The new WRX finally has the broader appeal it needs for survival in a cut-throat car market, but has this diminished its character?

To many, the fact there is an all-new Subaru WRX hitting the market in 2022 will be a bit of a surprise. In its previous generation, the WRX felt as aged as a dinosaur – inefficient and based on the fourth generation Impreza that wasn’t even on sale anymore, still clinging onto a loyal but shrinking fanbase.

This new model, then, was always going to need broader appeal – especially so as there’s no longer a hardcore STI variant, nor its legendary EJ engine, to keep enthusiasts happy. To make this WRX nice enough for the average person after a sporty daily driver yet still able to meet enthusiasts’ prerequisites was always going to be a challenge.

Cue a bigger new engine, modernised styling, and vastly improved technology, plus the return of a wagon variant to really give the WRX range some diversity. It’s right at the top with the tS Sedan where we’re getting our first look at the new model, though, as it’s where the greatest changes can be seen.

Go for the tS and it’s priced at $56,990 before on-road costs with an automatic transmission as standard, but the range kicks off at just $44,990 for a base manual. The auto-only wagon, meanwhile, charges a $1000 premium over its equivalents in the sedan range.

It’s important to note that with the WRX having been made a separate model from the Impreza, it’s now wearing distinctly different looks. Yes, it still looks similar to an Impreza, but the differences are far clearer than in the old model which was just an Impreza with quad exhausts and a massive rear wing.

However, the unique looks won’t be a good thing in the eyes of many. Calling the styling of the 2022 Subaru WRX controversial feels like quite an understatement, and it’s easy to see why. Black plastic wheel arches are for crossovers, not sports cars, and the Honda Civic taillights also don’t do it any favours with skeptics.

Personally, I don’t actually mind it too much in the flesh given the World Rally Blue hue of my tester which manages to make the black plastic fit a bit better. Like with the new BMW 4 Series, it looked far worse in the press photos – something Subaru’s choice of orange as a launch colour only made even more obvious.

Certainly, it’s still awkward from some angles, but there’s no doubt that in the right colour and on the right wheels, it looks decently smart. Most importantly, though, it looks purposeful with its flared rear quarters, signature hood scoop, and angular headlights. I can’t help but wonder if a big wing would enhance it even more.

Inside, there’s no doubt Subaru has upped its game considerably over the last model, which felt about as up to date as a Nokia 3310. Gone are the tiny cheap displays, and in comes a massive 11.6-inch touchscreen in the middle. There’s no doubt the big portrait-oriented screen looks impressive, but it offers no real benefit over a normal touchscreen, as you can’t easily customise it to display two separate functions at once.

Even worse, the climate controls are almost unusable while you’re driving, as all but the temperature has to be operated through the screen – big thumbs-down there. The lack of wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, along with a wireless phone charger and USB-C ports, is also disappointing, but at least you can plug your phone in for smartphone mirroring.

What is incredibly handy, however, is that Subaru has added its clever facial recognition tech to the WRX. Once you’ve configured the system to recognise you, simply hop behind the wheel and it will automatically set everything to your preferences for you. The only catch is you’ll have to repeat the scan if you hop behind the wheel with a face mask still on after you’ve been in a shop, but that’s not the car’s fault and rather a current-moment-in-time problem.

The mechanical instruments with merely a small TFT display between them will either be a welcome relief if you’re a fan of old-school gauges, or disappointing if you were expecting a digital dash to match the big touchscreen. The STI logo embedded in the speedo – and on the steering wheel – do serve as rather sad reminders that the sub-brand is all but dead at this point.

Fortunately, ‘WRX’ is all that has been embroidered into the seat headrests, and can I say what seats they are. In the tS model, they come clad in two-tone grey and black Ultrasuede with black leather accents and red stitching. They look great and feel great, blending comfort and support quite well. This is exactly the sort of niceness the WRX needed.

Of course, the typical Subaru build quality is clearly on display as well, with everything feeling more solidly bolted together than in just about anything else out there – European cars included. The only catch is that there’s quite a lot of road noise, which doesn’t mesh well with its otherwise refined feel.

However, it’s what lies under the skin that most traditional WRX buyers will be interested in. With the old model’s FA20 engine being a bit underwhelming and the STI’s EJ25 having reached the end of its long lifecycle, this new model needed something good under the bonnet. What it’s got is the engine from a three-row SUV only sold in North America – the Ascent – but don’t think that’s a bad thing.

The WRX’s new FA24 engine shares its 2.4-litre flat-four block with that in the new BRZ, but here, it’s turbocharged like it is in the Ascent. Despite the extra displacement, it only makes a paltry 5kW more than the old 2.0-litre on paper, with 202kW and 350Nm on offer.

Those numbers might not be crazy, but they only tell half the story. The new car’s torque may be the same, but it’s accessible from 2000-5200rpm – 400rpm earlier than before. Between this and the larger displacement, it feels stronger and more relaxed than before, belying the numbers on paper.

It’s not as ferocious as an EJ engine or as what you’d find in the likes of the Hyundai i30 N, but its smooth and torquey feel is ideal for daily driving, with still enough top-end turbo punch for some weekend fun.

What’s even bigger news is the transmission fitted to the tS model. Although lesser 2022 Subaru WRX sedans are offered with a six-speed manual gearbox, the tS comes exclusively with a CVT automatic, except Subaru doesn’t call it a CVT but instead a “Subaru Performance Transmission”. Nice try, but that’s not fooling anyone. Or is it?

In reality, this is the CVT that comes closest to truly feeling like a conventional automatic. Leave it in D, and the fake shifts feel utterly predictable and direct; use the tactile paddles on the back of the steering wheel to manually shift it and it snaps into the next of its eight simulated ratios. Truly, it’s so rare to feel it ‘rubber band’ like most CVTs do that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that’s what’s channelling the power to the wheels.

Furthermore, I actually borrowed an RS manual sedan for an afternoon from a dealership contact to see how the new manual gearbox performs and while the shifter feel itself is much improved, the ratios are too short meaning you’re constantly touching the limiter before you expect to, and the clutch feels terribly synthetic and has far too high a bite point for my taste. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the CVT… yeah, it’s better in most circumstances.

Even if the tS model won’t let you row your own gears, at least it offers additional control in other ways by virtue of five different drive modes including an ‘Individual’ setting. This lets you alter everything to your tastes – the steering, engine, transmission, and so on – but it’s leaving it in the pre-set Sport+ mode where you’ll have the most fun.

All you need to do is hook it into a corner and get on the power early on the exit to get a taste of the WRX magic. The body roll is utterly minimal, the all-wheel drive system gives it incredible traction, and the firm steering offers great confidence. In this regard, it elicits that feeling of imagining you’re racing on a tarmac rally stage just the way it should.

It’s just a shame there isn’t a brilliant manual gearbox to tie it all together – and a bit more of that classic boxer engine rumble as it’s far too quiet – as that’s all that’s really missing from the package.

And perhaps it’s that which is the issue here – it might feel like a WRX when you stick it into a corner, but the smoothness and refinement just doesn’t conjure up the youthful energy that older Rexes did. Yes, it makes it a far more rational car with the broader appeal it needed to remain relevant in today’s age, but in a way, it’s lost a bit of what made the WRX what it was.

Don’t get me wrong – the 2022 Subaru WRX is a good car, it’s just that it’s not the same car it once was. It’s a bit like when you’re in a meeting with someone who’s wearing a suit but has holes in their ears from past piercings and a tattoo only just poking out from the end of their sleeves. The new them might be formal and professional the way society requires, but you can’t help but feel the real them would be far more fun to chat with.

And really, this is the car that person is probably going to drive now. Odds are they had a WRX ‘back in the day’ and want to experience it again, but driving a manual is a chore now and they don’t want something too ostentatious to show up to such meetings in. For that purpose, at least, it’s ideal. Perhaps at this point that’s all a new WRX needs to be.

2022 Subaru WRX tS Sedan List Price: $56,990
  • 8/10
    Performance - 8/10
  • 8.5/10
    Ride & Handling - 8.5/10
  • 8/10
    Tech & Features - 8/10
  • 7.5/10
    Practicality - 7.5/10
  • 8/10
    Value for Money - 8/10

Pros: Torquey new 2.4-litre engine, CVT automatic is surprisingly excellent, handles like it’s on rails the way a WRX should, great drive mode customisation, top-notch build quality
Cons: Controversial styling with those black plastic wheel arches, lacks the youthful character of older WRXs, exhaust sounds dull, far too much road noise at freeway speeds

In a nutshell: The 2022 Subaru WRX is more polished than ever, and while that makes it a far more rational car, it’s at the expense of its traditional character. However, it still handles like a WRX should and will make for a far more entertaining daily driver than a base Impreza ever could.

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Subaru Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel costs were covered by the author.

Patrick Jackson
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