2022 subaru wrx
James Lipman

I remember distinctly when the Subaru WRX first came to the U.S. and being fairly blown away by the numbers. Two-hundred twenty-seven horsepower in a compact, all-wheel drive sedan? Crazy! Nearly as much as a Mustang GT! Twenty (!) years later, the WRX is let down by its spec sheet. It has just 41 more horsepower than the old Bugeye, and that puts it around midpack in its competitive set. A base four-cylinder Mustang offers more, and the WRX is now nearly 200 hp down on the GT. How things have changed.

What I didn't know then is that a car is so much more than its spec sheet. This new WRX is not the on-paper mind-blower its predecessors once were, but a brief drive is all it takes to realize that doesn't matter at all.

Subaru's on a bit of a roll for enthusiast cars of late. The new BRZ—and its Toyota twin, the GR86—improves on its predecessor in every meaningful way without losing any of its damn-the-numbers fun. It's sort of the same story with the WRX. No, the WRX doesn't get double-digit power and torque increases like the BRZ, but like the rear-drive car, you can tell that Subaru engineers put a lot of attention into what matters most—feel.

This is one of those cars that just feels immediately right. The seating position is typically rally-car—and typically WRX—high and upright, but not such that you feel like you're in a truck. It's actually quite refreshing in an age of high-beltline cars that make drivers feel a little too sunk down into the machine. The steering wheel is also fantastic, not too thick, not too large and trimmed in nice, soft leather.

James Lipman

One of the marks of a truly great car, one where you get the sense that the people behind the it really cared, is in the control weights. You want the weights of the steering, pedals, and shifter to all feel similar, giving the car a sense of cohesion. In a manual car, you also want the throttle response to be predictable, with engine speed rising and falling in a smooth, linear manner. In the WRX, all these controls are judged to perfection, and the result is a car that's easy to drive so smoothly.

The late Richard Parry-Jones, the engineer who led Ford's renewed focus on driving dynamics in the mid-to-late nineties and into the 21st century, was a big proponent of what he called the "50-meter test," the idea being that you could determine whether or not a car was good within the first 50 meters of driving. "Are the controls nicely weighted, are they linearly progressive, lacking in lash, are they communicating, are they helping my driving?" he once said in an interview. "Or are they giving me a series of challenges?"

This new WRX passes the test. Clearly, those behind it cared to get the details right, and when that's the case, who cares about the engine figures, as long as they're adequate. (This 2.4-liter boxer's 271 hp and 268 lb-ft are more than adequate, and delivered in a wonderfully linear way. It feels turbocharged, yet still smooth and predictable.)

James Lipman
James Lipman

Special mention goes to the shifter as well. It's not as meaty and precise as the Civic Si's, but it still gives the driver the increasingly rare sensation of things happening beneath the lever. It's deeply satisfying and mechanical in feel, and the pedals are perfectly positioned for heel-toe work. Where the WRX trounces the Civic is what happens when you put the clutch in. Honda, as ever, relies on keeping the throttle open after you take your foot off the pedal to ensure cleaner burn of fuel. Good for emissions, terrible for smoothness, requiring the driver to wait an eternity when going up through the ratios. The old WRX used to have this problem, but now it's thankfully gone, making the whole experience of shifting smoother overall.

Subaru deserves a lot of credit for getting all the details right in the WRX (and the BRZ). As a contrast, let's look at the new BMW M3/M4. They're rare among high-performance enthusiast cars for offering a manual transmission as standard, and that's great, right? Well, not really. They're just not that nice, with a rubbery, notchy shifter and poorly calibrated throttle mapping that makes smooth driving a task. It feels like a manual that BMW begrudgingly made to placate a vocal minority, doing the bare minimum to get it on sale. Unfortunately, that's not enough.

With the WRX, Subaru is showing that it values enthusiasts, those who care about all the little things that turn a good car into a great one. Clearly, there are a lot of enthusiasts still at the company.

I was too young to drive when the WRX first hit the states. Today, the WRX is not the sports-car killer it once was, and I'm not disappointed in the slightest.