Tempered Exhilaration |

WRX. These three letters – which stand for World Rally eXperimental – marked a serious assault on the World of Rallying by quirky Japanese carmaker Subaru three decades ago. They also signalled a new era for performance motoring when launched in Japan in 1992, and since then, the Subaru WRX has become a global phenomenon.

WRX became an instant icon, winning three consecutive manufacturers’ championships for Subaru (the first Japanese company to achieve this) in association with Subaru Tecnica International (STi) and Prodrive, plus a host of other motorsport successes, including class wins in the 24-hour Nürburgring race. 

For a generation, rallying was defined by the blue and gold colours of the Subaru factory team, further emulated by special road-legal STi-versions sporting prominent wings, distinct body panels, aggressively flared wheel arches and massive, drain pipe-sized exhausts.

If this is the image of WRX you still cherish, then be warned; you may not like what you are about to read here, as 30 years down the line, the fifth model to wear the iconic nameplate (technically the second-generation model not based on the Impreza) is quite a different beast.

The most significant change came when the VA series WRX was released in 2014, and Subaru decided to move away from marketing the WRX and WRX STI under the Impreza name. It was also the first WRX not to use the EJ-series engine, opting instead for the new FA20F 2.0-litre mill delivering 200 kW. 

Updated locally in 2019 with improvements such as a new, larger multi-function display and multimedia audio unit, eight-way power driver’s seat with lumbar adjustment and standard EyeSight technology on the CVT models, the shift towards greater safety and more premium positioning for the WRX was evident.

Distinctive Styling

Compared to its forebears, the second-generation VB series WRX, the first using the Subaru Global Platform, has distinctive styling. It is immediately recognisable from the front, with the signature bonnet scoop and hexagonal grille taking centre stage, complemented by multi-functional LED and Steering Responsive Headlights (SRH).

It cuts a striking silhouette, defined by crossover-type side garnishes with air outlets incorporated at the trailing edges of the front and rear wheels, an integrated diffuser at the rear with four tailpipes adding some sportiness, and a relatively small rear spoiler.

Splendid in Sapphire Blue (reminiscent of the Impreza WRXs of yore), the less fussy lines of the newcomer seamlessly combine an assertive stance with a more refined styling concept, exemplified by the revised rear styling. Longer (by a significant 75 mm), lower (by 10 mm) and wider (by 30 mm) than its predecessor, the bigger WRX looks more premium and less sporty.

However, even more depressing (for some) is the fact that the latest WRX will have no STI model. The only available S-line model now will be the “tuned by STI” derivative with “tS” designation. The demise of the STI is sad but understandable, viewed in the context of ever-changing emissions regulations and the auto industry’s movement towards electrification. 

Upscaled Interior

The roomy interior now has more premium trimmings than before, and a new 11.6” infotainment system with a high-res, tablet-style screen and wide range of entertainment and vehicle-related functions – including a navigation programme, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and Bluetooth – forms the centre point.

Also incorporated in the system is the individually selectable and customisable drive mode select interface, plus information displays for car settings, vehicle diagnostics and more. The first-rate ten-speaker Harman Kardon sound system further contributes to the more upmarket ambience.

Passenger space is considerably improved, with 30 mm more front shoulder room and 40 mm at the rear, and the seats, trimmed with Ultrasuede, are comfortable and supportive. The flat-bottom, leather-clad steering wheel, aluminium pedals and steering-mounted shifters add a sporty touch, but the shifters proved pointless, as the fast reaction of the auto transmission makes them redundant.

New Boxer Engine

Given the four exhausts protruding from the rear, one expects a loud Scooby Boxer-warble at start-up, but even at higher revs, the new all-aluminium FA24 horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine in the latest WRX is (disappointingly) quiet. It is too discreet, and its characteristic burble needs a loud button to give some audible indication of its potential.

The 2.4-litre engine, with direct injection and turbocharger, delivers 202 kW at 5,600 rpm and 350 Nm of torque from 2,000 to 5,200 rpm. In the tS ES, it is mated with a fast-shifting eight-speed Subaru Performance Transmission (SPT), claimed to be 50% faster than before. Standard also is the Si-Drive Performance Management system with Intelligent (I), Sport (S) and Sport Sharp (#) modes. 

With Sport Sharp selected for the CVT, together with the proven Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system (negating the need for launch control), the WRX literally jumps off the line, scooting from 0-100 km/h in a decent 6 seconds – fast enough to challenge a Golf 8 GTI but not in the league of contenders such as the BMW 330i, Audi S3 quattro, VW Golf R or Hyundai i30 N.

However, with 14% more front lateral rigidity and 28% better torsional rigidity of the chassis, plus Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) and Torque Vectoring, the new WRX has impressive agility and levels of grip in the corners. It is also more comfortable on uneven road surfaces than its predecessor, but with 18″ alloys and 245/40 rubber, its ride is still quite harsh over rutty roads.

Also, the standard EyeSight Driver Assist System, as part of an encompassing array of safety systems, can sometimes become quite intrusive, especially on poorly marked roads. The Drier Monitoring System sometimes got confused, flashing erroneous messages on the instrument console.

Last Word

The latest Subaru WRX is by far the most refined version to carry the iconic nameplate, and it is a far cry from the lightweight, purpose-built rally specials of yesteryear. Herein lies the rub, though, as by adhering to the new core values of the brand, the WRX now finds itself in unfamiliar territory – competing against different rivals, mostly fast premium sedans.

At R859,000, including a three-year/75,000 km maintenance plan and a five-year/150,000 km warranty, the tS ES is quite competitively priced, but whether its new, softer attributes are going to entice Subaru-fans and other would-be buyers to consider it against some tough competition, remains to be seen.

Report by Ferdi de Vos | Images © Ryan Abbott

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