Subaru added a little heat to its lineup Wednesday at the Los Angeles Auto Show, with the global introduction of the all-new 2015 WRX.
A turbocharged version of the compact Impreza, the WRX has earned a cult-like following by mixing all-wheel-drive handling and a high-strung four-cylinder in a practical car that starts at about $26,000. The 2014, offered in four-door form only, will also be offered in more extreme STI trim.
“The WRX is the everyman’s pocket rocket,” said Mike Wall, an analyst at IHS Automotive.
"The 2015 model will take the WRX nameplate to the next level," Tom Doll, president and chief operating office of Subaru of America, said at the unveiling of the WRX.
When the 2014 version goes on sale in the spring, it will face the delicate task of retaining the faithful while broadening appeal to more mainstream buyers.
Existing WRX fans should appreciate its new engine. A more efficient 2-liter turbocharged, four-cylinder unit replaces the outgoing 2.5-liter engine. This is essentially the same power plant that Subaru uses in the Forester compact SUV, which in turn is loosely based on the non-turbocharged version in the BRZ sports car.
The 2-liter boasts 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, gains of 3 horsepower and 14 pound-feet of torque over the previous WRX.
All-wheel-drive is standard, as is a manual transmission that picks up another gear, for a total of six. This model will turn zero-to 60-mph runs in 5.4 seconds, Subaru said.
With the smaller engine, fuel economy on manual transmission cars gets a boost. The outgoing model was rated at 19/25 miles per gallon in city/highway driving; the 2014 model is rated at 21/28 mpg.
Yet one of the key changes for 2014 is the addition of an optional continuously variable transmission (CVT), which acts like an automatic yet essentially has only one forward gear. CVTs are growing in popularity largely because they aid fuel economy.
Subaru added the CVT to the option list to broaden the WRX’s appeal, said Dominick Infante, head of Subaru’s communications.
The brand also needs to capture more buyers who don’t want to shift, Infante said. The outgoing WRX was been offered only with a manual transmission, though Subaru has offered an automatic on earlier generations.
"The products you see here today are a testament to knowing our customer and delivering to them more than their expectations," Doll said at the unveiling.
The CVT is a smart move for a brand seeking to broaden its customer base, given that manual gearboxes are increasingly out of fashion.
“They’re still going to offer the manual, so it’s not going to really tick off the true cult followers,” Wall said. “This will open the WRX to more of the masses.”
Subaru had added CVTs to nearly its entire lineup to offset the fuel economy penalty all-wheel-drive typically exacts. Although Subaru isn’t done testing the efficiency of the CVT, it expects to hit the 30 mpg mark for highway driving, Infante said.
Though CVTs are often derided as too soft for true performance cars, Subaru has taken several steps to help self-shifting WRX models maintain their street cred, Infante said. It will feature steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters, and when the WRX is in its performance mode, the transmission’s software will cause it to mimic an eight-speed manual and to blip the throttle during downshifts, mimicking a driver’s double-clutching in a manual. Expect a zero-to-60 mph time under six seconds for this gearbox.
During Wednesday’s launch, Doll touted the brand’s impressive growth. The company has already set an annual sales record in 2013 with two months to go, and sales are up 28% year to date. Sales have increased in each of the last six years, making Subaru one of the rare automakers that pushed through the recession without suffering sales losses.
The company has also become a darling of the automotive media, with the Forester garnering Motor Trend’s 2014 SUV of the year in October and Consumer Reports naming the Forester its favorite small SUV in May.
Introducing the WRX to the world at the L.A. show was a no-brainer, Infante said. The U.S. has always been a fan of the WRX, with about half of global sales on our shores. California itself has grabbed nearly 20% of WRX and STI sales year to date.
Plus, it never hurts an automaker’s image to introduce a vehicle like the WRX in the Golden State, Wall said. “There’s a certain cache to introducing a car out in California that’s aimed at the entire country.”
Additional reporting by Soumya Karlamangla.