Automorbit, Cars – What if Tommi Mäkinen, one of Subaru’s former World Rally Championship drivers, somehow slid off the road in 2002 and became cryogenically frozen in a glacier for 18 years? If he were thawed out now, there would be much about this world he would not understand. What are these small screens everyone is carrying around? Who is Yeezy, and why is “zoom” being used as a noun? But there would be one thing our unfrozen Finnish rally driver would find comforting and familiar: the Subaru WRX.
That’s because Subaru’s signature performance car really hasn’t changed much since it arrived in the United States in 2002. It’s still a hot-rod version of a milquetoast compact sedan, an all-wheel-drive turbocharged gravel slayer with flared fenders and a hood scoop. Its turbo flat-four issues the same Red Baron air-attack grumble; the doors close with the same hollow ping. Horsepower hasn’t changed much, increasing modestly from 227 in 2002 to 268 now. But, amazingly, the price hasn’t changed much, either. The original U.S.-market WRX sedan started at $24,520 with a manual transmission. The entry point is now $28,395, which means that, after accounting for inflation, the WRX is actually a lot cheaper today than it was when Mäkinen was tearing up WRC stages. Good thing, too, because if you’ve been frozen in a glacier you probably wouldn’t have any money.
The current WRX is getting on in years, so Subaru decided to stoke interest with another of its many special editions, the 2020 Series.White. “Special edition” is often an oxymoron involving paint and badges, but the Series.White delivers some serious hardware (and, yes, Ceramic White paint). Add the $4200 package to a WRX Premium and you get yellow Bilstein dampers and Brembo brakes with red calipers, a performance combo that we like to call the ol’ mustard and ketchup. The interior gains suede-trimmed Recaro front seats, providing a grippy perch from which to gaze out over the WRX’s bulging front fenders. Chairs and flairs, baby.
Eighteen-inch matte bronze-painted BBS wheels (cast aluminum on the WRX, forged on the WRX STI version) harken back to Subie’s golden-wheeled WRX race cars of yore. Shod with 245/40R-18 Dunlop Sport Maxx RT summer tires, our test car posted a so-so 0.90 g of grip on the skidpad and came to a stop from 70 mph in a respectable 158 feet—in line with test results we’ve recorded for standard WRXs.
Along with LED headlights that swivel with the steering, that’s it for the Series.White’s driving-enhancement gear—unless you count addition by omission, by which we mean the mandatory moonroof delete. Why does it sound so much cooler to say a feature was deleted, rather than just not included? Forget to include a windshield on a car, and you’re “criminally negligent.” Build a car with no windshield on purpose, and it’s a coveted windshield-delete collector’s model. Anyway, Subaru will produce only 500 examples of the WRX Series.White (plus another 500 of the WRX STI iteration). The Series.White comes with six-speed manual transmission only. Much respect.
Consistent with the WRX’s consistency, its acceleration numbers ended up right about where we expected: a 5.2-second zero-to-60-mph run and a quarter-mile pass in 14.0 seconds at 97 mph. Our long-term 2015 WRX—which featured the same engine and six-speed transmission—reached 60 mph in 4.9 seconds when new. Then as now, that number reflects a sadistic, high-rpm clutch drop. Off-boost, the WRX doesn’t feel nearly that quick, as evidenced by its sedate 7.1-second 5-to-60-mph time. There’s still a satisfying surge of power when the dual-scroll turbocharger winds up, but driving smoothly takes practice. The engine tends to hang onto revs between gears, and the turbo suffers from a case of ragged wastegate; there are ebbs and surges in the power delivery as the engine management system attempts to maintain boost at a constant level. For a high-strung car, the WRX rewards patience. Slow down your shifts, resist the temptation to stab the accelerator, and you can hustle the WRX without snapping your neck. You wouldn’t want to learn how to drive stick on this car. Learn how to drive sideways on gravel, though? Yes.
Over the years, the WRX’s all-wheel-drive rally-themed competitors have come and gone—Ford Focus RS, we hardly knew ya—leaving it as the last car standing in a strange little niche. It sells better than you might think, but the numbers are trending down. Subaru sold 33,279 WRXs and STIs in 2016 but just 21,838 last year. We’d suspect the major reason for that is because, despite the WRX’s loyal following, there’s no compelling reason for an existing owner to buy a new one. Contrast the WRX’s sales trends with those of the Jeep Wrangler, another longtime one of one in its genre, and you see the difference between constant refinement and benign neglect.
In 2004, Jeep sold 77,550 Wranglers. Over the years, Jeep added a four-door variant, improved the engines and transmissions, and offered better tops and interiors. Last year, Wrangler sales tallied 228,032. Jeep recognized that cars stay on the road a long time, and absent external pressure, you’re competing with the vehicles you’ve already sold. Even if you’re the type of die-hard Subaru fan who gets excited about mud flaps and knows what Prodrive does, you’re not going to saddle up for a new payment on a machine that might not be much different than the one you already have.
The Series.White is a step in the right direction. The bigger leap should come next year, with a redesigned WRX that could finally up the game in a big way. The Series.White feels like it could handle 400 horsepower. Maybe someday soon, we’ll find out.