The Subaru WRX is a bit of an enigma in the car market at this point. Once a road-going rally racer that was synonymous with larrikin driving and obnoxious modified exhaust pipes, Subaru’s retraction from the World Rally Championship in 2008 has seen the WRX grow out of its punk teenage years and into the businessperson it needs to be for society’s sake. It’s gained a few kilos, traded the dyed hair and band T-shirts for a neat trim and a suit, and gotten with the times when it comes to tech and efficiency.
Many of you may feel, then, that the spirit of the WRX has been lost – and to that point I agree with you. This new WRX might be more sociable, but those older, now-classic versions would’ve been much more fun to have a drink with. But, perhaps, there is one version of the new WRX – introduced in Australia in 2022 in both sedan and wagon body styles – that might still be a rebel among the crowd.
Enter the RS Manual Sedan – one of just two ways to get a stick-shift in the entire WRX lineup, with the base WRX Sedan being the only other available. Yours for $50,490 before on-road costs, the price tag might be similarly high to that of its mature siblings, but there are hints of this model being the one WRX purists could still gravitate towards.
Riding on dark grey 18-inch alloys, these shadowy wheels serve as one of the few distinguishers for base and RS models from the top-spec tS Sedan we’ve previously tested. Beyond the tS’ diamond cut wheels, tS badging on the outside, and STI badging on the steering wheel and instrument cluster, there’s no real change. Mind
That similarity is especially noticeable in the case of the RS model tested here, though, which carries over the same Ultrasuede bucket seats and red-stitched interior which, beyond those missing STI badges that signify Subaru’s now-dead high-performance arm, is practically indistinguishable.
The only obvious difference, of course, is the new centre console which sits lower down to accomodate the six-speed manual shifter and mechanical handbrake, along with a third pedal in the footwell. However, you’ll notice a bit of extra space at the top of the windscreen where Subaru’s EyeSight active safety system no longer resides. The company has never fitted the technology to any manual vehicles, and that continues with the WRX which misses out on items such as adaptive cruise control and lane-centring as a result.
Its specification list remains largely identical otherwise, however, with the same massive 11.6-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen infotainment system with TomTom sat nav and wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, heated and power-adjustable front seats, a sunroof, a facial recognition system to automatically configure the car to each driver’s preferences once set up, and a 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio system. There’s still the same 411-litre boot and the same surprising amount of roominess inside the WRX as well, with the lower centre console helping it feel a bit more open.
The same foibles do, of course, still persist in the cabin of this manual model, with the massive touchscreen lacking customisability despite its size and the climate controls relegated to it still too fiddly to use while driving. It’s still disappointing for the WRX to lack a fully digital instrument cluster, too, as even this mid-spec model should have one given a Hyundai i20 N can manage to for around $15k less.
But having already covered the new WRX in some detail before now, let’s focus on what really matters here – that all-important manual gearbox. The engine it’s hooked up to – like plenty of other things as you’ve already figured by now – is unchanged from all other WRX variants. A 2.4-litre turbocharged flat-four, the FA24 which is shared with the US-market Ascent SUV, it makes 202kW and 350Nm which is channelled to all four wheels through Subaru’s famed Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system.
While most WRX customers are probably going to opt for the CVT automatic – which Subaru prefers to call a ‘Performance Transmission’ as if that’s going to fool people – this six-speed manual does away with all the gimmicks and simply promises old-school driving pleasure; a connected drive where you’re in total control.
Although I normally go into reviews with an open mind, I actually already had a bit of an opinion formed on the manual WRX before this, and I can’t say it was the most positive one. Having already had a quick go in one to make mention of how the CVT and manual compared in my review of the tS Sedan, I was left frustrated with its notchy shifter feel, the frustrating twitchiness and high bite point of the clutch, and the lack of any drive modes to choose from.
And, at the beginning of a full week with this car, those feelings remained the same. For three or four days, the clutch continued to feel as controllable as a fighting pitbull, the shifter felt equally as far from perfect (and seems to sit as far to the left as it possibly can which is inconvenient in a right-hand drive country), and the turbo lag spurned by its lack of a Sport mode to sharpen the throttle response a touch had me feeling total déjà vu.
But then, on a day with perfect weather and a determination to see if I was missing a trick, I headed for Gorge Road – and d’you know what, something funny happened. Suddenly, everything started to come together – the shifter felt right, the clutch felt right, and even the once-rubbery and artificial throttle pedal felt right.
That trick I’d been missing was to really manhandle this thing. Here I’d been trying to drive it with precision when really what it wanted was the 50 Shades of Grey treatment. Seriously, not being afraid to be rough with it is all it takes, as at ten-tenths the clutch and shifter feel like you wouldn’t want to have them set up any other way, and the turbo lag isn’t an issue when you’re never vacating the upper-end of the rev range. Truly, it was an epiphany.
One other thing I had failed to realise in my prior, brief drive of the WRX RS Manual is just how tight and responsive the steering in this feels. In the wagon, it feels disconnected and vague, and in the tS with its almost infinite customisability its hard to find a sweet spot, but the sole setting on offer here actually feels nice and precise, if with a little bit of a video game feel to it being electrically-assisted.
It’s also worth adding that the advent of the manual gearbox even manages to make the powerful but somewhat characterless engine in the WRX feel a bit more exciting, too. Perhaps it’s just the perceived rawness of driving a manual car like this – perhaps its also just how great this car’s all-wheel drive system helps it feel on the road as well – but all in all it feels… well, more like a WRX should.
Mind you, it’s worth considering that just because the manual WRX is a great car to drive flat-out, a good daily driver that does not make. The suspension is certainly on the firmer side, you’ll need to be on your A-game to drive it smoothly with that tricky clutch, and it most certainly has a thirst for premium fuel – I saw fuel consumption of 10.5L/100km over the course of my entire 410km behind the wheel, a bit above the 9.9L/100km claim, but stints stuck in traffic saw that figure nudging 13L/100km.
At least the WRX RS Manual, like all other Subaru models, does come covered by a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty, along with five years of capped price servicing with an average cost of $486.61 and a total cost of $2433.06 over that five year period. Do note that for manual models, the fourth service is more expensive than for CVT variants, costing the pricely sum of $803.54.
It’s at this point you’ll be left with a few important questions if you’re a potential buyer. If you’re buying the WRX because you’re a long-time Subaru fan who wants something that’s an absolute blast to thrash on your favourite backroad, the RS Manual is unequivocally the pick of the range.
If, however, you’re after the WRX because you want a somewhat sporty but well-equipped daily driver, the CVT is certainly the transmission to go for. And even then, there’s another question to be asked as to whether you should get the sedan or opt for the wagon – the added practicality and lack of the cheap plastic wheel arches seen on the sedan would have my money set on the latter.
At least there’s one clear take-away from the WRX RS Manual, and that’s to not judge a book by its cover, or even by a skim of the first few pages. It might take some time and certainly some effort to fall in love with it, but it’s clear that at least one variant in the broad new WRX range maintains the model’s original spirit. It’s certainly not perfect, but there’s fun to be found here so long as you’re patient enough to wait for it.
2023 Subaru WRX RS Manual Sedan List Price: $50,490
- Performance - 8/108/10
- Ride & Handling - 8/108/10
- Tech & Features - 8/108/10
- Practicality - 7.5/107.5/10
- Value for Money - 8/108/10
Pros: Sharp and precise steering, doesn’t miss out on any comfort and convenience items the top-spec model has, still has that WRX magic thanks to its brilliant all-wheel drive system
Cons: Takes some time to fall in love with this gearbox, no drive mode selection, firm suspension and thirsty engine mean it’s not an ideal daily driver
In a nutshell: The RS Manual is without question the WRX to buy if you’re after the most authentic taste of what that badge has to offer, but if you’re after a daily driver, look in the direction of the CVT models as this manual takes some time to get the best out of.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Subaru Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel.