Driven: 2023 Subaru WRX – Still a "Gateway Drug"

My first car was a 2003 Volkswagen Passat. It was, without a doubt, an irredeemable heap of crap. But it was also a gateway drug. With a torquey turbocharged engine and a manual transmission, I can’t help but think of my first dose of turbocharged fun when I drive the Subaru WRX. Obviously, the two cars have nothing in common except a turbocharger and a gear lever, but humans aren’t always the most logical creatures. That rush of torque the WRX delivers is still just as fun as the first time I drove a turbo’d car, and it’s easy to see why the ‘Rex is just as much “the answer” as a Miata to burgeoning enthusiasts and die-hards alike.
Subaru WRX 31 photos
Photo: Chase Bierenkoven/autoevolution
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Design Evaluation

Subaru got a lot of deserved flak when this current WRX debuted. Despite what are some definite improvements (structural rigidity, among others) there was- and there is still- no STI. The car looked weird, and I myself was more than vocal about the decisions made in the styling department at Subaru. While there certainly hadn’t been a “pretty” WRX since the original 2-door cars, this one just looked awkward. With some clarity, a few year’s distance, I’ve changed my tune.

Now, this is by no means admitting that the current WRX is a looker. The cladding is a little odd, but it’s very much in line with what’s going on at Subaru. Put this aside, and there really is not a lot to complain about. The WRX looks like a WRX, and I’m actually a fan of the way the design has smoothed out some. The hard lines and creases of the last car felt a little too HotBoi. On top of that, the cladding has the added effect of tricking your eyes into seeing a taller car- isn’t this a rally-bred car?

Interior Assessment

There’s a lot to like inside the new WRX too. For one, materials feel much improved. The car I tested was a Limited trim, which will run you $37,495. As such, the interior was as nice as it gets, with Ultrasuede-trimmed seats, a sunroof, and dual-zone climate control operated via Subaru’s new infotainment system.

Subaru WRX
Photo: Chase Bierenkoven/autoevolution
That system is the biggest complaint I’ve got. It already feels behind competitors, and while the climate controls are pinned to the screen, I’d happily take a smaller screen (a la comparable Hondas) in exchange for buttons. This is doubly true because this WRX did not project my phone onto the screen’s full dimensions, which left me squinting in a very geriatric way while trying to decipher the screen’s text. Its angle also means that in certain instances it is downright unreadable thanks to reflections.

Despite that, the seats are comfy, the driving position is solid (if a little high), and everything else inside the car is very easy to use. There’s also plenty of room for small items, even if some water bottles may become an arm obstacle course when you go to change gears.

Driving Take

It’s great to row your own gears in 2023. I’m lucky enough that I’ve had a pretty good run of stick press cars of late. I drove the new Civic Si (see also: Integra), GR 86, GR Corolla, and the Mazda Miata. That’s kind of unfortunate for Subaru because this manual is probably the worst-feeling of them all. The mechanism already had play in it in my loaner car, and the lever felt like pushing around a piece of PVC pipe.

But the WRX is still the WRX. It’s the default for a reason, and I can’t understate what a gateway drug this car is. Subaru says changes to the turbo and 276-hp flat-four have resulted in a wider torque curve, but you’re not really in the boost until around 3,000 rpm. I like it that way. The car feels a little more peaky, and you’ve got to drive with that in mind if you’re after maximum speed. Plus, there’s the classic flat-four growl- though I swear some of it is made with a circuit board rather than metal.

While the shifter is a bit of a letdown, the confidence-inspiring grip thanks to the AWD system is definitely not. The WRX feels incredibly neutral to drive quickly, and at any sane speed, you’ve just got to point the car at a corner and wait for the AWD to figure its way around it. The car is best driven with the mindset of a front-wheel drive hot hatch (RIP to the WRX hatch). Use lots of trail braking, and letting the grip do the work while you manage the boost. This kind of driving is what got me into cars in the first place. It’s a great reminder that you don’t need big skids and 600 horsepower to have fun.

Of course, that driving style tends to be a little hard on the brakes, and after around 45 minutes of hard driving in the canyons, I could smell the toll this driving had taken. The pedal got all soft, and it’s very obvious that a serious brake upgrade would be a must for anyone driving their WRX hard, much less tracking one.

Subaru WRX
Photo: Chase Bierenkoven/autoevolution

Everyday Living

I neglected to mention the dampers or ride in the section above simply because they held up very well at higher speeds in the canyons. However, at lower, more civil speeds, we’ve got a problem. The ride feels busy, not stiff-yet-planted like the Integra or Type R. Thankfully, this feels like something that can be fixed with some changes to compression and rebound (or spring) rates- it’s by no means a fatal flaw, especially for a car starting close to $30K.

Fuel economy is about what you’d expect. I got around 25 MPG combined, which for a thirsty, full-time AWD performance car isn’t so bad. I suspect if you short-shift the crap out of this thing, you could convince yourself the car will do 30 mpg on the highway. Still, it’s not worth it to forgo the shove of boost.

Subaru has also made massive strides in the WRX’s civility, low-speed ride quality aside. I was truly shocked at how quiet the cabin was, especially given the WRX’s relatively featherweight curb weight (3,390 per Subie). You can also fit anything you want in the trunk, and my full-size mountain bike fits with the wheel off.

Test Drive Roundup

All this leaves the WRX exactly where it has been for the last 20 or more years. This car is a seriously fast, practical performance car that provides a fun, engaging driving experience. Yes, there are a few foibles, but for less than the price of a tricked-out Civic Type R, you’re looking at a car that will compete with it, across all four seasons. It’s no wonder the WRX is the default and it continues to serve as an excellent entry point to quick cars, wrenching, and more. Long live the ‘Rex.

Subaru WRX
Photo: Chase Bierenkoven/autoevolution
  • The WRX is what it has always been
  • AWD fun
  • Fantastic pedal placement
  • Boxer go brrrrrrr
  • Janky ride at low speeds
  • Lego shifter
  • Weak infotainment
  • No physical climate controls
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About the author: Chase Bierenkoven
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Chase's first word was "truck," so it's no wonder he's been getting paid to write about cars for several years now. In his free time, Chase enjoys Colorado's great outdoors in a broken German sports car of some variety.
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