The MH Motoring Minute: Subaru WRX ES Premium CVT

The WRX is an oldie, but it's still a goodie. Here’s why.

Arthur Jones |

Review: 7-day test drive
Engine: 2litre, 4-cylinder turbocharged Boxer petrol
Power: 197kW, 350Nm
Price: R638 000 (CVT), R588 000 (Manual)

Nostalgia works like Polyfilla when it comes to memories. Those rose-tinted, hazy memories and good times are so compelling that they can round out rough edges and blur bad memories. Case in point – the legendary Scooby WRX STi with its signature blue paintwork and gold rims and ridiculously big spoiler forms part of many petrol heads’ misty memories – and for good reason. It was a fire-breathing four-wheeler with plenty of put-foot power and grippy character.

Related: The MH Motoring Minute: Subaru Forester 2.0i-S CVT

That legendary status is a double-edged sword though, as while it created a cult following in the motoring-mad, it also created a very high standard for any predecessors that displayed the WRX badges. To be fair, this WRX ES Premium isn’t the certifiably mad STi version, but it still has a powerful engine, the asymmetrical four-wheel drive, and a suitably fast-looking sports sedan exterior. The biggest question: can this WRX offer a dynamic, engaging drive for the purist, but still be used practically every day? The answer is yes (mostly), but there are drawbacks.

The biggest one: this is an old car. Yes, there are plenty of tweaks and upgrades, but most of them are cosmetic and superficial. Granted, it’s safer, more tech-laden, has better suspension, and has a much better interior, so it’s not all bad. The second drawback: the price. While you’re getting a powerful car and a great driving experience, it’s a relatively heavy price tag. The manual is cheaper, and in our mind, is a better option for the purist. And on that note: the last drawback: the CVT Lineartronic gearbox. Yes, it’s better than most systems (and it offers paddles which work well), but it does detract from the driving experience and it doesn’t seem to help with fuel efficiency.

Related: The MH Motoring Minute: Ford Everest Limited 3.2 4WD

However, there are plenty of positives, starting with the looks. Subaru has nailed a more sophisticated feel with the WRX, so even though it still has the requisite boy-racer characteristics (bonnet scoop, front splitter, rear diffuser and more), the lines are more mature and the whole package is more cohesive and refined. It will turn heads, especially of the petrolhead variety, and for good reason.

The inside is well-specced too. The build quality is surprisingly good, and it is shoehorned with tech and plush leather. The small LCD info display in the instrument cluster works well in tandem with the bigger, 7-inch touchscreen and the small digital panel on the dashboard, and there’s plenty of techie goodness: Apple Carplay and Android Auto compatibility and voice-activated Siri Eyes Free. This tech trend extends through to the safety side of things too, as there are plenty of acronyms (ABS with ABD and more) along with adaptive cruise control, seven airbags, and Isofix chair mounts. The excellent seven-speaker Harman Kardon sound system is powerful (440 watts) and crystal clear.

But the real kicker: the focus on driver’s enjoyment is still emphatically there. This is a straight-forward, blue-collar type muscle car which aims to upset its more expensive peers in pure driving joy for both beginner and elite drivers, and in that goal, it does well. The engine is a free-revving beauty that wants to be pushed, and the grippy four-wheel drive and tight suspension offer real satisfaction in the twisty bits – especially when you’re in Sport mode, or even better, the SportSharp mode.

The only decision you need to make: CVT or manual. The CVT is undoubtedly more practical in traffic and daily life and is studded with more tech, but the manual offers an even more engaging drive (and is cheaper). We know which one we’d choose. And of course, there’s still the epic full-blown STi to consider …

PROS: Excellent handling, suspension, and grip; Sharp, more mature looks; Brilliant sound system; Decent boot and interior space; Smart stable of tech options.

CONS: Outdated; CVT option is expensive and dilutes the driving enjoyment; Heavy on petrol.

WHAT WE LOVE: The honest, unbridled joy in hitting the right revs in the right corners.

RATING: 6.5/10

COMPETITORS: Honda F-Civic Type R (R691 300); Volkswagen GTI (R681 000); Audi S3 Sedan (R681 000)

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