Trading on the rally conquests and Ken Block videos of the Subaru STI, the Subaru Impreza WRX has always been the car for people who aspire to dirt track power slides but who spend most of their driving time commuting to work and making grocery runs. The 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX accepts its position as a stand-in for the STI by adopting the wide body kit and track of its rally bred brother.
The WRX's resemblance to the STI is more than skin deep, but stops short of the bone. Where the STI is taut and hard, the WRX is compliant, even soft. The STI gets a true sports-car transmission, but the WRX's gearbox feels like surplus from Fuji Heavy Industries commercial trucks. On the practical side, the new WRX benefits greatly from a cabin tech makeover, a new navigation unit that brings in a Bluetooth phone system, and extensive audio-tuning capabilities.
Wide fenders, sport seats
It took a couple of years, but we have gotten to like the looks of the hatchback WRX--probably from watching videos of Ken Block take it around his personal obstacle course. And we always like the practicality of a hatchback. The wide fenders copied from the STI don't hurt, either, giving the car a meatier look.
These sport seats were very comfortable, and provided good support against lateral g-force.
Our test car was a Premium-edition model, between the base and Limited trims. We fell in love with its leather-covered sports seats immediately. High backs and nominal side bolsters provided comfort and stability. The red, stitched WRX logo is a nice touch.
Only in the Premium and Limited trim cars is the navigation option available. This DVD-based system is far from cutting edge, but the maps offer decent resolution. It takes more than one DVD to cover the U.S., forcing disc swaps for different regions, which is kind of weak in this era of hard-drive and flash-memory-based GPS. Worse, we had to specify the actual state when entering a destination.
Given the primitive nature of this navigation system, it is no surprise that it does not show traffic or weather information. And annoyingly, it blocks out all destination input, except for emergency locations, while driving.
Region-based navigation systems are so 2005.
A Bluetooth phone system is also consolidated in this navigation head unit. We easily paired it with an iPhone using the onscreen controls. The system includes a phone book function, and would have let us push contacts from our phone to the phone book, except the iPhone does not support that functionality. Similar to the navigation system, phone number input is disabled when the car is underway, and there is no voice command system.
We were eager to test the WRX's performance, but our initial experiences left us unimpressed. The long shifter felt too far from each gate position, and lacked any kind of precision. We rowed it into second gear, then third, with each movement feeling like pushing a fireplace poker around a loose clump of logs. The transmission also lacked a sixth gear; instead reverse sits in that position, which invites havoc when looking for top gear on the freeway.
Subaru needs to replace this transmission with a close-ratio six speed.
Trying to work with the car, we got it set for a fast start. Revs up and clutch dropped, the car slogged carefully forward, its 2.5-liter four-cylinder doing the best to comply with our wishes. After a few seconds, the turbo kicked in, and the real fun began. The WRX boasts 265 horsepower and 244 pound-feet of torque, but considerable turbo lag kept us waiting like a kid on Christmas Eve for something to happen.
When it did get going, we could feel the power surging the car forward, taking it from snail to Cape buffalo at full charge. The WRX requires just a little patience. Making it all worthwhile was the whine from the turbo whenever it kicked in, making us feel like Top Gun pilots.
As the wide fenders brought the STI to mind, we were surprised to find the ride so soft. Rough city pavement and wide freeway expansion joints were absorbed equally, with dampers avoiding any unnecessary oscillation. A few of the bigger potholes sent a jolt through the car, but under most circumstances it offered a better ride than your average midsize sedan.
The WRX's all-wheel-drive system can throw 100 percent torque to the front or rear wheels.
Of course, a WRX is not something you get if you are merely looking for cheap and comfortable transportation. It is all about Subaru's Symmetric All-Wheel-Drive system. Unlike the STI, the WRX does not let you dial in exactly how much differential lock you want, but the all-wheel-drive, which by default puts torque at a 50-50 distribution, can put 100 percent power to the front or rear wheels as required.
Taking this 2011 WRX into the curves, we got to experience the pure joy that is all-wheel-drive handling. Sure, the car did not remain perfectly flat as we twisted it in the turns, its soft suspension allowing for a bit of lean, but those wheels dug in hard, holding the pavement and allowing a little rotation at the limits.
The wide body kit on the car is more than just cosmetic, too, as Subaru increased the track of the WRX by 1.5 inches. This wider track makes the WRX feel more planted in the corners than the previous generation.
We were ecstatic to find that, while negotiating a turn at speed, a little brake application adjusted the car's behavior without everything going very wrong. This capability becomes especially useful in blind corners when the road suddenly turns in a little sharper than expected.
The 2011 WRX has a 1.5-inch wider track than the 2010 version.
Subaru helps the WRX's handling with steering tuning that is reasonably sharp, but short of sports-car twitch. In normal driving situations, the car's suspension and steering made it something we could easily live with. And although we could adapt to the turbo lag, the gearbox would never prove satisfying.
At 19 mpg city and 25 mpg highway, the WRX is not exactly an economy car. But our frequent use of the turbo brought our own fuel economy average down lower, to 17.3 mpg.
Subaru says that its new navigation head unit includes iPod controls, but a dealer accessory iPod port is required to activate it. This is one of those little things that Subaru should probably make standard with the navigation option.
Lacking that input, we relied on the auxiliary audio jack, satellite radio, and CD/DVD slot. Actually, as the navigation head unit supports video, the WRX includes a composite video port along with its RCA audio jacks in the console. And behind the LCD is a CD/DVD player. We don't particularly like disc slots behind LCDs, but most WRX buyers would probably rely on an MP3 player anyway.
The parametric EQ actually lets you change the frequency for each band, along with its level.
The six-speaker audio system in the car initially sounded about average. Higher frequency sounds were somewhat buried and the bass did not stand out. But then we discovered the extensive audio controls in the stereo. Along with typical fader and balance controls, the WRX includes a four-band parametric equalizer. This type of equalizer is very advanced, letting you not only increase or decrease particular frequency volume, but also change the actual frequency each band controls. Not only that, but the WRX also includes several different surround-sound settings, although these are more useful for videos than music.
We spent some time fiddling with the equalizer, hoping to get a more satisfying sound. And it mostly worked. The change in frequency volume gave more life to the highs and made the bass strike with a sharper note, but the bass was a little strong for the car's audio system, causing the interior panels in the car to rattle annoyingly. Ultimately, the amp and speakers for this audio system are not quite up to the promise of the audio controls, and would be a good target for an upgrade.
The 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX offers some good cabin tech features with the new navigation system, but falls short in a few areas, such as not offering traffic updates. We love the ability to extensively tune the audio, but the car could do with better speakers and amp.
Performance tech is much better, starting with the turbocharged boxer-style engine. The all-wheel-drive system and wide track make for fantastic handling, and give it some extra safety in slippery conditions. The main drawback is the gearbox, which feels like it came from a truck.
As for design, we love a hatchback, and the looks of the WRX have grown on us. The wide body kit helps the design considerably. The touch-screen interface design is very intuitive to use, and shows nice aesthetics.
|Model||2011 Subaru Impreza WRX|
|Trim||Premium 5 door|
|Power train||Turbocharged 2.5-liter four cylinder engine, 5 speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||19 mpg city/25 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||17.3 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional with navigation|
|Disc player||Single MP3 compatible CD/DVD|
|MP3 player support||None|
|Other digital audio||Satellite radio, auxiliary audio input|
|Audio system||6 speakers|
|Price as tested||$30,690|