- Bill Antonitis
The SPT, If You Please
The Subaru WRX means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it represents a part of car culture: meets, mods, decals, Insta, the works. For others, its rally heritage leads to racing. Some, like me, think a pet Rex is best suited for spirited commuting punctuated by weekend adventuring. One thing is indisputable. The WRX has a legendary reputation for excelling in bad conditions. I’ll never forget when a friend pulled my 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix up a snowy access road to his family’s ski cabin. It was a lot more work than in the commercials, but, as he throttled and weaved and fired icy rooster tails into my windshield, I felt a little guilty about driving my FWD coupe into the mountains. I was definitely impressed when we got to the top, and the WRX has always appealed to me since.
Having driven several generations of the car, both in manual and with the CVT, I recently tried the latest model and continue to be impressed, albeit for different reasons. Now for the controversial statement:
If it were my money, I’d buy the automatic.
Hear me out. Complaints about the current generation include things like:
the engine didn’t gain enough power
the ride is still rough
the manual transmission is pretty much the same
the plastic cladding makes it look like a sandbox toy
And so on and so forth. Many reviewers overlook these issues and report that it is the best WRX ever because the car is greater than the sum of its parts. And, in this case, all the small improvements add up to a solid evolution of the model. The remaining niggle?
“Why can’t the manual get Eyesight and adaptive suspension and Recaro seats?” they say, “If I wanted an automatic, I’d just get a Golf R for $43k+. ”
I see why people feel like the Subaru Performance Transmission (SPT) shouldn't be the trim with all the goodies. I agree, but, after driving the lower trims, I think Subaru is trying to sell two completely different cars. The manual trims are meant to beat the Civic Si and Elantra N thanks to AWD. The WRX GT is meant to beat the Civic Type R and Golf R because it's more rugged. Sure, the competing cars are better in a lot of ways that make them more comfortable and capable than a WRX. But neither are going to pull some teenager’s jalopy up a snowy mountain road.
Further evidence of the GT trim functioning like a completely different model of car is the new automatic itself. The SPT definitely feels way more like a dual-clutch than last generation's CVT, which felt like it was doing its best impression of a torque-converted automatic. Taken from the Ascent and updated, the new SPT is 30% faster upshifting and 50% faster downshifting. It also has a different axle ratio than the manual (3:9 versus 4:44) to help with acceleration. The throttle blips when downshifting, and a new transmission cooler is available to help with aggressive driving. (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw6v6WVfxg8)
All of this sounds great on paper. In practice, it really does shift like a dual-clutch--a little jarring, even, in the Sport+ mode. In fact, “Subaru claims some of the industry’s best dual-clutch automatics were benchmarked in its design” (Source: https://www.autoguide.com/manufacturer/subaru/2022-subaru-wrx-review-first-drive), and that is very apparent. Despite still really being a CVT, using the paddles to flip through the gears feels satisfying, as it cracks off shifts almost like an Audi product. I wasn't able to do a timed 0-60 run, but the "seat of the pants" acceleration is WAY quicker than the last-generation WRX—manual or CVT. In short, the WRX GT is fast and fun.
The adaptive suspension definitely helps you customize the ride, too, and the WRX GT allows much more control over driving modes than the other trims. The full suite of safety features are also available, of course. When adding it all together, dare I say it, this car really does start to compete with an Audi product. I would argue that the Subaru has more attitude and personality. This is thanks to its less refined manners and its more aggressively designed interior. I would also argue that the WRX GT successfully rivals an S3, perhaps by focusing on a different demographic. Those are wins in my book.
A question worth considering for Subaru: why bother? Hyundai has an actual dual-clutch that works well in its N Performance models. The ZF 8-speed is becoming ubiquitous in fast cars and trucks from other manufacturers for good reason. Could it be Subaru’s preference for altering gearing dynamics via software instead of manufacturing? Could it be a contrary streak or just stubbornness? I don’t know, but the fact that driving the WRX GT has got me thinking about its new transmission so much is saying something.
Bill hosts a blog and YouTube channel that lead him to think more deeply about what it means to drive. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.