2022 Subaru WRX First Drive: Big Shoes to Fill
Prior to driving the new 2022 Subaru WRX, I thought back to when I bought a black 2002 Subaru Impreza WRX wagon on October 30, 2001. I remember the date so well because I got laid off from my dotcom job the next day. Although the WRX had been on sale in Japan and other markets since 1992, the 2002 model year marked the first time us Yanks could own our own. Four years later, I bought a World Rally Blue 2006 WRX wagon.
I mention all this for two reasons: The first is to let you know I’m a fan and former owner of the brand’s previous efforts in this space. The second is to point out that Subaru has sold its scrappy, rally-bred, hard charger to Americans for more than two decades now; since 2001, we’ve purchased more than 400,000 WRXs. That’s more than 20,000 units a year, which isn’t bad for a sporty car. In hopes of continuing, if not improving upon, these sales numbers, Subaru turned us loose in its all-new sixth generation WRX (nerd chassis code: VB) on some fabulous roads. And, as fate would have it, I’m in the market for a new car, as the engine in the machine I replaced my last WRX with—a 2014 Ford Fiesta ST—just blew up. Am I buying a 2022 Subaru WRX? Keep reading.
For the first time in its history, the WRX shares no body panels with the Impreza, and all the sheetmetal is unique. The grille is wider, as is the signature hood scoop, and the headlights are miniaturized and pushed out to the corners. The fenders are flared more than ever and covered in black cladding, the latter responsible for 100 percent of the internet hates. Haters on Instagram also strongly feel the new Rex looks like a lowered Crosstrek. I don’t see it, beyond a generic family resemblance. Also, if you take a close look at the cladding, you’ll see it’s coated in tiny textured hexagons. Subaru claims this rough skin smooths air as it comes off the fenders, making the WRX more aerodynamic. Subaru also points out all the vents are functional, especially the ones coming off the front fenders.
The rear hips are seriously swollen and wildly different from what you’d find on an Impreza. The same is true of the roof, C-pillar, and trunk. The taillights are said to mimic magma/lava, and the four exhaust tips (one for each cylinder!) are retained. Is the new WRX good-looking? No, especially in the dull orange launch color Subaru is hyping. That said, the car does look better in red, black, dark blue, and WRB (World Rally Blue). Here’s the big thing: Each new WRX generation is somehow uglier than the one that came before. Then, after a few years, you either get soft, or the design starts working, usually when a new, uglier version appears. Will this happen with the VB WRX? Yeah, probably.
Side note: 25 percent of all WRXs sold in the U.S. have been World Rally Blue. Any chance of a wagon this time around? Naw, even though a WRX wagon is sold in Australia and New Zealand. It’s an absurd shame, as Subaru’s own research says two of the biggest reasons people choose a WRX over other sporty cars are cargo capacity and practicality. That fact comes straight from the company’s own PowerPoint presentation explaining what its customers want.
Inside, the 2022 Subaru WRX finally catches up with the rest of its siblings. The touchscreen is colorful and massive, and the amount of hard plastic bits is reduced. There’s a nice, almost Scandinavian starkness to the cabin that’s totally interrupted by the nearly comically large, overly bright screen. The seats are a bit more comfortable than before, and Subaru claims they’re more effective at holding the occupants in place, which is key. But ain’t no one ever bought a WRX for its interior, and that fact will remain true of the VB generation.
One nugget of information that stands out: The WRX is as different from the Impreza as the Impreza is from the Forester. All three are built from Subaru’s SGP (Subaru Global Platform), but the WRX has finally been iterated away from the economy-minded Impreza. The wheelbase increased by nearly 0.9 inch, and the 2022 WRX is 2.9 inches longer and 1.2 inches wider than the previous VA generation WRX. The new car is also 2.0 inches wider than the current Impreza. However, the roof is 0.3 inch lower, resulting in a slight decrease in rear headroom. Subaru claims the chassis’ lateral rigidity increased by 14 percent, while torsional rigidity is up 28 percent. Subaru also claims the base WRX has only gained 3 pounds, and that, somewhat unbelievably, the Sapphire Blue Premium model (the one driven here) is actually 31 pounds lighter than the last version. We’ll have to weigh one to verify; the last WRX we weighed, the Series White, weighed 3,326 pounds.
The 2022 Subaru WRX adopts the now ubiquitous Subaru powerplant, the 2.4-liter boxer-four, known internally as the FA24. This version is called the turbocharged FA24F, and it pumps out 271 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Good numbers, for sure, but just barely more power than the last WRX (268 hp) and identical torque. Subaru claims that, with the new engine, the power shows up earlier, but what are essentially carryover numbers seems like an odd strategy for a performance car. The FA24F features an electronically controlled wastegate and bypass valve and is said to be stouter than the engine it replaces. That’s code for tune away. Like all Subarus save for the rear-wheel-drive BRZ, the new WRX is all-wheel drive. The manual transmission models feature a 50/50 front-to-rear torque split, while the CVT-equipped cars have a variable torque split that’s initially divided 45/55 front to rear.
Eighty-five percent of all WRXs sold in the U.S. have had a manual transmission. That’s nearly nine out of 10, and Subaru sees no reason to think this pattern will change with the new car, as a six-speed manual is standard. The other transmission option is the CVT, or what Subaru calls SPT, Subaru Performance Transmission. The SPT-equipped cars have been delayed—none were present during the press launch. In fact, Subaru said it will conduct a second launch for the CVT WRX. In fact, Subaru reps never once uttered the acronym “CVT” when describing how quick-shifting and wonderful the SPT is: “We don’t want to say the dreaded C-word.” Is there a chance the SPT is any good? Maybe, but look, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want. Meanwhile, Hyundai now offers the direct WRX-rival Veloster N with an eight-speed dual-clutch.
Now We Drive
Subaru could not have picked a better time and place to launch the new WRX. California’s Sonoma and Mendocino Counties had been wracked by an “atmospheric river” of rain for two days solid. As the sun rose over our origination point, the outstanding year-old Montage Hotel in gorgeous Healdsburg wine country, it became clear the shady parts of the tree-lined roads stayed damp, the temperature remained chilly (high of 48 degrees), and the roads were just as tight, bumpy, and twisted as always. Sonoma’s back roads are a not-so-secret driver’s paradise, but you must keep an eye out for rockslides and for big trucks coming over the centerline. Traditionally, WRXs love harsh weather and tortured tarmac; it’s no big surprise the new one delivers more of the same.
Revisiting my own personal, unscientific, untested though long-standing theory that WRXs do not need traction or stability control, I immediately put the VDC into Track mode. Lucky for my unsuspecting driving partner, I learned afterward that you can only turn VDC all the way off if you’re parked. Meaning I drove the entirety of my time in Track, and the 2022 WRX never even put a tire wrong. In the damp, in the wet, in the rain, over munched-up rocks. No matter what, there was just such an abundance of grip from both the chassis and the excellent Dunlop Sport Max GT 600 A tires. The tires never squealed, and the traction-control light never flickered. It became obvious after a few miles that this iteration of the WRX is even more planted than the seriously planted previous versions. The worse the pavement, the better the WRX behaved, almost as if it were a rally car. Wink.
Although the interior is much improved in terms of materials and screen size, colors, and functionality, a few minutes holding the steering wheel in your left hand and the long-throw shifter in your right is all it takes for you to be sure you’re driving a WRX. The same feel is still there. Yes, the steering, while improved, is still unnuanced and disconnected. Yes, the Honda Civic Si has a much better-shifting transmission. But your brain comes to the realization that, hey man, I’m in a WRX, this is going to be fun. The dopamine starts flowing. You physically know you’re in for a good time, and there’s a certain satisfaction to nodding, “Yeah, sure, uh huh,” at a much slower Miata driver explaining how much better their car’s steering feel is. To be fair, the WRX’s steering feel is slightly improved compared to the last car.
Ride quality is the biggest level-up in the VB WRX over every version that came before. A longer wheelbase always helps, but it feels like the stiffer chassis and more effective suspension deserves the credit. There’s a range-topping WRX GT model that’s CVT/SPT-only and features variable dampers, a WRX first, but it’s been delayed along with the rest of the automatics. Regardless, as roughly 85 percent of WRX buyers will go for the manual, Subaru did an amazing job with this model’s ride. At 80 mph on a smooth section of freshly repaved freeway, my partner and I kept turning to each other and saying, “Can you believe this is a WRX?” What a world.
Where’s the Beef?
More power would be good, as well as another 1,000 rpm before redline, which is set at a modest 6,000 rpm. Like all previous WRXs, the engine is effectively dead below 3,000 rpm. However, once the turbo is fully cooking, the quick, darty character these cars are renowned for shows up. That said, you spend a lot of time staring at the tachometer because redline comes up so quick. Again, it needs more power. But Subaru made the decision to leave the WRX’s output numbers where they were, and decisions have consequences: Subaru, you made a mistake. We already know this engine can make more torque (277 lb-ft in the Ascent SUV), and we can speculate with 99.9 percent certainty the upcoming WRX STI will make oodles more power from the same engine. How much more? Subaru is being oddly tight-lipped about the eventual STI’s output, but it is sure to be in the 330-370-hp range, with 345 ponies being the internet’s favorite rumor. For this standard WRX, 290 hp or so with some extra torque would have been sweet. Tuners are going to be busy.
Yes, people like me who drive Bugattis as part of their job have slanted world views. I get that. However, and I think crucially, the 2022 Subaru WRX doesn’t feel any quicker than the last one. It should. Subaru wouldn’t even offer up a 0-60-mph estimate, which leads to the conclusion the brand is hiding the fact the number remains the same.
As the WRX has no actual direct competition, it’s likely that customers for the new car are going to be existing owners. As former GM product guru Bob Lutz once said, “Americans buy horsepower.” What’s the reasoning? Why only a 3-hp increase for the new WRX? Here’s what Subaru said when asked: “Does it have 700 hp? No. Do you need 700 hp? Well, yeah, if you’re trying to cover up a lot of stuff.” A funny quip, but the counterpoint is that Subaru has unintentionally exposed just how great the WRX’s chassis is. It’s begging for more power.
If you liked any previous version of this car, you’re going to love the new 2022 Subaru WRX. All the classic ingredients are here: fun, if not great, to drive, shockingly competent at sticking to pavement, practical, and a true performance bargain. Subaru hasn’t released the pricing yet, though its MSRPs tend not to jump very much from year to year. The outgoing WRX’s base price is $28,420, an amount that remains startlingly low. A Premium model like the one driven here starts at $30,970, also a terrific value. Expect prices to increase by about $500, but we won’t know for sure until the car goes on sale in the spring of 2022. Is it all good enough to entice me to buy my third WRX? Let’s just say it’s on the list. You should put it on yours, too.