Here at Car and Driver, we take our title pretty seriously. We rarely, reluctantly relinquish control of the wheel. But if we must, we’re glad it’s to someone like Scott Speed. A three-time Global Rallycross winner, Speed has raced in practically every series, including Formula 1, NASCAR, and Formula E. Speed signed with Subaru Rally Team USA in 2019, which makes him the ideal hotshoe to introduce us to the new 2022 Subaru WRX.
Our shotgun ride takes place in Southern California at The Thermal Club’s aptly named Desert circuit, where the temperature is hovering around a balmy 110 degrees. Up first is a manual version in a searing Solar Orange hue. Speed eases off the clutch and we move out of the hot pits and onto the 1.7-mile course. “We’ll do two laps,” he says. “One to warm up and the other at speed.” Except he does nothing of the sort. Speed eschews the warmup, opting to bury the throttle instead. Which is absolutely fine—on this short circuit, two laps will be over quickly anyway. Might as well put them to good use. Charging toward the first corner, Speed trades first gear for second. Subaru says it worked to make the engine more responsive to improve the shifting performance, and the revs indeed fall rather than hang during the throttle-off, clutch-in sequence.
As we pull out of that turn, Speed accelerates and the WRX steams forward. On paper, the performance specs aren’t much different than before: The new 2.4-liter turbo flat-four only makes three more horsepower than the old 2.0-liter, arriving at the same 5600 rpm. The torque peak of 258 pound-feet is unchanged. Yet there’s no denying the feeling of more thrust as we move down the straight.
New from the ground up, the WRX now rides on Subaru’s Global Platform, which also underpins practically everything in the company’s lineup. It’s clear from the first moment you step inside that the WRX feels much more premium than before. The 11.6-inch touchscreen is the focal point of the upgraded cabin and eradicates memories of the econocar bones of the previous generation. The seats could still use more lateral thigh support during track use, but for daily driving they’ll be plenty supportive.
At the end of the two laps, Speed pulls into the pits so we can switch to the top-trim GT. This model features three-stage adaptive dampers and only comes with—wait for it—a continuously variable transmission.
You don’t normally expect a CVT to be capable of cracking off shifts, but this one does. An eight-speed manual mode is accessible through the paddle shifters and does a surprisingly good job of emulating actual gears. Just before redline, Speed tugs on the right paddle and the CVT responds instantly with a decisive thump, accompanied by a punchy blat from the exhaust. The WRX continues to pull hard down the straight, generating sufficient momentum to once again swing the tach needle back over six grand. The engine bucks against the limit as the transmission holds firm, waiting until Speed commands another upshift. As we brake for the turn and Speed downshifts, the revs even blip to match the lower gear. All in all, it’s a convincing performance by this transmission with a chain between two pulleys.
Speed drives most of the lap with the GT’s dampers in their stiffest Sport setting. Nearing the final corner, he fires up the drive-mode page on the touchscreen. “You’ll see a big difference between Comfort and Sport,” he says, choosing the former. Indeed, the WRX displays noticeable body roll as we round the apex. For now, the adaptive dampers are exclusive to the GT model; Subaru isn’t saying if it will eventually find its way to manual-equipped versions.
On the next lap, Speed lets the transmission make the decisions while he focuses on his line. This time, he’s much more aggressive about his corner entry, using a touch of left-foot braking to keep the nose pointed in the right direction. Approaching the final left-right-left sequence, Speed heaves the wheel to unglue the rear end.
Stealing a glance at the driver’s seat, we realize that Speed would love nothing more than to be performing this action instead on a thick bed of gravel, a mud-strewn trail, or a snow-packed passage. And who can blame him? Both he and the WRX are rally champions, finding success beyond the limits of adhesion.
And more than ever, the WRX looks the part. Its styling is unapologetically awkward, with its bulging fenders and chunky angles. Despite resembling a shape that a child would make using safety scissors, the plastic-clad wheel arches are purposeful and perfect, ready to fend off an onslaught of projectile limestone. We think it’s a design that will look better the dirtier it gets.
While our encounter was ridiculously short, our time behind the wheel of the WRX will come soon enough. We can only hope our extended drive takes us off the asphalt and gets us sideways. We know Speed would approve.
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