The 2015 Subaru WRX comes out swinging with its racy brother the WRX STI. Subaru is calling them all new, fairly enough, although it's not a redesign, just a complete going-over, with many changes to the chassis, body, engine, transmission and brakes. It handles, performs, and looks better than ever.
We got one week of seat time in a 2015 Subaru WRX STI, followed by another week in a base 2015 Subaru WRX, and they're very different cars. It was interesting to drive the hotrod first, because our view moved from the extreme to the restrained, and usually the comparison builds upward. Before you choose one or the other, the important thing is to know yourself. After that it's easy. It's hard to go wrong with either sedan. They deliver what they promise.
The 2015 WRX comes only as a hot-looking sedan; gone is the five-door box. The new body is the same width and height, with standard 17-inch wheels, while having a wheelbase one inch longer. The interior offers more space and the cabin offers more comfort, improved materials, and new standard technologies (e.g. rearview camera), and there's now an optional nine-speaker 440-watt harman/kardon premium audio system.
The torsional rigidity of the chassis, the core of any car, has been increased by 41 percent for 2015, with more high tensile-strength steel and bracing at key points. There's a new electronic power steering system with a ratio tightened ratio of 14.5:1, and 235/45 R17 Dunlop sport tires. Electronic improvements to the chassis include torque vectoring for truer cornering under power.
The 2015 WRX's 268-hp 2.0-liter direct-injection twin-scroll turbocharged boxer engine has new camshafts and valve springs, with 258 pound-feet of torque remarkably and wonderfully spread across a vast power band from 2000 to 5200 rpm.
There are two WRX transmissions, both new for 2015. Standard is a 6-speed manual, replacing the old 5-speed (the STI gets its own 6-speed manual). It's designed for high performance, with carbon synchronizers in first and second gears. It's also designed for better highway fuel mileage, with 5th and 6th gears being tall overdrives, having ratios of 0.780 and 0.666. Even 4th gear is overdrive, at 0.972.
This transmission combines with Subaru's legendary Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. A viscous coupling locking center differential distributes torque 50:50 until more traction is needed at the front or rear.
The other transmission is more of a gentleman's tranny, called a performance automatic by Subaru; its proper name is Sport Lineartronic, and it's a CVT under cover, with eight steps when in Sport Sharp mode, six when in the other two modes. Shifting either automatically or with paddles, it combines with Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI-DRIVE), allowing the driver to choose Intelligent, Sport, or Sport Sharp modes, using a switch on the flat-bottom steering wheel.
The Sport Lineartronic uses the Variable Torque Distribution (VTD) version of Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. A planetary gear-type center differential and an electronically controlled hydraulic transfer clutch distribute torque between the front and rear wheels. Under most conditions, VTD splits the torque 45:55, with the rearward torque bias helping turn the car in corners. The VTD system continually adjusts torque distribution according to sensor input from steering, yaw and g-forces.
Curiously, EPA-estimated fuel mileage in the WRX is better with the manual transmission than with the CVT. Ever since CVTs were invented, we've been hearing that their benefit is efficiency, but not here. With the 6-speed manual, the mileage is rated at 21/28/24 mpg City/Highway/Combined; with the CVT it's 19/25/21 mpg. Also, note: 91 octane fuel is recommended. Performance, if not long-term reliability, will suffer with Regular gasoline. Today's direct injection engines have higher compression ratios (the WRX is 10.6:1) and many of them need Premium fuel.
The STI uses a bigger boxer engine, a 2.5-liter twin-turbo making 305 horsepower, mated to its own 6-speed manual transmission, with controllable center differential to adjust traction under power, and multi-mode vehicle dynamics control. The STI suspension is considerably firmer and its handling quicker, with stiffer springs and a 13.0:1 steering ratio, and there's a big Brembo brakes package. Inside, there are Alcantara leather seats with red stitching, and outside the styling is exclusive, with aggressive lines in the hood, fenders, doors, panels, bumpers, headlights and taillights.
With no five-door model in the lineup, the 2015 WRX can lay claim to sophisticated sedan styling, if not elegance in this hotrod. Sophisticated in an edgy sort of way, that is. It defines bold and aggressive without exaggerating it. It's got a new dark hexagonal grille and deeper front spoiler, with standard 17-inch wheels that emphasize the wide stance. The windshield is considerably raked, with the bottom of the A-pillar eight inches farther forward than before.
The front profile is rakish, with the grille flanked by narrow headlights designed to evoke a raptor's stare. The foglights are set in faux carbon fiber, with nearby vertical mesh vents. The functional hood scoop that flows air to the turbocharger intercooler is lower and more low-key than before, and provides better visibility.
All the sheetmetal is new for 2015: hood, fenders, rear doors and quarter panels, plus the headlights. Rear LED taillights, center brake light, and lip spoiler complement the styling.
The STI is another animal. If the WRX struggles to be subtle in its styling, the STI shouts to be stared at with its super-aggressive sheetmetal including a humongous rear wing reminiscent if not quite as high-flying as the 1970 Plymouth Superbird.
That one-inch increase in the wheelbase for 2015 yields two more inches of rear legroom. The raked and narrowed A-pillar and lower dashboard increases visibility, although a half-inch of headroom is lost from a higher seating position, as overall height of the car is unchanged. Lower side sills and wide doors ease climbing in and out of the car, as does the new and way cool flat-bottom steering wheel, with switches for audio and Bluetooth.
The view from the 2015 WRX driver's seat makes you feel part of the world, makes you want to wave to the fans on the sidewalk giving you thumbs-up at the cruise-in. Especially if you're in an STI, with that humongous rear wing instantly gaining admiration especially from teenage boys. However the coolest thing about the wing is looking under it, through the rearview mirror. It's like looking under a bridge. Visibility is not hampered one bit, unusual for high-performance cars that typically have poor rearward visibility.
You can hear the traffic on the bridge. Well, that's what it sounds like in the STI, with road noise being pretty high from the 245/50R18 summer performance tires. But anyone who buys an STI won't much worry about it.
The trunk increases from 11.3 cubic feet to 12.0, while the standard 60/40-split fold-down rear seat enables the WRX to carry things like half a dozen 2x4s, if you're willing to stack them on the center console.
The standard seats in our WRX were excellent, maybe the best ever, so, importantly, the $26,295 base WRX is eminently enjoyable. The seats are covered in a new high-grip fabric and feature adjustable whiplash-reducing head restraints.
Meanwhile the leather seats in our $37,395 STI Launch Edition were fantastic. One brief and curious note, inseparable from seat comfort: The suspension in the STI is rock-firm at all times, but never rock-hard; while the suspension in the WRX is softer but hits rock-hard on speed bumps, and you feel it through the fabric.
Overall the materials in the 2015 WRX models are richer, with soft-touch for the dashboard, door trim and center console armrest. There are plenty of cubbies for things, and good door pockets. On the Premium model, the alloy pedals, red stitching on the leather-wrapped shift lever, and faux carbon-fiber on the center stack are nice touches.
The center stack holds a 4.3-inch LCD screen to display all the vehicle functions, including the rearview camera, audio (on non-navigation models), Bluetooth, and climate control.
In the STI, the instrument layout features a 3.5-inch LCD central screen to display various functions, including arcane info such as how much washer fluid remains. It also tells you what gear you're in, even with a manual transmission. There's also a boost gauge and center differential information, as if there's ever much need to know or use that perpetually moving information.
It's all so busy, both on the center stack and over the steering column. A whole lot of red numbers and lines on the speedo and tach. Bars too, although the white digital speedometer is good. But sometimes there's so much information on display that it can be bewildering and/or distracting. WRX and STI are not alone with this issue.
It was odd driving the STI before the WRX, and making the comparison down, not up. Bottom line: You'll have to want an awful lot of performance to feel like the WRX isn't enough. If you take the WRX out of context, meaning don't compare it to the STI, it looks and feels plenty like a performance car. Still, in the WRX you can relax and almost forget sometimes that you're in a high-performance car.
Although most of the time you can't forget, thanks to the throaty and hollow-sounding exhaust, distinctively Subaru. We're still talking about the WRX. The STI has a different exhaust note, slightly louder, but the WRX definitely holds its own in the audible statement department.
The suspension in the STI never lets you forget what kind of car you're in. It's world class. It does not jar you, just constantly over every ripple in the road reminds you that this is as tight and good as it gets, for a car that's driven on the road. The suspension, and handling too, beg for track days. If you buy an STI and don't take it to the track, you're abusing it by wasting it.
What's more, those leather seats in our STI Launch Edition were perfectly designed and padded, for the car. You can live with this car every day.
If you can live with the attention-grabbing wing, that is. It grabs so much attention that we were stopped for going 76 mph on a wide-open freeway, posted 65 but the flow of traffic more like 75. We got away with just a warning. It served its effect. It warned us that there's no sneaking under the radar with this car.
The WRX (with the CVT) feels bigger and heavier than the STI, because it's not so quickly responsive. There's more room in the suspension and more room in the steering, with its 14.5 ratio compared to the STI's 13.0. That's what throws the perception off; 14.5:1 is way quick, but when you feel 14.5 after a week at 13.0, it makes the car feel bigger.
Another thing is the CVT, or properly called the Sport Lineartronic automatic. In automatic Intelligent mode, when you'd like to forget it, it's programmed to upshift so early (to save gas) that it feels like the engine is lugging. No chance, with its max torque of 258 pound-feet available from 2000 rpm, but that's what the dyno charts say, not what the seat of your pants tell you at 20 mph when the car climbs into 4th gear.
We drove out in the country to our favorite stretch of curves where the sheriff rarely goes, put our WRX Premium's CVT into Sport Sharp to gain all its eight speeds, and had a go. In the end, we'll take the 6-speed manual that comes standard in the WRX, based on our loving it in the STI. That's not to say that the CVT isn't smooth, in fact it might be too smooth. When you upshift with the paddles you can barely feel it. That's good, we guess.
We went back to that same stretch of curves in the STI, and woohoo baby! It dances on patchy rough pavement because of its rigidity, and there's some torque steer despite the electronic torque vectoring system, but the dance doesn't threaten to take over. In fact it makes pushing more fun. It's a twitch, not a sway. The Vehicle Directional Control makes it impossible to spin out, which is dangerously confidence-inspiring; it doesn't make you immortal, as it's not impossible to crash by running off the road.
The 6-speed gearbox is a dream, with its short-throw linkage that's standard in the Launch Edition and available in other models, including the base WRX. The clutch and alloy pedals do heel-and-toe downshifts beautifully, every one perfect for us. The upshifts too went neatly, but apparently we should have done more of them. Curiously, with the windows up, the engine is so quiet at 6000 rpm, and the rev limiter so soft, that you don't even know you're there. What's more, the tach is partly obscured by the flat-bottom steering wheel, so you can't see the needle at 6000 rpm, located at about 4 o'clock on the face. Racecar tachs are rotated so redline is straight up at 12 o'clock, which would be a fix for the STI.
This new generation carries both the WRX and STI forward in performance, looks, comfort and civility. Both engines are rave-worthy, 268 hp for the WRX and 305 hp for the STI. The 6-speed manual transmission shifts so well that we like it more than the Sport Lineartronic Automatic, a paddle-shifting CVT. The WRX offers a smoother ride, but it's sharp over speedbumps; the STI is perfectly super-firm at all times.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drives of the WRX and STI near Portland, Oregon.