I drove Tristan's car before he did. Somebody had to get the thing out of the delivery garage, and since Tristan hadn't yet learned to drive stick, that somebody ended up being me. Even though my time with the car was very short, I have to admit that it fucked me up. We allude to the WRX being a car of great history all the time on the podcast, and first I'm going to give you a little bit of that history, next I'm gonna tell you how driving Tristan's car - however briefly - has got me fucked up, and then we're going to work through this together.
In layman's terms, WRX might stand for World Rally Cross, and because X and C are the same letter, nobody has ever questioned the abbreviation. However, WRX could also stand for World Rally eXperimental, but that's obviously worse. The first WRX was introduced in 1992 as a sporty version of the Subaru Impreza that worked to Subaru's advantage bidirectionally: First as a world-beating rally car in Group A, and second as a sporty road car with a nice profit margin. The car was instantly a success beyond all expectations. Subaru, in their first real go at it, created a Rally legend with the WRX. Not only that, they created an entire market segment, a subculture, and they also kicked off an arms race with another company that got beat so badly they can only make lame Crossovers now. That company is called Mitsubishi, and they are as much a part of the history of the WRX as are those three letters.
Here's an interesting fact: The Lancer Evolution 1 actually was released to market a month before the first gen WRX. The Evo was slightly more powerful, but because both cars were built to meet Group A Rally homologation specs, the two cars were incredibly similar. They both made around 240hp, both had AWD and manual transmissions, both had 4 doors, and both were billed as rally cars for the road. By the way, stop and think about that for a second: 240HP in a 1990s compact car. And both Subaru and Mitsubishi made lighter and tighter track versions of both of these cars, Subaru with the WRX STI and Mitsubishi with the Evolution MR. Everyone on the same page? Okay. From the fall of 1992, the race was on - both on and off the actual race track. The Evo and the WRX battled it out on all fronts throughout every single year of the 1990s. Allegiances were sworn. Sides were picked. Were you a Subaru fan or a Mitsubishi fan? Colin McRae or Tommi Makinen? The Blue and Yellow or the White and Red? The two cars tore through iterations as fast as engineers could design them: The WRX went through 7 design changes from 1992 to 2000, the Evo went through 6. On the track, Mitsubishi was taking the Driver's Championships, Subaru was taking the Constructor's Championships, and by the new millennium, both cars had cemented their status as automotive legends worldwide - even in the United States, though neither car had ever been sold here (as always, shout to Gran Turismo). To me, the race, road, and cultural competition between these two cars has no equal in all of automotive history: Not Ferrari vs Ford, not Porsche vs Audi, not Mopar vs Ford vs Chevy. Its Evo Vs WRX Forever, and I always backed the Evo.
At this point, we're going to take a brief break to appreciate the 1997 Subaru and Mitsubishi rally liveries:
DAMN those are good liveries! We could go year-to-year all the way across the full production run of these cars, and there's not one bad livery between the two. I just picked 1997 because it was the last year that the Mitsubishi took the Group A Driver's Championship while the Subaru took the Constructor's.
As I said, in this battle, I always backed the Evo. Why? Because I love the looks of the Evo. That's it. Aesthetically, I preferred the Evo to the WRX. And what a time it was to have a dog in this fight, because in 2002, the long-awaited moment arrived, and the WRX and the Evo both burst wetly onto the shores of the USA. Yes, they were given less power in America. Yes, the WRX only came in an automatic. Nobody cared. They were HERE! Fortunately, the two cars sold well and the arms race continued, but this time, American consumers benefited too. In 2003, Mitsubishi debuted the 271HP Lancer Evo VIII at the LA Auto Show, with all the delicious rally fixin's, and three weeks later, Subaru debuted the 300HP WRX STI, dripping in rally sauce. The arms race had gone nuclear, and the two companies were now putting family cars on the road that would eagerly mix it up on the racetrack with cars two and three times their price. The WRX and Evo had finally been nudged into supercar territory performance-wise, with price tags that still sat around $40,000. It was too good to last. In 2008, Subaru and Mitsubishi introduced new versions of their much-loved performance sedans, the Evo X and the Third Generation WRX. I could give power numbers, 0-60 times and all that stuff, but the most notable thing about this generation of these cars is that this is the moment when Subaru finally won. The Evo X would prove to be the death knell for the entire Evo lineage. Mitsubishi killed the Evo off in 2016, while Subaru? Subaru came out with a new Fourth Generation WRX, on a bespoke chassis, no longer directly tied to the Impreza. This is the WRX that Tristan has, the one I briefly drove.
That's a pretty fitting end of the history, don't you think? Subaru, in the very same year they finally triumph over their storied rival, spins the WRX into its own bespoke machine. The current WRX is lauded as the best bargain performance car on the market, and one of the very best deals ever for the back road enthusiast. Its fast, incredibly practical, it looks good, it comes with a horde of options, it has the safety of a Subaru, and it is everything that people like me profess that they want. Everybody loves this car. Everybody WANTS this car. This car should be everything to me because it's everything to everyone like me; the last surviving bargain back road beast. And that night, standing next to the car in the delivery garage, it felt like a bit of a petrolhead moment. I was finally going to get behind the wheel of a WRX, a real one. But let me tell you something about the WRX that not many people realize: The WRX doesn't have a trunk lever.
Listen, I get it. That sounds idiotic. It even looks idiotic on the screen. But here's what I mean: Unless you buy the Limited trim, the WRX does not come with a physical trunk release on the back of the car, so you have to ether use the key fob or the button by the steering wheel. There's a reason for this: Subaru has a PIN system that effectively removes the need for the lever. The whole idea is that you program the PIN via a button hidden under the trunk lid using Morse Code-like taps, you then toss the key in your car (or your bag or whatever), and go for your hike/kayak/active lifestyle vest-wearing jaunt with your flaxen-haired dog, flaxen-haired children, and gender-neutral partner, and when you come back to the car, the PIN has removed the need for you to keep track of a key or a key fob to get back in your car. It's a good idea! I can't even hate on the concept. But you can only get that on the higher-end WRX trims because the PIN system is integrated into the proximity key system, and you have to spend a bit to get that. In an otherwise completely empty market, this stands out to me as one of the most bizarre design choices I've ever come across. And there are some other issues that stuck out to me. Subaru was extremely slow to work Apple CarPlay and Android Auto into the WRX line. The clutch is extremely awkward and segmented. The upgraded STI shifter is an ignoble giraffe. The interior avoids being bleak only by virtue of Subaru's excellent build quality. Yet its hard to take direct issue with any of these things, because since the death of the Evo, no car sits exactly where the WRX sits.
Now we're really getting to the heart of the matter; the burning questions in my mind that were set off by WRX's lack of a trunk lever. This is where I'm fucked up at: What car competes with the WRX? What truly defines the WRX? Why don't I want a WRX?
My thinking goes like this: For its entire history, the WRX was defined by competition with the Evo. The two cars were more than foils to each other, they were the only two cars that dared to be something different when "different" also meant "in extreme competition with another similar car". The market had two standouts, and it accommodated both happily for nearly 25 years. These two cars both had true legacies and histories, true race wins, awards, and honors, none of this fake "Best In-Class" shit plaguing the industry today. Both cars had their fans, both companies worked hard to keep ahead of the other, and the consumer was the ultimate victor. But now, the WRX has nothing to compete with. It exists almost entirely on its own, and that has taken its identity.
In this new era of the "hot hatch", new strata have been formed: Kia, Hyundai, and Honda are going directly at each other in the 200 HP, low $20K battle, Mini is mixing it up with the GTI in the 220 HP, $25-30k premium segment, and VW, Honda, Ford, and Subaru also mix it up in the ultra-premium $35-40k, 300HP tier. The WRX sits somewhere...in the middleish, starting at $27k and coming with AWD and 270HP standard. Clearly, the WRX is much faster than everything in the low $20K tier, but even at the $27k price point, it doesn't come with any of luxuries that the premium-tier GTI and Mini Cooper do. You can get all the niceties like leather and sunroofs and a trunk release and traffic monitoring in the WRX, but the price jumps up into the low $30k range, a stone's throw from the ultra-premiums, and the WRX STI. It's just an odd fit in the market.
However, it would be irresponsible of me not to praise the WRX for being exactly what it is. And what it is, is the very best version of this kind of car ever made. When Subaru and Mitsubishi launched the newer generations of their cars in 2007, they had two different agendas. Subaru was clearly aiming at marketing the WRX more broadly, and Mitsubishi just wanted to make the most aggressive rally-inspired car they possibly could. The evidence is this: While Mitsubishi brought out their car with 291 HP, a stripped out interior, a 5 speed manual gearbox, and a boyracer subwoofer that ate a third of the trunk space, the WRX launched with 227 HP, electric-assist steering, and an upgraded, more plush interior. You see, between the initial American launch of the WRX in 2002 and the launch of the third generation WRX in 2008, Subaru had fully established the WRX STI trim as the premium performance model, and made the "regular" WRX the car for everyone who wanted a really nice car that went pretty damn fast. Essentially, Subaru created two versions of their own halo car, one that would sell in high numbers, and one that would have an even higher profit margin. Mitsubishi didn't do that (I'm not getting into a Lancer Ralliart rant here), even though they previously had established the Evo MR as their premium performance model, and this failure killed their most legendary car outright. I say all of that to say that by the time the Evo was finally killed off, the brand new WRX launched into the market as a nearly-perfect vehicle. It looks and feels grown-up, but it's still fun on demand. It wears the entire rally legacy of the Subaru WRX very well, but you can also get it with a CVT automatic. Subaru played their hand perfectly, and when the time came, they effortlessly became the only brand to sell a true rally-inspired family car. For doing all of this work, Subaru has been rewarded with sales. Last year, Subaru moved over 31,000 WRXs in the US, and as of September 2018, they've already sold 24,000; doubling and sometimes tripling the monthly sales of the price-competitive GTI, and matching - with one model - the annual sales of the entire Mini brand.
It can't matter, then, that the WRX doesn't have any exact competition, right? Subaru is making a product that's completely unique, and completely good, and they're being rewarded with consistent sales for their efforts. Every voice in the auto industry has high praise for the WRX. This is the car that auto journalists buy for themselves to daily. The only consistent complaints are that it could be quieter on the inside, and it doesn't look very exciting. Fuck off with those, those aren't real complaints. And yet. AND YET. I don't want one. Maybe its leftover resentment from the rally car wars of the 90s. Maybe its an uneasiness related to not having any direct WRX competitors. Maybe the car just doesn't fit me. But I want to want a WRX, because it seems like the perfect next step up from the R-Spec: It's got a chunk more power, its bigger, it feels more adult, its easier to get in and out of, and then there's the Subaru reputation for safety and reliability, which I think of as an equal to Hyundai's long warranty. You can buy a WRX and expect to pass it down to your kid someday, even if you don't actually have a kid yet. In my head, its the clear next car-buying goal for me. You know, get a little more money, a little more secure, spend out a touch more for the WRX, it all makes sense. But then I think back to how I felt...Oh shit. What's that?
There's a fundamental problem with pre-writing blog posts that demand some research. It's that thing where you write about something that's been nagging at you for months, only to have Hyundai finally announce that the new 250 HP Veloster N will launch with a starting price of $27,785 when it hits lots in December, with the 275 HP Performance pack selling for $29,885. God dammit. God. Dammit. My entire premise, completely flushed by Hyundai, and by a car that I really want. See...just...all my momentum - completely gone.
Here's what I do know, and what I believe I already recorded on the podcast: In my mind, the Veloster N can be taken as nothing but a direct shot at grabbing some of that sweet, sweet market share that Subaru has been selfishly hogging for the past few years. Given the price and the performance, what else could the N be? For $600 more than a WRX, you can get a car that matches the performance and comes with leather, adaptable suspension, a sunroof, and all the gizmos and gadgets you could want..except AWD. I know that Hyundai has the hardware to make this shot work, but my worry is that they will under produce the N, as they have with other good cars in the past. December is but a few days away, and the N will be on the roads in just a few weeks. All we can do now is wait, and hope that Hyundai has magicked up a suitable competitor for the WRX, because when the brands compete, we all win. And hopefully, we all get trunk levers too. Freaking Hyundai, man. Totally ruined my whole thing. I hope your Thanksgiving was good.