Turbocharging is all the rage today. Ford’s pushing its EcoBoost turbo technology hot and heavy, Chevy and Dodge have turbo’d small cars, and even BMW is dumping inline sixes in favor of Twinpower turbo fours. The Subaru WRX might ask, “What took you so long?”
Since its beginning in 1992, the WRX has been turbocharged. It was a car that came shortly after the 1980s turbocharging craze (go ahead and look up the Dodge Omni GLH, for example. I’ll wait.) but long before the second coming of turbos in the 2010s. And throughout the ’90s and aughties, the WRX carried the torch for turbo lovers worldwide, using varying levels of boost through the years to alter the pedestrian flat-four Subaru “boxer” engine into a more beastly powerplant.
In 2013, our test WRX Special Edition made 265 horsepower and 244 ft-lbs of torque. That’s 65 horses more than the sportier-looking but also far more-cramped Scion FR-S (itself a Subaru BRZ in Toyota clothing), and it’s a far sight more than the 148-horsepower Subaru Impreza upon which our WRX was based.
The credit largely goes to that turbocharger and 500 cubic centimeters more engine displacement than either the FR-S or the Impreza– the WRX gets a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, while its cousins make do with a 2.0-liter mill. Subaru wasn’t a slouch when it came to cold air induction, either, with sealed cool air intake at the front of the engine as well as on top, where the intercooler resides under a bulging hood scoop.
All this resulted in a turbo that spooled quickly and came on very strong in the midrange. From 3,000 RPM onward, the WRX’s pull felt endless. I bumped the rev limiter a couple of times because I wasn’t paying attention to the tach in the low gears and didn’t feel the car running out of steam as it crossed 6,000 RPM. A quick shift to the next gear, and the party continued. Those who have driven turbocharged cars of a bygone era may have experienced the phenomenon known as “turbo lag.” In the WRX, it’s darn near nonexistent.
The turbo’s ability to flatten the torque curve of the powerful-for-its-size engine combined with the car’s shortish gearing meant I was able to climb many steep hills without downshifting. Not that I did that all that often, because the turbo’s rush of power was too enjoyable in the midrange, as was the frappy boxer engine note from the exhaust, which has gone down as the loudest factory exhaust we’ve yet tested. My toddler son loved the sound almost as much as I did. My wife…not so much.
But perhaps my favorite thing about the Subaru WRX turbocharger tuning is how, when hurried, the engine gives off that much-desired turbo whistle. It only added to the enjoyable engine note, becoming most noticeable when wind noise– of which there was quite a bit– began to drown out the exhaust buzz at higher speeds. The turbo system lacks the pressure to give much of a blowoff “whoosh” between shifts, racecar style, but that whistle injected a little bit of racecar into my commute whenever we hit the highway on-ramp.
Most other cars with turbos today have fitted the tiny spools onto tiny engines– typically smaller than the base, naturally aspirated engine. As we noted above, the WRX is the antithesis to this philosophy. Rather than being a fuel economy special, it’s the hotshoe’s Subaru. That being said, its fuel economy isn’t that bad, even when flogged. But more on that later.
Disclosure: Subaru provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas.