In a move that some are calling controversial, Subaru Canada has begun arming their sales staff with semi-automatic pistols. Should you walk into your local dealership and enquire about the new WRX, expect to be forced at gunpoint to sign on the dotted line for one fitted with the company’s Sport Lineartronic automatic transmissions – a CVT.

Oh wait, that’s ridiculous.

And yet, judging by the hue and cry from the enthusiast community, Subaru’s decision to saddle up their rally rocket with an entirely optional continuously variable transmission is utter heresy. Why, they might as well have done away with the hood scoop, or changed the name of “World Rally Blue” to “Periwinkle,” or made the thing into a compact crossover. The DNA of Dubya-Ar-Ex doesn’t appear to have room for a funny rubber-band transmission. Buy the stick-shift, or turn in your man-card.

What nonsense. While your humble author will personally give up the keys to his manual-transmission-equipped car when a crowbar is applied to his cold, dead hands, the existence of a WRX with a CVT is good for the car, the brand, the Subaru enthusiast community, and even grassroots motorsport. Because here’s the thing everybody forgets about rubber bands: if they’re strong enough, you can make a slingshot out of one. Subaru just did.

So what’s a Sport Lineartronic CVT, you ask? That’s just the proprietary marketing mumbo-jumbo Subaru’s come up with their belt-driven transmission, which uses a metal drivebelt connecting two hydraulically variable pulleys. Think of it like the front and rear sprockets on a mountain bike, except with a theoretically infinite range of gears between the top and bottom ratios.

CVT technology has been around since the ’60s, and previously showed up in Subarus like the Justy. Equipped with an electrically controlled version of the CVT, the Justy is not really fit to be driven by anyone, and should you come across one please set it on fire and push it off the nearest available cliff, just to be on the safe side.

The version now found in the WRX is, thankfully, considerably more advanced. It’s very similar to the CVT used in the turbocharged variant of the current Forester, albeit with slightly different programming, and does a pretty good job of emulating the staged shifts of a normal automatic transmission. There are three modes of responsiveness, with I-for-intelligent providing maximum fuel economy, S-for-sport holding the middle ground, and S#-for-even-sportier maximizing responsiveness and opening up access to eight set ratios through the steering wheel–mounted paddle shifters. The automatic option also means you get a slightly different all-wheel-drive system that’s a bit more advanced. Dubbed Variable Torque Distribution AWD, it uses an electrically controlled centre differential to shunt the power fore and aft, as compared to the manual car’s viscous coupling.

2015 Subaru WRX CVT engine bay2015 Subaru WRX CVT dashboard
2015 Subaru WRX CVT engine bay, dashboard. Click image to enlarge

The car that’s wrapped around this divisive gearbox is a considerable improvement over the old model, but also a bit rougher around the edges than something like the new VW GTI. The exterior design is a bit homogenous, aside from the hood scoop, even with those fender-flares. The WRX looks a bit like a Civic, a bit like a Fusion, and with the four exhaust pipes out back, a bit like a 2008 Nissan Maxima. It’s nowhere near as good looking as the concept version was, but we never really expected it to be. [Speak for yourself… I was crushed. –Ed.]

I like that. Want to alert every police officer within radar range as to your hooliganistic intentions? Strap on a wing and blingy gold rims and you’ll have an STI – in the impound lot. Want to fly under the radar? The WRX is no more aggressive-looking than most of today’s crop of angular compact sedans, and comes fitted with 17×8-inch smoked-finish alloys that look like they were stolen off a Honda Accord. It’s practically subtle. (Oh, and by the way, Canadians can buy our STIs without the wing.)

In fact, the only real complaint about the WRX’s new exterior is the lack of a hatchback model. This is utterly unforgivable – I know there are things like R&D budgets, and economies of scale and all the rest of it, but the WRX has been available in hatchback/wagon form since the first car rolled off the line in 1992. It’s a major bummer that this WRX breaks with that tradition, and slightly puzzling given that fully half of all WRX sales in North America are of the five-door variant. Pitchfork and torch resources need to be diverted from complaining about the CVT to complaining about this – not that it’ll do any good.

Having said that, the drive is so much improved that you might just have to fit a Thule carrier box on the roof and make the best of it. The interior, too, is a major improvement, and not just in fit and finish and material quality. There’s more space in the back seat, and the doors open a little wider, making the car a bit better as a kid-carrier. Rear legroom is up by nearly 50 mm, meaning adults fit a little more comfortably, and there’s about 20L more trunk space.

The basic radio still looks like something you’d get in a mid-2000s car, and the backup camera is extremely small, but the WRX is now at least middle of the road in terms of interior quality. There are no mechanical differences in the three trim levels available, just niceties such as a power moonroof and power driver seat (as found here in this Sport trim tester), or leather seating and navigation as found on the Sport-tech model. Essentials like heated seats, aluminum pedals, and a quite nicely finished sport steering wheel are all available on the base model, which now represents decent value tucked just under the $30K mark.

2015 Subaru WRX CVT rear seats2015 Subaru WRX CVT trunk
2015 Subaru WRX CVT rear seats, trunk. Click image to enlarge

A proper WRX should be a true dual-purpose vehicle, so the first test of this CVT-equipped machine is to tackle some boring highway motoring. Here, it is surprisingly loud – not engine noise, but fairly pervasive tire roar from the 235-series Dunlop summer rubber. It’s not unbearable, but it is noticeable, and might be wearing on a longer commute. However, wind-noise is minimal, and the CVT’s I-mode keeps the rpm clamped down when cruising. Note that the official fuel economy figures of 11 L/100 km city and 7.9 L/100 km highway are actually generated in the middle S-mode, and are measured under the new, more accurate five-cycle test. Observed mileage was closer to 9 L/100 km in mixed use, and much of that with a relatively heavy foot.

No matter the transmission you choose, this new direct-injected 2.0L pancake-four engine is an absolute peach. With the turbocharger now mounted underneath the engine, it spools in a heartbeat, and provides whooshing, boosty thrust that anyone who owns a laggy early WRX will envy.

It cranks out 270 hp, which is only a few more than the previous 2.5L lump, but the torque delivery makes even the STI’s flat-four feel like it runs on coal. From just 2,000 rpm, a stout 258 lb-ft of torque is available in a broad plateau that means you don’t have to wait to spin up past 4,000 rpm. Power does tail off past 6,000 rpm, but a conversation with WRX project chief Masuo Takatsu hinted that there’s still considerable power available to be unlocked. Doubtless tuners like Cobb and Perrin are already working on software that’ll let the 2.0L motor push to levels past the 300 hp mark – though Takatsu wouldn’t say how much Subaru left on the table. Even factory stock with no warranty-voiding tomfoolery attempted, it’s a great motor.

The only real lag in the response here is imparted by the CVT, which even in S# mode seems to take a second to connect to the swiftly revving engine in off-the-line acceleration. To come back to the slingshot analogy again, it’s almost like having to pull back on the rubber band before shooting off down the road. Doing a quick three-point turn is a bit frustrating.

But once she’s up and on the boil, look out. Handily, Subaru sticks the controls to switch between driving modes right on the steering wheel under your right thumb, so you can quickly flick it into attack mode to blast past someone, and then snick back into cruise mode when you’re done – you don’t have to do so as that torque is ready to go underfoot, but it’s nice to have easy access to swap between the modes.

2015 Subaru WRX CVT2015 Subaru WRX CVT
2015 Subaru WRX CVT. Click image to enlarge

I next sought out a lightly used strip of forest tarmac that was twisted, cracked, and rumpled like the shed skin of some giant asphalt snake: WRX territory, in other words. Here, the WRX’s new chassis and steering showed their mettle – an STI might be able to stretch a lead on the track thanks to its superior differentials, but the WRX’s real world grip is excellent. The brake-based torque-vectoring front end works in a similar manner to that found on the Focus ST or the new GTI, and allows the car to turn in where a previous generation of WRX will wash wide. It’s like having the ability to left-foot brake only the inside wheel, and paired with the all-wheel-drive grip and stiff suspension it’s outstanding.

Oh right, the suspension. Because the CVT-equipped WRX isn’t any softer than the normal car, that means it comes fitted with a very stiff ride. If the old cars felt like they were comfortably set up for gravel rally, this new one feels like a dedicated tarmac car, and can punish you over the rough stuff. It’s nice that there’s no handling demerit for choosing the automatic option, but it wouldn’t have been the worst move in the world to offer the leather-equipped loaded models with a softer, touring suspension.

But if I had any reservations about how a CVT might negatively affect the performance characteristics of one of the quickest point-to-point cars money can buy, they’ve long-since evaporated. A CVT might be the sort of thing you expect to find propelling a Bombardier snowmobile, but if any car’s a snowmobile, it’s a WRX. Because it’s constantly hooked up without shifting gaps, the turbo can stay spooled up, and those paddle shifters effect quick slides into whichever gear you choose.

It’s simply a blast, and while it won’t replace that directly connected feeling you get from driving a six-speed manual transmission, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun. If you showed up at your local rallycross even in one of these, not having to think about the correct gear to be in might actually make you quicker than the guys who are going to miss a shift or two.

In short, should I peer into the cabin of a new WRX to see that there’s a PRND console instead of a six-speed, I won’t look down my nose at its owner. Instead, I’ll simply nod, say, “Nice car,” and possibly add, “Can you believe they don’t make it in a wagon any more?”

2015 Subaru WRX CVT2015 Subaru WRX CVT
2015 Subaru WRX CVT. Click image to enlarge
Manufacturer’s Website:
Subaru Canada

Photo Gallery:
2015 Subaru WRX CVT

Crash Test Results:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

Pricing: 2015 Subaru WRX CVT
Base Price: $29,995
Options: $3,800 (Sport package [power driver’s seat, trunk spoiler, LED headlights, fog-lights, automatic headlights] – $2,500; CVT automatic – $1,300)
Freight: $1,695
A/C Tax: $100
Price as tested: $35,590

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