2023 Subaru WRX: Does this aging dog still have a few new tricks up its sleeve?

By J.G. Pasterjak
Aug 4, 2023 | Subaru, FIRM, WRX, subaru wrx, New Car Review, Track Test, Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park | Posted in Features | From the June 2023 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Courtesy Subaru

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It’s the Rocky Balboa of sports sedans. At one point in its history, the Subaru WRX was on top of the world, defining an emerging genre of rally-inspired performance sedans and spurring a new generation of enthusiasts. 

But that was a long time ago. 

The world changed, but Rocky clung to past glories. Newer, fitter, more exciting fighters entered the ring and took away the aging champion’s crown, but every now and then, the old guy still proves he knows how to throw a punch.

Okay, enough with the metaphors: The latest WRX is here, and it’s … pretty okay? Age has turned the once-aggro street fighter into a dad-bod cruiser with some tacked-on fender flares reminiscent of that time your old man donned cargo shorts and half asked, half declared, “These are still cool, right?”

While this all sounds dire, but it’s really not. Despite the WRX losing some of its edginess, the competence is still very present, and the accessibility of that competence is maybe as good as it’s ever been.

Inside the Ring

Anyone familiar with modern Subarus will feel right at home behind the wheel of the new WRX. It’s mostly comfy, with some Recaro buckets providing firm support but favoring leggier drivers. It still sports more than a few traditional buttons and switches despite the large, vertical DIC screen, which dominates the center of the dash. 

The wheel is adequately thick and flat-bottomed, which is nice since the wheel-to-seat distance is closer than some of us would prefer for proper aggression, and all three pedals are well placed and weighted.

Yep, three pedals: The WRX is available with a traditional six-speed manual. Unlike much of its competition–think GTI or Elantra N–however, the Subaru’s shiftless option is not a paddle-operated dual clutch but rather a CVT that still has paddles for, uh, some reason?

Transmission operation on our six-speed-equipped tester was perfectly fine, even if it requires an early shift to third on many autocross courses. Luckily, the shift action is good enough that–whether you’re rowing up or down–won’t be too much of a detriment.

The latest Subaru WRX features a lot of familiar DNA, including that turbocharged flat-four, all-wheel grip and a comfortable interior. It makes for a near-perfect daily driver, although we’d make some chassis changes before heading to the track. Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

As a real car, though, the WRX feels solid. Remember, this is an Impreza, after all. It’s a supremely competent, five-passenger sedan with a large trunk and split folding rear seats for even more pass-through space. This version just augments the basics with touches of sporty and functional flair, like the grippy suede on the seats or the carbon accents in the dash.

Like previous WRXs, the newest model is held up by struts all around. In our testing, the front end showed a severe lack of static camber out of the showroom. This manifested in a heavy understeer tendency at the limit, along with some well-worn outside tire edges, but the good news here is the handling is benign and predictable. With 3400 pounds of car and 271 horsepower to motivate it, the chassis doesn’t have much hard work to do aside from managing that mass. 

As a result, the WRX ends up as a sporty–although not too sporty–cruiser on the road, but on track it just feels soft. Don’t read that as bad, though. While the WRX exhibits a lot of roll and isn’t quick to respond to inputs, the feedback is excellent through both the wheel and the motion of the chassis. 

The limits may not be high, but the car tells you about everything it’s doing. As such, it allows you to wring out what feels like everything the car has to offer without ever worrying you’re on the ragged edge.

That 271 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque are delivered from a familiar-looking, 2.4-liter flat-four mounted well toward the front of the car and driving all four wheels. In this case, the wheels are shod with 245/40R18 Dunlop rubber.

The engine is well suited to the chassis, placing its power and torque down low in the rev range, where it’s always accessible. There’s almost no perceptible turbo lag unless you catch it sleeping in a higher gear. 

Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

Go to the Cards

All those factors add up to a car that performs well on the street but gives up some ultimate performance on track. While the speed may not be there, the drivability is. The ability to access every bit of the WRX’s limits is easy to unlock, which is great, but that joy is tempered by those limits being lower than we hoped, given the WRX’s pedigree.

The front end takes a lot of the credit and blame for the benign but slow result. The WRX’s tendency to understeer at the limit is the natural fuse in the system, making that limit easy to approach but ultimately curbing cornering speed. 

The all-wheel-drive system does a bit to stabilize the car through the mid-corner and exit areas, but the ample curb weight and modest power don’t really put any strains on traction in dry conditions to begin with. 

A hypothetical front-wheel-drive WRX equipped with a good LSD would likely be just as fast and easy to drive through a corner in the dry, without the added complications or weight of the AWD system. But in limited-traction scenarios, the WRX’s all-wheel drive shines, as it always has.

Photography Credit: Dave Green

On our official test track at the Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park, the WRX put down a decent but disappointing lap. We say decent because the car’s low limits and all that understeer don’t lead you to expect much from the stopwatch, but the times are actually fairly respectable given the specs and layout. Still, it’s disappointing because the WRX does lag behind some of what we consider its primary competition.

The WRX’s 1:24.44 places it about 1 second ahead of the Honda Civic Si but a good second behind the current Mk8 VW GTI. It’s nearly 3 seconds off the pace of the previous Honda Civic Type R as well as the latest Hyundai Elantra and Veloster N variants. 

[How we track test cars and what the numbers mean]

As early as the first big acceleration zone, we can see the WRX’s power advantage (blue trace) over the Honda Civic Si (red trace) as the new Subaru quickly opens up a gap (1). But when we hit the fast right-hand kink of the FIRM’s Turn 4, the Honda requires less slowing to negotiate the corner (2); this trend plays out through many subsequent corners. In the long, left-hand Turn 8, the Honda manages slightly higher speeds, but the Subaru’s excellent stability is evident in its much less dramatic speed trace (3).

We have to believe that some chassis tuning, additional negative camber and less roll-prone front tires would reduce that understeer and lead to higher cornering speeds and lower lap times, but out of the box, the WRX is its own worst enemy when it comes to the clock. It’s a friendly enemy, to be sure, but ultimately that front end makes for a hard cap on cornering speed.

Don’t take this criticism too harshly. The WRX is a car that’s pretty much good at everything but not truly great at anything. It doesn’t have the laser-fine steering of the Hyundais, the anchorlike brakes of the GTI, or the rocket-sled, second-gear pull of the Type R, but it never tries to bite you, either. 

As such, it’s a great car for novice track drivers who want to experience solid dynamics with no bad habits. Although there’s a lot of understeer, you can still use the brakes to load the chassis and improve turn-in. Those brakes aren’t exactly the arresters enjoyed by some of the competition, but they modulate nicely, and pedal pressure and throw is great for heel-and-toe work on the downshifts.

Through and out of the corners, the understeer keeps things from getting too dicey, and the engine, while not particularly torquey, mixes good response with a 2000 rpm torque peak to always serve as a friendly companion to balance the chassis–or at least manage that understeer. 

Ultimately, you’ll only ever go as fast through the twisties as the front tires allow you, but feeling that edge comes with no drama and lots of confidence.

Going Toe to Toe

Look, the WRX is one of the cars that defined our scene, and if this latest version is no longer an influencer, it’s absolutely still a valued part of the conversation. 

Rocky may not have been able to win the fight when he made a comeback in his 50s, but he landed some good shots, proving that he still deserved to be regarded as one of the best to ever strap on the gloves. 

That’s where the WRX is at the moment. It may have lost a step in its seniority, but the moves that made it the defining factor in the conversation are still there, just dulled a bit by time.

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NickD MegaDork
5/9/23 9:53 a.m.

Saw a couple of them up close in the flesh for the first time this weekend at a Cars & Coffee. Holy cow, they look awful. Just really cheap and awkward and unharmonious. None of it seems to work well. 

MrStickShift Reader
5/9/23 11:39 a.m.

I rode in one about a month ago, it was the mid-level, 6-speed manual. I own an 05, my dad an 06, and it felt alot like my 05, and his 06. The turn signal stalk was really odd, and the body cladding was ugly. It drove great though.

jharry3 GRM+ Memberand Dork
5/9/23 11:55 a.m.

Subaru is clinging to the past with the WRX (IMO).  

z31maniac MegaDork
5/9/23 1:18 p.m.

Isn't the '23 a relatively new platform? Vs something like a Challenger that is still living on a Mercedes SUV chassis from the 90s?

CyberEric Dork
7/9/23 4:17 p.m.

I had the same thought. What is old about this WRX, other than the name?

kanaric SuperDork
7/10/23 12:44 p.m.

I drove one of these and it still felt like a WRX. On top of that I see a lot around where I live about the same number I seen I every generation of WRX so I think it must still have appeal. I wonder how it sells? 

In reply to jharry3 :

I feel the opposite with this car. They very clearly are trying to make it more like an Audi Allroad or something like that. I think they are pulling a Ford and trying to make everything a crossover and this is their attempt at that with the WRX.

DirtyBird222 PowerDork
7/10/23 1:31 p.m.
kanaric said:

I drove one of these and it still felt like a WRX. On top of that I see a lot around where I live about the same number I seen I every generation of WRX so I think it must still have appeal. I wonder how it sells? 

In reply to jharry3 :

I feel the opposite with this car. They very clearly are trying to make it more like an Audi Allroad or something like that. I think they are pulling a Ford and trying to make everything a crossover and this is their attempt at that with the WRX.

Subaru is still clinging to their past and doesn't know their way. They are losing their appeal as a nature/pet friendly brand because they haven't innovated in over a decade. They are simply selling the WRX as an homage to their old motorsports days with the hopes that their old fan base buys on nostaligia and the youngings buy because it appeals to a weird niche. I used to love me some Subaru but man they are going to turn into Mitsubishi soon. 

With that being said, I've seen a few new ones around. It's def a polarizing look. I don't think it's as bad in person but it is still not good. Looks like the interior got some much needed upgrades tho so theres that. 

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