Subaru WRX MY2018: New look but still old school

Facelift time for the fiery Subaru WRX and its even more feral STi spin-off smartens up their spec, but does it bring them up to speed?


WHY should fans of the most ferocious cars in the Subaru family, the WRX and the STi have cause to feel a slight pang of jealousy when they spot the regular Impreza?

Simply because, even after a 2018 mid-life facelift has delivered a lot of good stuff to the hotshoe all-wheel-drive sedans – additional comfort and safety equipment plus revised styling for no price change for manuals and $2000 at most added to the autos – the fastest car in the family is still not up to pace in respect to one ingredient.

To remind: The WRX, through Subaru’s world rally championship exploits, is the model that in addition to making the likes of Possum Bourne and Colin McRae household heroes is also the model that surely also made the Impreza name globally familiar. Because, back in the day, it was called just that: Impreza WRX.

A few years back, the brand determined to make the WRX and Impreza separate entities.

That differentiation broadened all the more at the end of last year when the regular Impreza – that is, the family-minded and priced model – debuted a new platform that all Subaru cars will eventually employ.

Since then, the XV – which to many of use old-timers is really an Impreza wagon in elevated form – has since followed suit. Next in line at the end of 2018 will be the Forester (kinda like an Impreza in outdoors wear).

Which still leaves Impreza that looks and goes hardest. When will the WRX and its wilder STi kin step up to the new underpinning? At best guess, that change will occur in 2019.

The stepped timing reflects a certain reality about Subaru – that it is a small company and can only do so much. Just at this moment, it’s stretched because it is also setting out to release a large seven-seater SUV, albeit purely for America.

Also, it reminds that while the performance editions – even five years on from their retirement from WRC (but not wholly from rally; the latest edition still competes at lower level including the New Zealand national competition) – are very much the halo cars, they are also nowadays niche sales fare. Obviously, Subaru has to give development priority to the types that do better.

WRX fans might find that hard to swallow, because – and how’s this for irony? - the sports models nonetheless proliferate in greater count in the showroom.

You can get one version of the mainstream car, the $29,990 2.0i Sport, four editions of Forester, two kinds of XV … and no less than six kinds of WRX. That’s the base and premium, each in manual and auto, then the STi in standard and Premium formats.

Anyway, back to the platform. The mid-life facelift is upon the WRX and STi. We got to drive both at Hampton Downs circuit (but not on the road). The first taste shows they’re invigorating and exciting cars.

All the same, they didn’t strike me as being as polished as the new Impreza; the benefits of that new platform is that you get a far more rigid car with a wider stance than before. Those improvements will suit the WRX, that’s for sure. At the moment, the racer editions are cars that demands more driver oversight to keep it in line. They’re eager, but edgy; prone to a lot more understeer through corners than the mainstream editions.

So it’s flawed? Well, no, just different. Old-school different. And feral is all part of the attraction, of course. High-power performance cars, even those with the safety net afforded by all-wheel-drive, are not supposed to be easy.

However, even with suspension alterations so modest they could not be explained in detail, they are still lairy. A race track is a good place to take a performance car; a race track saturated by Spring storms is even better for an all-wheel-drive type. Yet you don't want to think that advantage allows for invincibility.

As always, the WRX delivers plenty of traction, but the degree of ready understeer expressed by both models in Hampton’s sopping wet hairpins reminded that grip-wise they can sit on a knife-edge. The STi’s nose first habit could be tempered by setting the active differential in manual then winding it right back to effect a degree of rear-end bias; but as with the WRX the trick to keeping it from slewing also always comes down to when and how much throttle is used.

I think this trait, and the car’s wont to wiggle mid-corner, will become something a memory when the big change comes, because the new platform has better balance, too, and is also more communicative.

So, yeah, it was a workout. But fun also, of course. Always that. These cars might punish those unprepared for their savagery, but they also still reward talent.

And you just cannot beat the thrill that comes from hoofing a Subby turbo four, especially in its ultimate tune.

No changes have been made to the turbocharged boxer engines, so the 2.0-litre bangs out 197kW/350Nm while the 2.5-litre in the STI puts up 221kW/407Nm.Both still drink hard, of course.

That STi remains the epitome of stonk. There’s enough torque in the mid-range to save constantly rowing the close-ratio six-speed quite as frantically as in the WRX. Get the revs above 4000rpm and it bangs in a smack-in-the-back surge that’s hard to forget.

Manual-only might seem strange for the flagship, but be grateful. That the WRX’s auto – well, Lineartronic CVT - achieves around 90 percent of the sale is actually something of a worry, really, because it’s not a particularly sporty transmission.

Anyway, Subaru’s assertion that the manual gearbox choice reinforces that this is a driver’s machine is not without substance. It’s a good, close-ratio gearbox that suit’s the car’s character. The only thing better would be a direct-shift gearbox, but that seems beyond Subaru’s talents or budget.

And they’re still the epitome of value, too. No change at all for the manuals – meaning entry to the range still starts at $48,990 – and though the automatics go up due to the addition of the camera-guided EyeSight crash avoidance system, it’s only by $1000.

The STi cars, being wholly manual, stay at $59,990 in entry form and $64,990 in Premium format and, as before, can be ordered with or without the bootlid spoiler. Some will; not me. Regardless that this past imperative for sport really only has aesthetic value now, an STi just doesn’t look right without this tray.

Changes to the exterior include subtly restyled LED headlights, new front bumper and foglight bezel design, and restyled 18- and 19-inch alloys for the WRX and STI, respectively. The update cars can also be identified by 

their painted brake callipers: Red for the WRX, yellow for the STi.

Inside the changes are minimal, with the door switch panel, instrument panel centre, gear shift surround panel and steering centre bezel all finished in black moulding for the WRX and high gloss black in the STI.

The cabin design will seem quite dated, though, when compared with the wholly new product that has arrived in the past 12 months. Even though care is given to the look and feel of the fittings, material qualities are uneven. Soft-touch mouldings on much of the dashboard are a plus, but aren’t enough to draw attention away from less impressive plastics continuing lower down in the cabin. The latest Impreza and XV interiors are still much more modern and better laid out. Those cars also have the updated infotainment features that, it seems, the WRX brigade are destined neverv to see until that 2019 switchover.

Safety-wise, the first line of defence with these machines have been their four-wheel drive, excellent grip and strong brakes, and behind this twin front, side and curtain airbags.

Applying the EyeSight driver assistance technology to the auto answers a question that has been asked by enthusiasts for some time, Subaru admits.

 The set-up cannot be applied to the manuals due to technical reasons, however. Likewise, only the automatics take an electronic park brake and auto hold. But both WRXs and STis now get reversing cameras – with a quirky display in the rear vision mirror that is activated by a switch changing the reflected view to a camera view.

The updated WRX in either transmission format also has heated door mirrors and LED foglights plus adaptive LED headlights and daytime running lights, a 5.9-inch infotainment system, dusk-sensing headlights and rain-sensing wipers. The entry car’s front seats have electric lumbar support.

The STI range continues with six-pot front and two-pot rear Brembo brakes, but the rotors are now cross-drilled, 19-inch wheels, a new front bumper and grille and – eech - red seatbelts. And, wow, did you know the STi has a centre cup holder with slide shutter now? Actually, did you care?

Almost all the enhancements are useful. But even the biggest changes are potentially not enough to change any convictions about these being special taste cars whose talents, though impressive when demonstrated in places that allow it, nonetheless don’t seem as important as they once did.