In an age of increasingly homogenised hot hatches, the 2018 Subaru WRX delivers an old-school approach to performance motoring.
It's 25 years since Japan gave birth to a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive sedan that would become a cult performance car. A classic, even.
That would make perfect timing for the introduction of a next-generation Subaru WRX, though with the next all-new model not due until 2019 we’ll have to make do with an MY18 update.
It still brings further proof that Subaru is at least trying to incrementally add sophistication to its rally car for the road, acknowledging that today’s raft of rapid, yet refined, rivals in the $40,000 pricing belt are asking questions about the Rex’s relevance.
As you’d expect for a facelift program, there’s no change to the absence of an alternative wagon or hatch body style as with past generations. The classic sedan shape, though, gets a further sharpening up front to cement its place as the best-looking ‘Rex’ since the original. (There are also new-look 18-inch alloy wheels.)
While the bonnet scoop hinders the WRX’s bid to escape its boy-racer stigma, there’s a maturing of the exterior in other ways.
The LED headlights now incorporate indicators, as well as swivelling projector lamps that illuminate corners at night, and the foglights adopt LED technology.
For the base WRX, there are some standard features borrowed from the higher-specced Premium: heating for the side mirrors, dusk-sensing headlights, and rain-sensing wipers.
And for keen drivers who are also keen skiers or cyclists, they’ll be delighted to learn about the new roof-carrier brackets.
There are few alterations inside. There’s some new black moulding for areas including the gearshift surround and door-switches panel, while the dash-top multi-function display – which continues to include a digital boost gauge – is now wider (up from 4.3 to 5.9 inches) and benefits from higher resolution.
Such limited changes, however, means the WRX’s cabin misses out on the noticeably improved quality and presentation found in the latest-generation Impreza. (And the WRX is still an Impreza in my book, regardless of the name being dropped.)
Subaru has had a fiddle with the WRX’s underpinnings, too. Brake pads from German friction specialists Jurid have been fitted, and suspension tweaks have targeted steering stability and ride comfort.
Don’t expect the latter to have introduced a huge degree of newfound suppleness – the MY18 Rex continues to present a stubbornly firm ride. Yet it also continues to impress with the way it avoids brutalising your body across broken surfaces, including potholes and expansion joins. This is the type of stiff suspension you can easily live with if you’ve committed to buying a performance car.
And it continues to pay off on great roads with the fourth-generation WRX that was a welcome return to dynamic form in 2014 after the underwhelming predecessor.
The agile chassis combines with hugely grippy Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres to permit impressive speed through corners, with virtually no body roll and high resistance to understeer.
A bit more heft to the steering wouldn’t hurt – one of our testers thought it was a bit too light; this tester thought it was a fine middling weighting – but the steering is smooth and direct.
The WRX also seems to drift across patchy bitumen, making the driver more oblivious to bumps – though certainly not road noise – than the rival Golf GTI and further heightening confidence.
In an era of adjustable damping systems, kudos to Subaru for engineering an excellent single suspension tune.
It remains a rewarding car to punt hard on a track, too. Body lean and understeer are more evident on the limit, yet the front-end grip – still aided by a torque vectoring system – is impressive.
Trying to bring the rear end into play with heavy application of the throttle remains a fairly futile exercise. Even on dirt with stability controlled switched off – we thought we’d have some extra fun in acknowledgement of the Rex’s 25-year rallying heritage! – this is a tricky car to unstick.
Back on the sealed stuff, the latest-generation WRX had already started to address its brake-wear issues on a track, though the bigger Jurid pads – by 20 per cent up front, by 50 per cent rear – can only be a good thing. The compact Marulan circuit isn’t the toughest on brakes, though we lost count of the number of laps we completed, and both brake feel and consistency remained excellent.
(My back, mind, would’ve appreciated the huggier Recaros from the WRX STI Spec.R for such extensive track running.)
The WRX’s 197kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged flat-four remains an engine seemingly more in its comfort zone at faster speeds – and above 3000rpm where it feels especially alive, delivering marvelous mid-range thrust.
Everyday driveability is far from terrible; the boxer engine just isn’t as flexible or linear as many other modern four-cylinder turbos we could mention.
It would be preferable if Subaru could develop a slicker stick-shift, though at least the notchy six-speeder moves between its gates with sufficient precision. And we still prefer it to the optional CVT auto, which adds weight, costs an extra $3000, and dulls performance (0-100km/h in 6.3 seconds versus the manual’s 6.0sec).
It reduces official fuel consumption from the manual’s 9.2 liters per 100km to 8.6L/100km, though both figures are relatively thirsty compared with rivals.
If you really want the auto version, however, for 2017 it gains an electronic parking brake and Automatic Vehicle Hold which allows you to keep your foot off the brake pedal at traffic lights or in gridlock.
It’s also the only way to get Subaru’s camera-based Eyesight system that can help you avoid collisions and brings adaptive cruise control.
Stepping up to the WRX Premium grade – from $45,640 manual, and $48,840 CVT – extends Eyesight’s features and adds blind spot detection, lane change assistance, rear cross-traffic alert, auto high beam, and front- and side-view monitoring.
The Premium’s $6400 premium also brings other extras such as electric sunroof, heated front seats, electric driver’s seat, navigation, leather trim, and a harman/kardon audio system.
As good as the base WRX’s entry price is, satellite navigation should be standard. And smartphone-mirroring technology isn’t available on any model.
Servicing is also expensive – not helped by the fact Subaru sets out bi-annual intervals compared to the typical once-every-12-months. The total cost for the maximum six services of its three-year capped program is $2332.91.
The factory warranty is also limited to three years (unlimited kilometres) – unless you take advantage of campaigns, such as the one run in September 2017 – where five years were offered (along with five years’ roadside assistance and 12 months’ free registration and CTP).
Subaru resale values remain traditionally high, though. The WRX manual is predicted to retain 56 per cent of its new-car price after 50,000km.
The WRX also retains some rough edges, but there’s also appeal in a sedan that is still practical, but offers a slightly rawer, older-school approach to performance in a world of increasingly refined hot-hatches.
And with extra features thrown in for a minimal price increase, the WRX also continues to offer terrific bang for your buck.
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