In March 2014 I was forced to get a new car, and got my Subaru BRZ. As a rally fan I’ve always liked the WRX, but the 2014 models were gone, and the new version for 2015 wasn’t being made yet. But what if it was? If BRZ vs WRX was a choice I had to make today, which would I choose?
Thanks to North End Subaru I had the opportunity to find out. To make this comparison as fair as possible, I asked to check out a base model WRX they had on their lot – the least equipped model they had. This is comparable to my BRZ Premium – since there is no BRZ base model, the Premium is also as basic as they come. But most importantly, both cars are The One True Subaru Color, World Rally Blue.
Compare and Contrast
Though rather different in execution, the two cars have quite a bit in common. Spring rates and such are tuned for their particular applications, many suspension components are shared with each other, as well as the non-sporty Impreza (the WRX was split off as a separate model from the Impreza a few years ago). They share the FA20 motor, though the WRX has a turbo that many wish the BRZ had. And, of course, they’re both sporty cars offered by Subaru. At times it’s made me wonder why, exactly, Subaru has offered not one, but two sporty cars in their rather small selection.
But despite some common DNA, they are very different cars. The BRZ is a true dedicated sports car. It’s rear wheel drive, an anomaly in Subaru’s otherwise all wheel drive lineup. It’s smaller, shorter, lighter, and lower than the WRX. The back seat is useless for humans who have heads and legs, which is just about everybody. The BRZ isn’t as powerful as the WRX, and though many people think it’s underpowered, I have no problem with that. The handling is where it’s at with the BRZ. Its center of gravity is so low there’s virtually no body roll, even with summer tires on the track. I keep up with and even catch up to much “faster” cars in the corners all the time. There are few amenities inside, but sports cars don’t need creature comforts like controls on the steering wheel.
The WRX has grown up since the days when we can only drive it in Gran Turismo. It’s transformed from a wanna-be rally car into a genuine sports sedan. The seats are comfortable and more supportive than the BRZ’s. In fact, everything seems nicer than the BRZ. It’s even come a long way since the next most recent generation. I sat in one at NEIAS in 2014. I’ve always liked WRXs, but the shifter in that car was so vague and rubbery that it would have ruined the fun for me, or at least caused me to install a short shifter almost immediately. No need for that in the new WRX. It’s not quite as short and crisp as my BRZ, but it’s quite close.
On The Road
OK, enough theory. How do they drive? The BRZ is an adventure every time I get into it. It rides low to the ground, because sports car, and since I’m not as young as I used to be it’s sometimes a little bit awkward to get in and out, as much as I hate to admit it. The BRZ has one of the best electric power steering systems I’ve used. It’s light, but precise, and transmits a good amount of feedback through the steering wheel. Part of that is due to the stiff suspension, which is tuned for optimal performance. Unfortunately, the ride quality suffers as a result. A lot. People complain that the ND Miata has a lot of body roll, but that suspension travel is what makes it compliant enough to not beat you up as you drive it. The BRZ doesn’t have that. But on a smooth road, autocross course, or the track, it handles like a dream. Power is adequate for any and all street driving, but traction and stability control seem to cut it regularly when driving on either the stock Prius tires or my snow tires. Interference is minimal during the summer when I run wider, stickier Michelin Pilot Super Sports. I can reduce or turn off these systems to prevent that, but then the tail wags a bit. It’s fun, but it’s not fast, and it might attract unwanted attention from law enforcement if I’m unlucky.
I sit a bit higher in the WRX, and I have to reach down lower to shift. It’s not a big deal. The WRX is a bigger, heavier car, and you feel the extra 500lbs over the BRZ. But that’s not a bad thing, because it also feels quite solid. It also doesn’t feel slow, because it’ll scoot to 60 a second and a half faster than the BRZ. That’s its 68hp turbo advantage talking. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the power, but I was impressed. (Terrible pun fully intended.) With all wheel drive there’s no tail happy drama during acceleration like the BRZ – it just goes. This is both good and bad, depending on your point of view. Steering feels just as precise as the BRZ, with just a little bit less feedback through the wheel. The WRX’s ride is firm, but more comfortable than the BRZ. It soaks up most of the bumps instead of beating you up with them. I didn’t have the opportunity to really romp it on the back roads, but I suspect that when I chuck it into a turn, it would lean a little, but not excessively. I didn’t push the brakes hard, either, since it was a street drive, but being a brand new car they felt – well, brand new.
People have bashed the BRZ’s interior for being low quality. I disagree, but when I sat in the WRX, I began to see their point. The BRZ isn’t bad, but the WRX is just better. The steering wheel feels better. The seats wrap around you more. There are more displays of useful information on the dashboard and center console. The climate controls are much higher quality, and the extra display on top of the dashboard lets you see its status without taking your eyes off the road (as well as a nifty boost gauge). But you won’t need to use them much because automatic climate control is standard, even on the base model. You need to upgrade to the BRZ Limited to get it there. The climate controls and infotainment system are also tastefully surrounded by glossy black plastic, not the cheap “Space Invaders” plastic of the BRZ.
Infotainment systems generally suck. I tried using the BRZ’s built-in navigation for a year, but after the last time it took me to the opposite side of a major city from where I needed to be, I gave up and started using Waze exclusively. Since most of the time I stream my music through Pandora, my fancy infotainment system generally serves as nothing more than an amplifier and music display for my phone.
New for the 2016 WRX is Subaru’s StarLink system. This is a huge upgrade over the clunky infotainment system in the BRZ. It supports Pandora directly, meaning that as soon as my phone connects full Pandora functionality will be available through StarLink. Other services, like Aha, iHeartRadio, and Stitcher are also supported. Unfortunately for me, StarLink only works over Bluetooth with Android phones. I’d still have to plug my iPhone into the USB port in the center console. (Bluetooth still works for making phone calls and such.) But since navigation isn’t included on the base WRX as it is on the BRZ, I’d be running Waze anyway, and when I do that I prefer to leave it plugged in to charge anyway. Since I didn’t have a cable with me, I didn’t get to truly put StarLink to the test.
The extra space of the WRX seems worth the weight penalty. There’s a little more room in the front to spread out, as well as two cupholders AND a center armrest/console. It’s either/or in the BRZ. The back seats aren’t just usable, they’re actually comfortable. This is a bad selfie I took, sitting behind the driver’s seat set up for me to drive. I don’t just fit, I’m comfortable. I’m six feet tall, and I have enough legroom. My head barely brushes the headliner. This was an even bigger surprise to me than the massive improvement of the shifter.
The WRX also addresses the other major practicality issue I have with the BRZ -the trunk. I’m not expecting something cavernous in a sports car. That would be silly. But the BRZ’s trunk is so short that I can’t even fit normal size paper bags in it. I have to either pack the paper bags to only half capacity and crumple them, save the planet and bring my own reusable bags, or kill the planet with plastic. On the downside, the WRX’s trunk lid hinges protrude massively into the usable trunk space, while the BRZ’s hardware is all external. But at least the WRX’s hinges are covered by trim panels so that the arms don’t crush the contents of your trunk the way they did in my Saturns. The back seats fold down in both cars, as you’d expect, but the WRX has a 60/40 split to allow another passenger. The BRZ is all or nothing, but let’s face it, no one is going to be riding in the back of a BRZ anyway, so this isn’t really an issue.
The Bottom Line
After experiencing both cars, I finally understand why Subaru offers both. They’re completely different experiences. The BRZ is a true sports car, built for fun and performance without compromises. The WRX is a sports sedan, with concessions to comfort and practicality but still a fun car in its own right. The shape of the back window even has a Hofmeister kink like a BMW, the standard of sports sedans. Subaru isn’t quite in BMW’s league of luxury, but they’re not trying to be, and the WRX costs significantly less than an equivalent 320i Xdrive.
So which would I choose today? As much as I’ve enjoyed nearly two years of BRZ ownership, I wouldn’t hesitate to take the WRX over it today. The more comfortable ride makes it a much better daily driver. It’s a better fit for my needs, especially now that I live with a fiancee and two boys who can’t fit in the back of the BRZ. This doesn’t mean giving up the fun, either, as the WRX is a very fun car to drive, and now I’d be able to take more people along for the ride. A little extra power wouldn’t hurt on the track, and though I’d lose some speed in the corners compared to the BRZ, I’m not racing, so who cares? For 99% of my needs, the WRX is clearly the better choice for me. In fact, if I didn’t have other major expenses looming I’d be negotiating to buy the WRX that I tested.
Real life makes it imprudent and impractical for me to change cars under my current life circumstances. I will continue to drive and enjoy my BRZ. It’s a good car, and at this point I have it lightly modified exactly the way I want it. But after experiencing the new WRX, I think it’s only a matter of time before a different World Rally Blue Subaru occupies my driveway.
(Big thanks to Bob Waite and North End Subaru for
tempting me with providing a WRX for me to review!)