks to an open exhaust that throbs, growls and warbles in that familiar Subaru horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder way. As a bonus, now that Porsche’s Boxster and Caymans are 4-cylinder models, you sound much more expensive than previously thought.
Okay. Here comes the CVT.
It starts out looking promising; paddle shifters, three modes – Intelligent, Sport and Sport Sharp. Even a launch mode for hole-shot acceleration. Keep it in intelligent mode, and the Rex does its best to be thrifty and smooth. And being a CVT, it does a very good job of it. If you spend a lot of time in traffic, this is a good way to go.
Step up to Sport and Sport Sharp modes, and the CVT does its best to imitate a quick-shifting automatic transmission. While the “shifts” feel quick, there is a notable lag in response. Using the paddle shifters helps. But overall, meh.
In a vacuum, you probably wouldn’t mind the CVT. But in the real world, regular automatics are getting very good at being sporty, and DSG transmissions found in vehicles like the GTI are so good, they might even be the preferred choice over manual transmission mit der clutch pedal.
More joy is found in the WRX chassis. The ride is extremely firm, but the control is excellent, and combined with an outstanding all-wheel-drive system, this little sports sedan will happily take on all comers on a twisty road, eat them up and spit them out. It’s a rocket. A ticket-tempting, light your hair on fire, this is why I’m an enthusiast, life-affirming thrill ride.
And it seems to do this while it shrugging its shoulders and saying “no big deal”. Fantastic.
Time to run the other numbers. If you want the CVT transmission, Subaru limits it to the WRX Premium and Limited model. Our Limited was in no way limited in goodies. The Limited gives you everything, including leather trim and Subaru’s Starlink safety and security system. Start at $30,995, and add an additional $1,200 to the tab for the CVT.
Now, if you want Subaru’s awesome EyeSight safety suite, it’s only available on the Limited with CVT. It includes state of the art safety gear, like Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Keep Assist and Sway Warning, Pre-collision Braking, and Pre-collision Throttle Management. It’s available in a bundled package with Navigation, that great sounding harmon/kardon audio system, and keyless entry and start. For you – $3,795.
All in, our Blue Meanie came to $36,810. Note to shoppers – a similarly equipped GTI comes in at $300 more.
We have reasons to bring up the GTI. A direct competitor, the Subaru wins in outright performance and AWD capability. The GTI counterpunches with a more useful hatchback design, more livable ride, and a much nicer interior.
The big difference though, is how we would equip it. When we tested a loaded GTI we came to the conclusion that there wasn’t an option on it we wouldn’t want. Everything added to the overall experience. Say Auf Wedersehen to $37,000.
On the WRX though, we have a completely different take. Give us a base model (still pretty nicely equipped mind you) with the manual 6-speed transmission. Yours for $27,515. And at that price, it’s a bargain. This car lives for the performance – everything else is a distraction you don’t really need.
A GTI you’d keep a couple years, and probably trade in for the next hot thing. But a WRX like that, we’d tuck away and keep it forever. The perfect car for blasting out the cobwebs, and reminding you why you love cars in the first place.
Yes! Yes! Yes!
If you have to duke it out in heavy traffic daily, or a stick doesn’t work for you, the WRX with Lineartronic automatic is still one great car.
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.