Rating: 8.5
Bottom Line:
Subaru has taken the exciting WRX and made it better in just about every way.
Pros:
  • Quiet, solid ride
  • Amazing cornering ability
  • Extremely fun to drive
Cons:
  • No hatchback
  • CVT takes some getting used to
  • Engine noisy at high rpm

It's been 12 years since Subaru finally brought the rally-bred WRX to American shores, much to the delight of car enthusiasts who had spent years yearning to own the high-performance all-wheel-drive sedan. Now those same enthusiasts — and other drivers who want a sporty, practical ride — should be rejoicing as Subaru brings out an all-new WRX.

It didn't take much time behind the wheel during our press drive to realize that this new version is the best WRX ever. Although horsepower is up slightly from the previous generation, considerable work has been done to make this WRX ride and handle better than any predecessor. The reworked chassis is stiffer and new active torque vectoring combines with Subaru's AWD system to noticeably improve handling.

One major change that may not go over well with WRX fans: The 5-door hatchback is discontinued and the new WRX will be available only as a sedan. According to Subaru, 50 percent of current WRX sales are the hatchback, but the company felt it was worth sacrificing the hatchback in order to apply all its resources to making major improvements to the WRX.

Subaru is also looking to distance the new WRX from the standard Impreza. The new model will be called the WRX (not Impreza WRX), and aside from the windows and roof, no body panels are shared between the two models.

View Pictures:  2015 Subaru WRX

Model lineup
The WRX will be available in three different trims: base, Premium and Limited.

All 2015 WRX models sport a new aluminum hood with an integrated scoop to push fresh air into the intercooler, as well as front-fender side vents and quad tailpipe outlets.

The base WRX is well equipped with an AM/FM stereo with HD radio and a single-disc in-dash CD player, Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming, iPod control capability, sport cloth front seats, a rear-vision camera, a 6-speed manual transmission, a sport-tuned suspension, 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels fitted with 235/45 R17 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx RT tires and, of course, Subaru's legendary symmetrical all-wheel-drive system.

Upgrading to the WRX Premium adds an All-Weather package that includes heated seats, heated mirror and windshield-wiper deicers, fog lights, a power moonroof and a low-profile trunk spoiler.

The WRX Premium can also be equipped with Subaru's Sport Lineartronic automatic transmission with the SI-Drive performance management system, as well as paddle shifters on the steering column.

The top-of-the-line Limited gets leather trim, an 8-way power driver's seat and LED low-beam headlights. Also available on the Limited is keyless access and start, and the touch-screen Navigation package that beefs up the WRX with navigation, Aha smartphone integration, a 440-watt Harman Kardon audio system and Sirius XM satellite radio with NavTraffic.

Under the hood
Power for the 2015 WRX comes from a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged boxer engine that produces 268 horsepower. This is an increase of three horsepower over the previous generation.

While the slight increase in horsepower would be hard to detect, the torque curve is certainly noticeable behind the wheel. The new WRX has 258 lb-ft of torque starting at just 2000 rpm — an increase of 14 lb-ft but, more importantly, available 2000 rpm sooner.

Subaru expects that most buyers will opt for the new 6-speed manual transmission, but for the first time a continuously variable transmission will be offered on the WRX. The Sport Lineartronic transmission can operate like a standard CVT or, depending on driver inputs, can mimic a 6-speed or 8-speed automatic.

We weren't big fans of the CVT. There are so many settings and factors that can affect its operation that it was difficult to know how it was going to react to different driving situations. For example, with the SI-Drive set to Sport, any time you use more than 30 percent throttle it changes to "step shifting," or mimicking a regular automatic transmission. If you shift with the paddle, it holds the gear for a short time, and then goes back to operating like a CVT.

The CVT does offer a sort of "launch control": hold the brake, press the throttle slightly, then release the brake and at the same time go with full throttle. The CVT holds the engine at peak torque for very smooth and quick acceleration up to 60 mph; after that it begins its gear stepping. Most consumers who are used to a typical automatic transmission will prefer the step shifting, but we'd prefer that to be an option; the CVT should act like a CVT by default.

Fuel economy is estimated at 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway for the 6-speed manual, and 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway for the CVT, which is not bad for a high-performance AWD sedan.

The WRX is now equipped with active torque vectoring, an ingenious system that applies slight brake pressure to the inside front wheel during a turn to reduce understeer and enhance handling. In fact, we found that even driving hard into corners on slick surfaces did not produce any understeer — it seems like a simple system yet it works impressively well.

Also helping with the improved handling are larger brakes, a quicker steering ratio and a much stiffer chassis.

Inner space
The new WRX interior clearly indicates that considerable effort was made to give the model a more upscale feel. In past versions the WRX felt like a high-powered economy car — which it was — but this new generation is quite nice inside.

We spent time in both the Premium and Limited trims, and both offer high-quality materials with soft-touch surfaces on the dash and doors. Seats are comfortable, offering great lateral support in corners without causing occupants to feel squeezed. After driving more than 200 miles in the new WRX — and much of that on fairly rough roads — we vacated the car feeling as if we could have easily gone another 200 miles.

Rear-seat passengers will be happy with nearly two more inches of legroom due to the increase in overall length. Fitting two adults in the rear seat would be fine, and the roomy trunk provides plenty of space for cargo.

The most noticeable improvement is the sound level. The interior is surprisingly quiet even on rough pavement. There were no noticeable rattles, and wind noise was almost nonexistent. The end result is the feeling of a much more expensive sedan.

On the road
This new WRX is much more complete and well-rounded than previous generations. Freeway cruising is comfortable and quiet. The engine can get a bit noisy at high rpm, but it's not an unpleasant sound. An extended road trip in the WRX would certainly not be a burden, and that cannot be said of previous WRX generations.

When the road gets twisty, the real fun begins. The manual transmission is butter smooth, and it is much easier to keep the engine at the sweet spot of the torque curve, as opposed to the CVT. With its low-end torque and short turbo lag, downshifting the new WRX and going full throttle results in a slight delay before that satisfying push back into the seat.

Stiffly sprung cars will often skip during a high-speed turn when the road surface is uneven, but the WRX acts if it is glued to the pavement. Even on slippery roads the AWD and torque vectoring kept the car pointed where we wanted it to go with virtually no understeer. The stiffer chassis lets the sporty sedan stay flat even during hard cornering.

Right for you?
The WRX has always been a great option for driving enthusiasts who want AWD performance without spending a lot of money. This rally-inspired car has always been a spirited ride, but in previous versions drivers had to make do with a car that offered a basic interior and felt a bit cheap. This WRX lets you have your proverbial cake and eat it, too.

The new WRX is the most refined version yet, but it hasn't gone soft. Subaru managed to make the car feel like a premium sedan without losing any excitement behind the wheel. It's comfortable to drive while still performing better than almost anything else in its class. It's a great merger of premium small sedan and all-weather sports car, making it an excellent choice for everyday driving, no matter where you live.

(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)

Perry Stern's automotive career began over 20 years ago as an advisor at a vehicle consulting firm. One of the original staff members of CarPoint, Microsoft's automotive Web site that launched in 1995, he became editor of the site in 2002, which is now known as MSN Autos. Stern has also contributed to MSNBC and various MSN properties in Canada, Japan and Europe.