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2015 Subaru WRX CVT and STI test drive and review

Exterior and interior views of the Subaru WRX and STI
Exterior and interior views of the Subaru WRX and STI
San Jose Cars Examiner

Full disclosure, I have a like-dislike relationship with Subaru. I was really impressed when the WRX STi was a SCCA T2 national champion in ’05 and ’06. And Subaru has stayed with the smart decision of standard all-wheel drive and the low center-of-gravity layout of the boxer engine which are definite plusses for safety and handling. A distinctive exhaust note is another aspect of their uniqueness.

The new STI
Subaru USA

The WRX is rated at 268hp at 5,800rpm but the CVT (continuously variable transmission), I mean “Sport Lineartronic Automatic”, helps for a quick spool-up of 258 lb-ft of torque at a low 2,000rpm. The WRX is EPA rated at 17mpg city, 23mpg highway and has an MSRP of $31,990. It features an all-new 4th generation of Subaru’s all-wheel drive system.

The STI is rated at 305hp at 6,000rpm and 290 lb-ft of torque at 4,000rpm. It is also EPA rated at 17mpg city and 23mpg highway but the MSRP is $35,290. The STI has quicker steering than the WRX, and features a 3-stage power train management system of which the center differential is part of. The STI also features an exclusive inverted strut front suspension and Brembo brakes among other upgrades.

When the CVT was announced in the WRX, I thought, “Wow, there goes the worst idea in performance cars.” Turns out it’s a fun little car! It’s a blast to drive on tight, twisty roads, has great response off the line and pulls nicely at extra-legal speeds.

Now I’m not sure if the fanboys, and let’s face it, Subaru has a lot of fanboys, emphasis on the “boy”; will put those ridiculous mudflaps on a CVT equipped model. And it is unlikely they will remove the boy-racer horrendous rear wing on the STI. New rule, if your car has a big wing, it better run deep 12s or lap MRLS with a 1:40 or better. And of course the sandpaper quality headliner was not a favorite in years past.

Having appreciated a CVT in a Nissan Maxima V-6, I still found it annoying with the drone of part throttle acceleration and the weird hanging at redline during full throttle. However, in the nimble Subaru it seems to aid in reducing the effect of turbo lag. It also meant great full-throttle starts while simultaneously turning shift-free and not losing traction with the AWD. I could definitely see driving this car every day with those dynamics.

Other considerations are present for daily use though. Slightly booming exhaust penetrates the cabin of the WRX, although it is rather airy with great outward visibility. The seats are quite comfortable but the controls and layout definitely reflect a more economical design. The ergonomic friendly layout works but it is tough to justify a purchase north of $30k without a lot of artistic merit. What may be a considered a clever move or really dopey, the WRX now heavily borrows the front end styling elements of the possibly discontinued Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.

Getting in the STI at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with another 200lb+ passenger immediately re-classed the car as being small. The STI had good turn-in, however at the cornering limit, it was neutral but very greasy, seemingly way too early and very disconcerting. It also felt noticeably slower than the Mitsubishi Evolution driven the same day.

While the EPA mileage ratings are absolutely dismal compared to, well, everything else, the Subaru WRX/STI is in an interesting niche, widely considered a drivers car and a motorsports and reliability reputation. However for $30-$35k a used BMW 335i, Porsche Cayman or Corvette offer more attractive alternatives unless four doors or all-wheel drive is desired. Unfortunately the better choice for a driver’s car, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution may be headed for extinction, it still leaves the Subaru to battle some tough competition, new and used.

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