A few weeks back, I wrote a review on the latest Subaru WRX, explaining how the model is an all-season Canadian performance favourite, that the new one is improved in many areas where it needed to be, and in a few where it didn’t need to be.
I also wrote that it maintains the excellent real-world ride quality I’ve always loved it for and that it performs better and drinks less gas than ever.
I thought, overall, that this latest all-new WRX was the most compelling one yet.
I also talked some smack.
See, now the WRX is available with an automatic transmission for the first time ever. For years, it only came with a manual—meaning that only hardcore driving buffs of the highest order could drive one.
Adding an automatic, I figured, reduced the appeal of the WRX. Make it a bit less special. A bit less serious. Especially, I figured, since the automatic transmission now available bolted to the back of the WRX’s flat-four turbo was of the CVT variety.
I typically find CVT transmissions a bit yucky. They save fuel, but I figured, they don’t belong in a performance car since they don’t shift and don’t let you rip gears and typically replace repeated, escalating bursts of thrust through each gear into a boring, steady-RPM wave.
So, I sort of said something about WRX drivers valuing their manhood, and not wanting to set a bad example for young car-buff kids, and being sure to order their WRX with the manual. I was quick to dismiss the idea of CVT in a car like this.
On principle, since I, apparently, reduced myself to an Internet troll by talking smack about something I had no real idea about, since I hadn’t driven the WRX with the CVT yet.
It was my cell. Subaru PR read my review on the manual WRX. They wanted to make me eat my words, standing behind their new CVT transmission technology.
They insisted that I drive a WRX CVT, and that I’d like it.
I insisted that I wouldn’t.
They insisted right back on getting me into the same car, but with two pedals, not three, for a second opinion. I agreed, even though I figured I’d rather suffer scrotal frostbite than drive my most beloved of Canada-ready performance sedans with a transmission that had no gears.
So a week later, I’m driving the WRX again. Same seats. Same interior. Same horsepower. Same everything, other than the paddle shifters sprouting out behind the steering wheel and the automatic shifter on the console and nothing for my left foot to do but sit there like a sucker.
I learned a thing or two. Or three. Or four.
Since a CVT can whip up a nearly infinite number of gear ratios between an upper and lower limit, proper programming to control this capability makes all the difference.
When you accelerate gently, for instance, the WRX’s transmission glides seamlessly between a continually-varied range of gear ratios that see engine revs lock steadily into position, say, at 2,000 RPM.
The tachometer needle doesn’t flinch as you get up to speed. This saves fuel by eliminating the inefficient revving up and down characteristic of stepped transmissions. It’s smoother too, since there’s no shifting. You won’t notice this steady-rev acceleration if you’re not paying attention.
Press the throttle a little harder, and it pins the revs a bit higher, maybe 3,500 RPM, which gets the turbocharger all excited and fully spooled and keeps it there for maximum torque output. You know that happy place in the engine’s power-band where it’s making the most power? It gets the engine to that point, and keeps it there.
Drive with intent, that is, to hammer down, giver stink, or request the WRX to go like bananas, and the CVT adopts another control logic. It pretends to gear down, revs to near redline, and pulls off pretend upshifts in quick succession.
Of course, it doesn’t actually do any of that that since there are no gears, but since it can whip up any ratio it likes, it pretends to, and does a damn fine job of it. It feels like a close-ratio, fast-shifting automatic. Maybe, even, a dual-clutch gearbox.
There are some toggle-buttons on the steering wheel that allow drivers to call up 3 modes, altering the throttle, transmission and other calibrations into distinct setups. It’s that programming, again.
The standard mode is good for all-around driving, in town, or anywhere where an equal balance of fuel efficiency and performance is needed.
A good stomp on the throttle is needed to get the transmission into its fast-shifting power mode, and the steady-revving acceleration is prioritized.
Use ‘Sport’ mode to put more emphasis on the power delivery. When the CVT is in its lighter-throttle, steady-revving mode, it uses a few more revs to get the turbo more involved, adds, maybe, 500 RPM to the tachometer during cruising for more on-demand power, and kicks more easily into the fast-shift mode when you press gas.
Or, use Sport # (that’s Sport Sharp, for some reason), to put full emphasis on get up and go. Even a little press of the throttle sends the WRX along with amusingly exaggerated throttle response, and what seems like a shorter ‘first’ gear gets it out of the hole even faster.
On a track during an evening lapping session, your writer preferred Sport mode. It feels the most natural in terms of throttle response, keeps the full brunt of the engine’s 268 horsepower at the tips of your toes at all times, and basically feels just like an automatic that’s always in the right gear.
It’s entertaining to watch it pull off fake downshifts as you brake for a corner too, getting the revs up and your power ready to go the instant you need to fire out of the bend.
This all adds a layer of expertly-programmed, fool-proof performance to the WRX’s fool-proof chassis while eliminating the need for novice drivers to worry about what gear they’re in.
That’s good stuff, since as you learn the lines and apexes and timing and rhythm of braking and steering and accelerating, shifting can sometimes feel like one too many things to deal with, and this transmission feels like it knows what it’s doing.
That foolproof power delivery complements the foolproof chassis. Nothing upsets the WRX and, if you corner harder or faster, it just bites into the pavement with more urgency.
And though the brakes do work with minimal fade until you’ve pulled off numerous hard laps, I wondered if the automatically-downshifting CVT helped take some of the load off of the braking system for added durability.
Plus, since it shifts perfectly smooth, every time, there’s no axle braking effect which can upset the car’s weight balance at its limit.
So, there exist numerous reasons to take your WRX to the track-- and especially, to let the CVT help manage the experience for you, since it does a good job of it. And, it works well on the road too.
Oh, and it’s also better on fuel. On my watch, the manual-equipped model put away 9.6L/100km overall, which I figured was impressive for where and how I drive.
With the CVT, I measured a real-life consumption of 8.3L/100km, excluding the track session. Thank the very modest use of engine revs during gentle driving.
So I’ll eat some of my words, Subaru. Your CVT transmission is very well done. It makes the WRX smoother, better on fuel, more refined and even easier to access, performance wise, for novice drivers visiting a lapping day.
It’s foolproof, cleverly programmed and feels, at most every turn, expertly set up.
Would I buy one? No. I’m a die-hard gear-head and I’ll row ’em on my own until I can’t anymore. But this new CVT is, ultimately, going to help deliver the WRX driving experience to more shoppers than ever.
So will the WRX’s new lower price, since now, you can get into one from $30,000, with the six-speed manual.
- Engine: two-litre flat-four, turbocharged, 268 horsepower
- Drivetrain: symmetrical AWD
- Transmission: Lineartronic CVT
- Observed average mileage: 8.6L / 100km
- Features: bluetooth, LED headlamps, naviation, auto climate control, heated seats
- What’s hot: Slick and potent driveline, refined performance, great ride on rough surfaces, much-improved interior
- What’s not: will probably get you a speeding ticket, styling has become a little generic
- As tested: $36,795