Car Reviews First Tests

2018 Subaru WRX First Test Review

Updated car, same great turbo AWD taste

Updated car, same great turbo AWD taste

Although the standard Subaru Impreza got a major update for 2017, switching to the new Subaru Global Platform and gaining a revised engine, the WRX performance model sticks with the less high-strength-steel-intensive bones of the old platform and soldiers on with a mild refresh for 2018. A next-gen WRX is still a ways off, but luckily for those in the market for a sport compact today, the current WRX is still a solid, if charmingly flawed, pick.

If you’re having trouble seeing what’s changed for 2018, you’re not alone. I thought our WR Pearl Blue WRX Premium tester was a 2017 model, not the refreshed car, during my first night in it. There aren’t many visual cues on the outside to tell the new car from the prerefresh models. Up front, the lower grille opening has been widened, and the foglight surrounds have been changed. There are plenty of changes beneath the skin, however. The suspension has been revised for improved handling and ride comfort, and the EyeSight suite of advanced safety features has been updated with new features. The interior uses new materials, and there’s a new Performance package option, which gets you some nice Recaro seats along with red-painted brake calipers with Jurid performance front brake pads and a moonroof delete to save weight. But the drivetrain hasn’t changed. The 2.0-liter turbocharged flat-four still pumps out a healthy 268 hp and 259 lb-ft of torque, and it comes mated to a six-speed manual transmission or a CVT. (Our car had the manual.)

Highway ride has improved, going from unforgivingly stiff to bumpy but tolerable. There’s still quite a bit of tire noise from the Dunlop Sport Maxx RT summer tires, but their low-profile sidewalls don’t seem to detract from how the car rides. They do, along with the standard Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, provide herculean grip in the turns. You feel invincible tossing the WRX into a corner as the wheels remain planted and the car keeps turning in. The brake-based Active Torque Vectoring system is partially to thank for this; it modulates the brake of the inner front wheel to help prevent understeer. You’ll still run wide if you go in too hot, but the current WRX doesn’t suffer from the frustrating understeer some earlier Subies were prone to.

That handling ability earned the 2018 WRX a respectable time of 25.2 seconds on our figure-eight course. That result matches a more powerful 2015 Subaru WRX STI and beats a 2016 Volkswagen Golf R by 0.2 second and a 2015 Ford Focus ST by 0.8 second. Although it laid down a relatively fast lap, it took some effort from the driver to do so. Road test editor Chris Walton had to shuffle between second and third gear because third was too tall for our course and the car couldn’t make it all the way in second without hitting the rev limiter before the turn. Frequent shifting on the figure eight is common for a sporty car, so having a smooth, quick shifter helps. Unfortunately, that’s not how the WRX’s shifter operates. “The shifter is so notchy and with long throws that it really takes up valuable time,” Walton said.

The manual transmission’s gearing combined with significant turbo lag presented some challenges on the road, as well. The engine isn’t awake until about 2,500 rpm. Before then you’re just waiting for the turbo to spool up. I found myself downshifting often to get on boost quicker. And if you’re slowing for a turn while in third gear, you’ll almost always want to perform a rev-matched downshift to avoid lugging the engine. I happen to like that the drivetrain keeps you busy, but the constant shifting might be too much work for some.

Back to the turbo lag. If you miss the peaky turbocharged cars of yesterday, the WRX will transport you back to the days when having a turbo meant waiting patiently for it to deliver that extra dose of fun. There’s not much grunt down low in the revs, but once boost kicks in, you can’t help but grin. I just love that gentle “whoosh” sound that gradually builds in volume, not to mention the acceleration that results from it. The engine note isn’t bad, but I miss the characteristic boxer rumble that older cars had thanks to their unequal-length headers. Curiously, this 2018 WRX recorded a slower 0–60 time than expected. The car hit 60 mph in 6.2 seconds, slower than every 2015 WRX we’ve tested. (Sll did the deed in under 6 seconds.) Its quarter-mile time was more in line with other fourth-generation WRXs we’ve tested, however, at 14.5 seconds at 94.2 mph (152 km/h). The Performance package brakes performed well, providing consistent, stable hard stops from 60 to 0 mph (requiring 113 feet) and fade-free braking on the figure eight.

Although Subaru says the interior has been improved, it’s still not likely to impress anyone. The doors feel light and close with an unsubstantial hollow sound. The dash and door panels are soft enough, and the red stitching used throughout the cabin is nice, but many of the plastics look and feel low-rent. I like the machining on the aluminum radio volume and tuning knobs, but they don’t offer much grip, so I found myself rotating my fingers around the knob until I found enough friction to actually turn it.

Our car was equipped with the $2,050 USD Performance package and Recaro sport seats. Those seats provide good support for spirited driving and are comfy enough for long stints behind the leather-wrapped flat-bottom steering wheel, which fits nicely in the hands. They also lend a sharper look to the cabin with their red-accented bolsters, red piping, and embroidered Recaro logos. As sporty as they look, I wasn’t able to adjust my seat to a sporty driving position. With the seats dropped to their lowest level, you still feel like you’re sitting pretty high, and you can’t achieve that low H-point that’s characteristic of a sporty car. But sitting relatively high has its benefits. You have a commanding view out of the WRX’s wide-open greenhouse. I especially appreciate the extra visibility the front quarter windows and door-mounted exterior mirrors provide.

The Subaru WRX isn’t perfect, but it’s still a performance bargain at its $27,855 USD starting price. Our Premium model with the Performance package rang up at $32,205 USD, which still undercuts the starting price of the Volkswagen Golf R, a car the WRX can hang with in handling and acceleration, by nearly $8,000 USD. One thing that’s included with every WRX and STI is a free membership to a tight-knit Subaru community. In the week that I drove the WRX, I came across a dozen or so other Subies on the road. About 80 percent of drivers acknowledged me in some way, either with a nod or a thumbs up. You get this feeling of camaraderie that’s hard to put a price on—and that’s just a bonus to getting a car that’s genuinely quick out of the box and has room for improvement if you plan on modifying.

The 2018 WRX continues to offer good, old-fashioned turbo all-wheel-drive fun and has some improvements thrown in to tide us over until the next-gen car arrives. We can’t wait to see what a switch to the new Impreza’s platform can do for this sport compact classic.

2018 Subaru WRX (Premium)
BASE PRICE $30,155
PRICE AS TESTED $32,205
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 2.0L/268-hp/258-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve flat-4
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,319 lb (60/40%)
WHEELBASE 104.3 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 180.9 x 70.7 x 58.1 in
0-60 MPH 6.2 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.5 sec @ 94.2 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 113 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.93 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 25.2 sec @ 0.72 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 21/27/23 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 160/125 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.83 lb/mile