Test Drive: 2017 Subaru WRX Sport-Tech CVT

“Is that your Subaru?”

A couple of young lads sporting reversed baseball caps (signifying a certain degree hipness, I assume) caught me off-guard in the grocery store parking lot.

“Ah, yeah.”

“Nice. What year?”

“2017,” I replied.

They both nodded in a reverential way and strolled on. I felt like following them and blurting, “But guys, its just the WRX, not the STI, and this one has a slurring continuously variable transmission. I’m a complete fake. I DON’T EVEN OWN IT!”

But I didn’t. Because I’m a complete fake. Such is the nature of this business. One week I’m a vasectomized dad in a minivan and the next a prick in a Porsche.

This week I’m the guy riding the Subaru fence, right between the standard 148 hp Impreza sedan and the hardcore 305 hp STI. Okay, the 268 hp WRX is way more STI than cooking Impreza sedan, on which both are based. All we have to do is ask those dudes in the parking lot. With its blistered fenders, side skirts, 18-inch Enkei gunmetal alloys and massive functional hood scoop, this top-trim 2017 WRX Sport-Tech CVT at $37,395 walks the walk big-time.

The 2017 Subaru WRX starts at $29,995 and comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission that gets revised shift action for this year. A continuously variable transmission is optional. Three words – buy the manual. Three more words – avoid the CVT. 

But first the good stuff. The WRX has acutely accurate steering and a fine chassis that, in concert with Subaru’s excellent full-time all-wheel drive, loves to be leaned on. It’s a blast to chuck down a back road, and it also tracks straight and true on the highway. The low cowl and thin A-pillars translate to excellent visibility and the WRX’s 268 hp 258 lb-ft 2.0L turbo flat-four is a sonorous little powerhouse that delivers its good in a linear rush. Yes, the ride is a bit stiff and exhaust drone is your constant companion, but you bought a performance sedan, right?

History of the Flat-Four: Evolution of the Subaru Boxer

That’s what I was thinking right after I picked up my grey $37,395 WRX Sport-Tech CVT and lined up next to a first-gen Toyota Prius at a stop light. All I had to do was squirt ahead of this pokey eco impedance and tuck in front to make the quick right just up ahead. Easy peasy. The light changes, my foot goes down and… nothing. By the time the engine spooled up and the CVT put down the newspaper and decided somebody up there wanted some giddy-up, I was looking at the Prius’ taillights. A first-gen!

So I stopped, got out, picked my cojones up off the pavement and drove off. Did I mention that bit about getting the six-speed manual transmission with your WRX? Well, if I didn’t I will now. Get the six-speed. I would have smoked that Prius into the middle of next week if I’d had a clutch pedal. But I didn’t. Get the six-speed.

Fair enough, some people don’t want to shift, and I like a good dual-clutch or finely engineered manumatic (ZF take a bow) as much as the next guy or gal. But here the CVT saps away a majority of the fun. Subaru has programmed in virtual gears – it mimics either a six-speed or eight-speed – and if you’re just tootling around town or on a leisurely cruise all is well. However, when calling for action (and that is what you buy a WRX for) lag becomes your enemy. Despite the somewhat defined  virtual gearing the CVT will still slur around on its own volition depending on how much boot you give it.

Tapping the shifter to the left puts the CVT in manual mode which gives more control with the shift paddles, yet it never feels truly authentic.

Subaru offers three drive modes (normal/sport/sport#) that vary steering feel, throttle response and transmission mapping. Again, the sharpened throttle response is essentially neutered by the cog-less slush-box – you just end up burning more fuel because the engine sits at higher revolutions.

That said, when the engine and tranny are on the same page this rowdy little sedan is mighty quick. And its rallying DNA shines through when lasering down a twisty road. The WRX and big-brother STI trade on their rough-edged exuberance, and in this world of homogenized motoring these two defiantly stand apart – with their ball caps on backwards.

You hear a lot of whining about Subaru’s interior quality, but really, there’s not much to complain about here. Driving position is good and a nicely contoured wheel fills the paws. The illuminated red gauges are clear and the controls for HVAC and audio make sense. The piano-black and faux carbon-fibre trim look just fine. Atop the dash is a digital screen displaying time, outside temperature, HVAC and trip computer info. The colourful graphics keep things cheery. 

The upper dash surfaces are soft touch, but things get more plasticky as you head south. Some of the “metal” trim is a bit suspect too, but as a functional working environment, the cabin works.

This top-spec Sport-Tech gets all the goodies like leather, a 7-inch touchscreen (up from 6.2-inch in the WRX and WRX Sport), proximity key with push button start, 18-inch wheels, Siri Eyes and Mirror Link compatibility, SiriusXM Traffic and Travel Link, plus a 9-speaker 440 watt Harman Kardon audio system (that is just average).

I think the Subaru WRX is a cool car – a welcome and, yes, quirky and compromised respite to formulaic fare. With the improved-for-2016 manual shift action, it can only be more fun. Not everybody can live with an STI, and this where the WRX steps in with its lower sticker and more manageable personality. It can still be your willing and raucous ally on a B-road, yet deliver the kids and Costco haul in reasonable comfort. With a set of winter tires, the WRX would be unstoppable. 

However, the optional CVT is a $1,300 hit to both your wallet and the essence of the car. Get the six-speed manual.

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance

Competitors:
Honda Civic Si
Volkswagen GLI / GTI

 

2017 Subaru WRX Sport-Tech CVT
articles_PricingType 2017 Subaru WRX Sport-Tech CVT
Base Price $37,395
Optional Equipment none
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,650
Price as Tested $39,145
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 6.6
8 Exterior Styling
6 Performance
6 Interior
6 Comfort
7 Fuel Economy