After spending a week in our 2013 Subaru WRX Special Edition tester, I came away feeling like I had spent a week in an economy car. A really fast, bright orange one that would eat any curvy road I could throw at it and beg for more.
The WRX we tested is, after all, still an Impreza compact car at its core. And bearing that in mind, one wouldn’t be surprised to find doors that feel somewhat light and tinny, hard plastics galore inside the car, quite a bit of wind noise at speed, and only one auto-up/auto-down window (the driver’s). But none of that really mattered, because the WRX makes no champagne promises on its beer budget. In terms of overall refinement, the car was only slightly below the overall feel we got for the Subaru-Toyota joint venture Scion FR-S we tested a few weeks ago.
But in a lot of ways, the WRX was more fun than the sprightly FR-S. That starts with Subaru’s legendary all-wheel drive providing grip by the boatload. I was able to get on the throttle hard coming out of sharp kinks with nary a twitch of under- or oversteer. Driving the FR-S out of some of these same sharp kinks, dialing in too much throttle at the apex would result in a momentary kick from the tail end as the rear-wheel drive coupe oversteered, then was quickly reined in by traction and stability control. On public roads, I couldn’t find curves sharp enough to take at semi-sane speeds while similarly upsetting the WRX. It just wouldn’t come unglued.
Another way the WRX eclipsed the FR-S was in its interior volume. Having not just rear doors, but a surprisingly roomy back seat for its size, the WRX was worlds more practical for hauling my son and his stuff. Where the FR-S saw him practically straddling the back of the front passenger seat, he struggled to even kick the back of the front passenger seat in the WRX. I felt like the WRX had more legroom up front, as well, and it helped that the seats were higher off the ground than the FR-S, which felt as if you were sitting three inches from the road– a real bear of a seat for 6’3″ me to fall into and climb out of.
But ignoring all that, my favorite thing about the WRX without a doubt was (no surprise here to anyone who has driven one, I suppose,) its excellent powertrain. The 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine is turbocharged and makes 266 horsepower and 244 ft-lbs of torque, Subaru says. The engine comes on strong after roughly 3,000 RPM, where the turbo really hits its stride. Despite having one fewer gear than many cars– including its limited-to-100-examples WRX STI Special Edition sister– it was not difficult at all to keep the WRX spooled up and making plenty of power for any situation.
Our tester, like all Special Edition WRX models, put its power to the ground via a five-speed manual transmission. I can’t begin to tell you how happy I was to have a clutch pedal again, after several weeks of driving test cars that were equipped with flappy-paddle automatics, at best. The WRX clutch was fairly heavy with a positive feel and grabbed quickly midway in the pedal’s range of motion, requiring some time to get accustomed to as well as a willingness to kick the car into neutral and pull the handbrake when waiting in line at the drive-thru. I don’t normally do that, but the WRX clutch was heavier than any I’ve driven, excepting perhaps my Dad’s old Isuzu pickup with its cable-operated clutch that seemed to stiffen with age. Or maybe the last time I drove the old Isuzu, my left leg had been long-spoiled by the hydraulically actuated clutch in my Nissan pickup, much as it has been spoiled by the inactivity it has seen while I’ve been driving slushbox-eqiupped cars the last several weeks.
In another sign that this is still an economy car at heart, the WRX shifter’s throws are longish and notchy– but compared to my daily-driver Ford Ranger’s stick, the WRX stick felt nicely weighted and quick enough to please me in daily driving. Methinks a too-quick, too-short stick would actually be headache to use on a daily basis. Say hello to skipped/missed shifts.
This wouldn’t be a proper car blog without mentioning hard plastics again. The dash, door panels, console, and even the rear shelf were the kind of hard plastic you can knock on and get the impression that it’s stiff and hollow– which it is. Subaru did thoughtfully include leather arm pads on each door trim piece, as well as a leather-trimmed steering wheel and shifter (both boot and knob). Also to its credit, the WRX seats were fantastic, with good, sporty fabric and bolstering that didn’t make me feel squeezed or crowded, as the FR-S sometimes could.
Like the rest of the car, there were pluses and minuses about the technology inside, especially the head unit. We’ll get to that in a later post.
Disclosure: Subaru provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas.