The Subaru WRX: milder, but still spicy

Subaru's WRX holds its own against more accomplished STI sibling

Mention Irish rock band U2 and fans like me will think of their 1987 hit With Or Without You.

In 2009, British indie band Keane took the same song, stripped it of rock music and recorded a version which focused on the melody and vocals. That gentler cover was also a hit on the airwaves.

Both versions of the song came instantly to mind when I drove the "regular" Subaru WRX this week, three months after Life! first reviewed its more illustrious sibling, the WRX STI.

The pair come from a long line of WRX rally cars that has rolled out of Subaru plants since 1992. The latest generation has dropped the Impreza badge, cutting its ties with the bread-and-butter line.

Visually, some cues set the WRX apart from the WRX STI.

While it has the same squat look, with a huge air intake scoop upfront and a pair of twin mufflers at the rear, it ditches the over-the-top STI spoiler for a subtle inch-high one on its boot lid. It also has 17-inch rims, compared to the STI's larger 18-inch ones.

The biggest differences lie under the bonnet. The STI is powered by a tried-and-tested 2.5-litre turbocharged boxer engine carried over from the previous model, while the WRX has a new and smaller 2-litre turbo which cranks out less horsepower (268 vs 300bhp) and torque (350 vs 407Nm).

This translates to a slower 0-100kmh sprint (6.3 vs 5.2 seconds) and lower top speed (240kmh vs 255kmh) for the WRX.

But before you scoff at the new engine, consider this: On an engine capacity basis, the smaller engine is more powerful, churning out more horsepower and torque per cc than the STI.

It is also more frugal, using 8.6 litres of petrol per 100km, compared to the STI's 10.4 litres.

And its high torque kicks in at a low engine speed of 2,400rpm, which makes the car immensely drivable. On the go, the WRX does not suffer from the turbo lag that plagues some turbocharged cars.

It also packs another surprise: It has continuously variable transmission (CVT).

I was sceptical at first. Pairing a high-performing boxer engine with a CVT is like buying a smart Internet TV but streaming online content using phone lines instead of fibre-optic cables.

But my scepticism dissipated soon after I pulled out of Subaru's Leng Kee showroom.

The CVT could have had me fooled. It has six virtual gear "ratios" in the Sports and regular driving modes, which can be shifted using paddles behind the steering wheel.

But what really floored me was how the "gears" shift. At full throttle in the automatic mode, the transmission holds on to a lower "gear" as the engine revs past 4,000rpm towards redline for half a second or so, before it shifts to higher "gears" and moves into its sweet-spot of just under 2,000rpm.

It is unusual for CVTs to have this "holding on to lower gears" characteristic. Not only does Subaru's CVT mimic gear changes, it also simulates how the gears are changed when the driver is in a hurry. Truly impressive.

And when I switched to the sportiest setting - the Sports# (pronounced sharp, not hashtag) mode - the number of virtual "gears" increases from six to eight. I found myself repeatedly toggling the three drive modes just to have fun with the paddles and gears.

And with the seemingly endless supply of torque within a wide engine speed band, the car never feels like it is in a wrong gear.

The light but sharp steering also adds to the fun. Making the steering response any faster would have made the car too twitchy for daily drive.

Apart from its entertaining CVT and its wonderful steering feel, the WRX is also enjoyable when thrown around corners, thanks to its all-wheel-drive set-up. I had to restrain myself after two runs along the serpentine Old Upper Thomson Road. More runs would have meant pushing the car beyond law- breaking point.

Inside the cabin, there is ample reminder of the car's sporty lineage. There is a digital boost gauge for petrolheads to track the performance of the turbocharger and the front seats are clearly designed for snugness rather than comfort.

Other sporty bits include aluminium pedals, a fiery orange digital instrument cluster and a chunky flat-bottomed leather-clad multi-function steering wheel.

The cockpit is spartan but not low-rent. Carbon-fibre trim and red stitching on the fabric seats and gear knob add to the sporty theme.

The car is well equipped too. Frills include keyless entry and ignition, LED headlamps and rain-sensing wipers.

My only grouse is the ride quality - it is as harsh as the STI's. The stiff suspension and rigid chassis magnify tiny imperfections on the road throughout the cabin. For a car that is less hardcore than the STI, a slightly softer suspension would have been logical.

Overall, the WRX occupies a curious spot.

Those looking for out-and-out race cars will pick the STI in a heartbeat, but the WRX will easily meet the needs of drivers who enjoy the occasional spirited city driving. Its torquey engine and unusual CVT make it is an easy car to drive.

It is easier on the pocket too, being $20,000 cheaper than the STI and having a lower annual road tax ($1,210 vs $1,750) and less thirsty engine.

So rather than seeing the WRX as a less accomplished sibling of the WRX STI, it is best appreciated for holding its own spot in the spectrum of WRX cars.

Just as U2's Without Or Without You and Keane's soulful 2009 cover can be enjoyed individually, the same goes for the WRX and WRX STI.