Thumbs Up: Faster and much more refined than previous generations.
Thumbs Down: Heavier clutch than a Dodge Viper.
Buy This Car If: You want to go fast, in all weather, on a budget.
I’ve danced around buying a Subaru Impreza WRX for a lot of years. I came close, very close, back in 2003. I test drove four or five different models, but I just couldn’t convince myself to buy one. Back then, the cars felt crude and entry-level, and you definitely sacrificed comfort and amenities in the name of performance. Oddly enough, the WRX of 2003 didn’t even feel fast, although it was. I never could warm up to them enough to buy one, and my current financial situation puts a 2011 WRX well out of reach. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes”.
I was pleasantly surprised, then, to get a 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX as a press fleet car. It took me less than a second to realize that the new Impreza WRX was better in every way than the car I shopped just eight years back. It looked a lot more purpose driven on the outside, and the inside was nicer than any Impreza I can remember. Firing up the 2.5-liter, 265 horsepower boxer four yielded my next surprise: that last one I drove didn’t sound anywhere near this angry.
Subaru gave the Impreza WRX a ground-up redesign for the 2008 model year. Early cars were sedate in their styling, which didn’t exactly bring Subaru’s target demographic rushing into their dealerships. For 2011, Subaru restyled the WRX sedan and wagon, borrowing heavily from the WRX STI. Both variants now get a “widebody” design, which expand the track by 1.5 inches front and rear. Of course this gives the car better grip, but it also gives the car a wider, more aggressive stance. Appearance wise, the 2008 WRX was the kind of girl you brought home to mom; the 2011 WRX is the kind of girl who leaves you wanted in three states, popping antibiotics for an unpronounceable social disease and wondering why you thought a facial tattoo was a good idea. Let’s be honest for a second; which one sounds like more fun to you?
From the chiseled front fascia and massive intake for the intercooler to the quad exhaust rear, the WRX simply looks fast. Fenders are aggressively flared (but less so than the WRX STI) to cover the wider track, and 17” wheels are standard. A brushed metal WRX badge adorns the front fender, and parallel character lines combine with side skirts to convey the car’s sporting intentions from the side. The blacked out window pillars are a nice touch, and even the decklid spoiler is tasteful. I’m a bit more “experienced” than Subaru’s target demographic, but I’d have no problem parking a WRX in my driveway. I would, however, opt for a slightly more subtle hue than arrest-me-red.
Inside, the difference between generations is even more readily apparent. The 2003 WRX was an economy car made sporty; the 2011 WRX is a legitimate sport sedan, albeit one built to a specific price point. The dash layout and design gets a very enthusiastic thumbs up from me, and Subaru has done an exemplary job of creating a driver-friendly but visually interesting environment. I’d favor soft touch vinyl over the hard plastic used by Subaru, but everything fits together well and I never heard a single squeak or rattle during my time with the car. My tester came with Subaru’s touch screen nav and infotainment system, which was simple enough to use. HVAC controls are the classic dial type, and my WRX limited even came with automatic climate control. The steering wheel was perfectly shaped and sized (and the red stitching is a nice touch), with easily accessed controls for the stereo and cruise control. If I had any complaints about the interior at all, it would be the position of the handbrake lever at the driver’s right thigh. That may be ideal for handbrake turns, but it’s a bit intrusive for daily driving.
Instruments are just what you want in a sport sedan: front and center is a large tachometer, stacked over a fuel and temperature gauge on the left and stacked under a speedometer on the right. An odometer and trip odometer sit below the tach, and a display atop the dash center shows you the time and the outside temperature. Noticeably absent is any kind of trip computer, which would be helpful in showing things like distance to empty (which will vary greatly with the enthusiasm applied to the throttle).
The front seats are superb, and feature details like contrasting red stitching, embroidered WRX logos and a harness cutout (although this may be just for fashion and not for function). They’re not powered and neither has lumbar support, but they offer all the bolstered support you’d expect for enthusiastic cornering. Besides, the Impreza WRX isn’t a Grand Touring car, so I’d hardly score points off for manual seats. Both front seats are heated as part of the Limited’s All-Weather Package, so feel free to extend your autocross season to include ice racing.
While equipped for three, the rear seats are best suited for two adults, but long-distance passenger hauling isn’t the WRX’s forte. Back seats offer some hip bolstering, but absolutely no side bolstering, so don’t plan on showing four friends exactly how well the WRX handles a slalom course. Don’t expect to fit pro football or basketball players in back either, although I can’t think of a single Formula 1 driver who’d complain about the car’s rear seat head and leg room. Average size friends will be fine back there, unless you decide to drive from Los Angeles to Chicago for a deep dish pizza.
Under the hood, with its massive and functional intercooler intake, is a 2.5-liter, turbocharged boxer four engine mated to a five speed manual transmission. Output is now up to 265 horsepower and 244 foot-pounds of torque, which is plenty in a car weighing just over 3,200 pounds. It’s also a massive improvement from the WRX I shopped back in 2003, and the 2011 version really does feel fast. Zero to sixty comes up in under 5.4 seconds, on the way to an electronically limited top speed of 142 miles per hour. There’s a huge aftermarket support network for the WRX, so if you want one with more power or better handling, upgrades are just a phone call away. As you probably guessed, the WRX isn’t intended to maximize fuel economy, and the EPA rates the 2011 Impreza WRX sedan at 25 MPG highway and 19 MPG city.
Fire up the throaty boxer engine, and it’s easy to forget about things like fuel economy and speed limits. The WRX is a blast to drive, but those new to shift-it-yourself gearboxes may want to practice on another car first. The clutch is heavier than any other in recent memory, and that includes cars like the Dodge Viper, the Cadillac CTS-V and the Shelby GT500. It’s not a big deal once you’re used to it, but clutch uptakes does take some practice if you’re new to driving a stick. Shift throws are long, and I wouldn’t call them precise, either, which is why Subaru (and the aftermarket) offers a short shift kit for the WRX. There’s very little turbo lag, and the engine pulls hard nearly to redline. Steering is perfectly weighted and the chassis is superb, which explains why WRXs are so popular in autocross, rally and club racing. I couldn’t explore the handling limits of my press fleet tester, since it came shod with Dunlop Wintersport tires; I’m guessing it was sent down from the Midwest or the Northeast, where winter tires are an absolute necessity from Thanksgiving through Easter. The Dunlop Wintersports are my favorite performance winter tires, but they’re simply not meant to be driven hard in the kind of record high temperatures we’ve had in Florida lately.
The list price on my 2011 Subaru Impreza WR Limited sedan was $31,720, which included a $725 destination charge and the $2,000 Option Package 14 (nav system and Sirius satellite radio). That’s not a lot of cash for a car with the performance capabilities of the WRX, and the most direct competitor would be the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart. Comparably equipped, a Lancer Ralliart would sticker for $33,720, which makes the Subaru a great buy in the AWD sport sedan segment. It isn’t right for everyone, but one drive should be enough to tell you if it’s right for you.