Audi A4 VS Subaru WRX
- Stylish, but simple, design
- New cabin tech a hit
- Sophisticated cabin feel
- Can lack some driving excitement
- Extra safety will cost you
- It's time to move past three-year warranties
- Huge AWD fun
- Signature turbo engine
- Still decent safety
- CVT auto. Really?
- Feeling old inside
- Rough around town
It's easy to think SUVs have already consumed Australia's new-car market, but a deeper dive into the numbers throws up some surprising results for some brands.
The question now is, is this plucky premium passenger car good enough to fight off the SUV hordes? Join me as we find out.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
For many folks around my age, the Subaru WRX holds a special place in the heart.
This is because those of us born from the late ‘80s to early ‘90s are the so-called “PlayStation generation.” Growing up at a time where videogames bridged the gap from 2D to 3D leads to a lot of imprinted memories, a lot of digital firsts, which wowed and inspired, and a lot of rapid-fire nostalgia as hardware advancements left once-thriving game franchises in the dust.
It was also high time for the World Rally Championship's well-regarded Group A rally category, which forced manufacturers to make cars much closer to their production counterparts. It was frequently dominated by none other than the Subaru WRX.
Combine these two worlds and you end up with a lot of kids feeling like they could do anything in Subaru’s newfound performance hero from the comfort of their bedrooms, many of whom would go on to buy a second-hand one to slap P plates on as soon as they could.
Read more about the WRX
It was a perfect storm and made the WRX the right car at the right time to put a previously small-time brand well and truly on the performance map.
The question with this test is: Should those kids, now in their late 20s or 30s, still be considering Subaru’s halo car? Or, now that it’s the oldest product in Subaru’s catalogue, should they wait for the imminent reveal of the new one? Read on to find out.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Although it's now the oldest car in Subaru’s catalogue, there’s nothing really quite like the WRX on the market. This is a car which is true to its roots, a rugged performance stalwart that comes with dollops of fun and compromise in equal measure.
Thanks to Subaru’s updates over the years, it’s fared better than some when it comes to technology and safety, but I’d still implore you to pick the manual to truly experience this car as nature intended.
It's undeniably handsome, the A4, in all of its guises. I have a particular soft spot for the stance of the sedan, but wagon lovers will find plenty to like about the Avant, too.
Ask Audi, and they'll tell you how this is a major design update for then A4 (albeit one that's arrived in the middle of its life, rather than for a whole new model), and how almost every exterior panel has been changed or altered.
The reality, though, is it still looks like an A4, only now with a wider grille, and redesigned headlight and DRL clusters, both of which combine to give the muscular mid-sizer a lower, more athletic-looking front-end.
The sharp creases that flow down each flank give the side-view some clear definition, and I do particularly like the way those alloys fill the wheel arches, genuinely making the A4 look tough and purposeful.
The biggest change, though, is arguably reserved for the interior, where a new 10.1-inch screen takes pride of place in the dash. Audi says the new model offers 10 times the computing power of the outgoing model, owing mostly to connected car features including live traffic, weather reports and fuel pricing, as well as the ability to remote unlock or lock you car from your phone, or pre-plan destinations and send them to the vehicle's nav.
Better still, it's a touch screen, which is eleventy-billion times easier to use than fiddling with the centre controls. In fact, it's so much easier that Audi has done away with them entirely, replacing them with extra storage in the centre console.
The flat-bottomed wheel feels great under touch, leather abounds, and the dash and centre console received lashing of metallic or carbon-fibre trim.
The end result of all this is a clean and uncluttered interior space that feels very well screwed together, and rather premium.
I think Subaru was gunning for subtlety with the non-STi WRX. For a performance car, the design is a little sedate, with the WRX looking perhaps a little conservative to really stand apart from its Impreza sedan sibling, despite diverging from it some years ago.
There’s no mistaking the rally profile of the full-fat STi, with its huge wing and even bigger wheels, but here in the WRX premium it’s all a little toned down. Still, fans will love the absurd bonnet scoop, angry-looking alloys and quad exhaust. It’s stanced out a little by some flared bodywork, but the tiny lip spoiler at the back robs it of a bit of street cred. Perhaps it's to encourage you into the significantly more expensive STi…
Despite its relative age, though, the WRX still fits into Subaru’s lineup nicely. It has all the hallmarks; the small grille, the angled LED headlights, and the signature tall profile. The chunkiness is all there, too, both on the outside, with its flared bodywork and exaggerated scoop, and on the inside, with thick leather clad seat trim, and a chunky, satisfying steering wheel.
The abundance of red lighting in the dash cluster is reminiscent of the heyday of Japanese performance cars of years past, and while it’s not as plush on the inside as Subaru’s newer products, it’s not disappointing either, with nice use of soft trims.
The plethora of screens feels unnecessary, and the 7.0-inch multimedia unit is feeling very small now, compared to most more recent cars. At least the software has been updated since 2018 to have the more recent system used in the Impreza, Forester, and Outback. It’s simple and easy to use.
Compared to those Subarus, though, the WRX’s interior is feeling a little tired. It’s a bit small, and things like the CD drive and nastier plastic trims smattered around remind of days past for Subaru. It's a good thing the new WRX is coming soon.
It all comes down to your body style, of course, but let's start with the sedan, shall we?
It stretches 4762mm in length, 1847mm in width and 1431mm in height, and will swallow 460 litres of luggage in its boot.
Those numbers translate to pretty spacious cabin, with enough room up front for two adults to never encroach on each other's territory, and enough room in the back for me (I'm 175cm) to sit behind my own driving position with clear air above my head and between my knees and the driver's seat in front.
The Avant, or wagon, increases those dimensions to 4762mm x 1847mm x 1435mm, but also increases the cargo capacity to a considerable 495 litres with the rear seats in place, or 1495 litres with them folded flat. If yours is a life filled with kids' sport and weekends away, this is the model you want.
Finally, the allroad measures in at an identical 4762mm in length, and will deliver the same luggage space as the wagon, but you do get a more off-road focused suspension setup, delivering an extra 46mm ground clearance, a wider track front and rear, and a unique "off road mode" that uses the cars many traction and braking controls to deliver more grip off road.
Elsewhere, you'll find a plethora of storage spaces, two cupholders up front, bottle holders in each of the doors, and a new cubby in the centre console, where the media controls once lived.
Backseat riders share two USB connection ports (as well as ISOFIX attachment points in each window seat), while up-front riders get two of their own, as a 12-volt power source.
Compared to the more forward-thinking designs in Subaru Global Platfrom vehicles, the WRX is feeling a little claustrophobic on the inside. Still, you could do much worse in a performance car.
Front passengers get nicely trimmed bucket-style seats with good side bolstering. Like a lot of Subarus, the seating position isn’t exactly sporty. You sit quite high, and for someone my 182cm height, it feels as though you’re peering down over the bonnet a little. Aside from that, height adjustability is pretty good from the electric seat, and there is a small bottle holder in the door, plus dual cupholders in the centre, a small centre-console box, and a small tray under the climate unit.
Overall, the dark trims in here conspire to make the WRX’s cabin feel a bit tight. This continues for rear passengers. The WRX really is a small sedan and room isn’t great for me behind my own driving position, with my knees touching the front seat. I have to duck a little to get under the sedan’s roofline to get in, and while the decent trim continues, the seat feels a little high and flat.
Rear passengers get pockets on the backs of the front seats, a drop-down armrest with two cupholders, and a decent bottle holder in the doors. There are no adjustable rear air vents or power outlets, however.
Being a sedan, the WRX has a rather deep boot, coming in at 450-litres (VDA). This rivals some mid-size SUVs, but it’s worth noting the space isn’t quite as usable, with a small loading aperture, and it’s a little tight when it comes to the available height. Still, it consumed our largest 124-litre CarsGuide suitcase with ample space to spare.
Price and features
The cheapest way into an A4 remains the 35 TFSI Sedan, which will set you back $55,900, while the more sport-and-style focused S line variant will cost you $59,900.
For that, you'll find LED headlights, 19-inch alloy wheels, a new 10.1-inch touchscreen that's Apple CarPlay and Android Auto equipped, a smart key with push-button start, leather trim, three-zone climate, standard navigation and a DAB+ digital radio.
The S line version adds Audi's Virtual Cockpit (a 12.3-inch digital display that replaces the traditional driver's binnacle), as well as sportier exterior and interior styling, frameless mirrors and illuminated door sills.
The range then steps up to the A4 45 TFSI quattro S line, which is yours for $68,900 in sedan guise, or $71,400 for the Avant, or wagon. Both are S line only, so you get the sportier style, but you also build on the 35 TFSI S line's equipment list with a memory function for the driver's seat and a better Audi 10-speaker stereo.
Finally, you can opt for the more off-road focused allroad, which is available with the 45 TFSI petrol engine ($72,900), or with a smaller diesel power plant ($69,900), bot of which are quattro AWD.
Both offer aluminium-look exterior highlights, roof rails and new front and rear bumpers, as well as a mite more off-road ability.
The WRX Premium auto tested for this review is a sort of mid-spec variant. Wearing an MSRP of $50,590, it sits above the standard WRX auto ($43,990), but below the more hard-core WRX STi ($52,940 – manual only).
When you look for rivals, it’s a harsh reminder of the distinct lack of small performance sedans in today’s market. You might consider Subaru’s hero against the front-drive Golf GTi (Auto -$47,190), Skoda Octavia RS (Sedan auto - $51,490), and Hyundai i30 N Performance (manual only - $42,910). There’s a more direct rival coming soon in the form of the i30 N Performance sedan, which will also be available with an eight-speed dual-clutch auto, so look out for that in the near future, too.
While it's now the oldest Subaru on sale by quite a margin, the WRX has been augmented in recent times to offer more up-to-date features.
Standard are mean-looking 18-inch alloys clad in skinny Dunlop Sport rubber, full LED lighting, Subaru’s typical assault of screens, including a smallish looking 7.0-inch multimedia touchscreen (mercifully with updated software since I last drove this car), a 3.5-inch multifunction display in the instrument cluster, and a 5.9-inch dash-top-mounted display screen, digital radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, a CD player (how quaint), leather-accented interior trim, eight-way adjustable power seat for the driver, heated seats for front passengers, dual-zone climate control, and privacy tint for the rear windows.
The continuously variable automatic makes up the majority of WRX sales, so I’m told, which is particularly disappointing to hear. Especially given it’s a $3200 jump over the manual, and tarnishes the drive experience. More on this in the Driving section.
The WRX also comes with a safety suite that is impressive for a car of its vintage, which we’ll look at in the Safety section. Getting on it may be, but the WRX is surprising in how well it holds its own on the value front.
Engine & trans
Let's start with the 35 TFSI, which is home to a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine producing 110kW and 270Nm, and that is now paired with a 12V mild hybrid system that delivers fuel savings of up to 0.3 litres per hundred kilometres.
That engine is paired with a seven-speed S tronic automatic, with power sent to the front wheels. Audi reckons it will knock off the sprint to 100km/h in 8.6 seconds on its way to a 224km/h limited top speed.
The 45 TFSI engine is the same size as the 35 TFSI, but ups the grunt to 183kW and 370Nm. It gets the same gearbox, and the same mild hybrid system, but because it's only offered with quattro, power is sent to all four wheels. Fittingly, there's a drop in the sprint time, now as low as 5.8 seconds, with the top speed increased to 250km/h.
Finally, the diesel, which is only offered in the allroad body style. The 40 TDI quattro squeezes 140kW and 400Nm from the it's 2.0-litre engine - enough to dispatch 100km/h in 7.9 seconds.
The WRX’s engine is a tuned-up version of Subaru’s signature horizontally opposed “boxer” four-cylinder. In this case it’s a 2.0-litre turbo unit (FA20) producing 197kW/350Nm, ample for a little sedan like this.
Disappointingly for me, our particular WRX premium was an automatic, and it’s not a great one. While most performance cars will drop in a lightning fast dual-clutch, or at least have the decency to offer a classic torque converter with clearly defined ratios, Subaru falls back on its rubbery continuously variable automatic, as derided in the rest of its mainstream range by enthusiasts.
We’ll explore this more in the Driving section of this review. It’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be, but it still doesn’t belong in a car like this.
The diesel is the most fuel-efficient option, sipping a claimed 5.2 litres per hundred kilometres on the combined cycle, while emitting 136g/km of C02.
The smaller petrol will use 6.1 litres on the same cycle over the same distance, and expel 167g/km of C02, while the bigger petrol ups the fuel use to to 7.1 litres, but drops the C02 to 162g/km.
Fuel tank sizes vary from 54 litres for the petrol sedan, 61 litres for the diesel, and 58 litres for the petrol wagon.
Fuel consumption is likely to be at the bottom of your list of concerns when it comes to a small performance sedan, but on the official/combined testing cycle, this car will consume a claimed 8.6L/100km of mid-shelf 95RON unleaded.
Over our week of mostly urban testing, our car produced an unsurprising 11.2L/100km, which is actually under the official urban number of 11.8L/100km. Not bad for a performance car, really.
The WRX has a relatively large fuel tank for its size at 60-litres.
You can't help but feel for Audi when you first slink into the driver's seat of the A4 45 TFSI. In today's motoring world, there's a heap of pressure on car company's to deliver something special with each new vehicle - some scintillating wow factor - be it a door-to-door digital screen, rocket ship acceleration or game-changing cabin materials.
And if we're honest, the A4 doesn't really do any of that. Instead, it offers a comfortable, quiet, super-competent drive experience that delivers most everything you might expect from it, and then some.
And while that might sound disappointing, here's the rub. Wow factor eventually fades, or the speeding tickets begin to pile up, and all you're really left with is how well a car goes about its day-to-day business, and it's here the A4 shines.
You'll notice I called out a particular engine at the start there, and that's because the 45 TFSI really is the pick of the bunch. It’s not that the engine is overly potent, it’s more that the power delivery feels perfectly matched to the vibe of the car - easy, plentiful, and hassle-free.
The entry-level petrol engine feels exactly that, like the entry-level choice. Perfectly capable at commuter speeds, but lacking in the fizz department should you find yourself on a winding road, and you do find yourself longing for more grunt as you exit a corner, especially heading up hill.
Same, too, the diesel, which isn't underwhelming, but feels like a particular tool for a particular job, or for those wedded to the idea of a long-distance diesel engine.
But in the words of a particular fairytale heroine, the 45 TFSI quattro feels just right. And even the most prehistoric owner can’t complain about the hybrid tech here, either. It’s seriously unnoticeable, with the Audi behaving like any other turbocharged petrol engine should, only with the added benefit of saving a little fuel.
So, to the drive experience itself. It is, in a word, very Audi. The ride might lean to the firm side of comfortable occasionally, especially over harsher road imperfections, but the cabin is quiet, comfortable, and your forward momentum is effortless, with the steering and gearbox both performing their duties seamlessly.
So seamlessly, in fact, that it can feel a little disconnected. It will get you where you’re going in comfort and with ease, but it won’t necessarily stir the soul on the way. For that, you might have to spring for the incoming S4, due later this year.
It truly pains me that this car is an automatic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m okay with an automatic performance car. Dual-clutch iterations of cars like the Golf R are great, but the WRX automatic is a CVT.
This transmission isn’t great in the brand’s regular range, let alone in a performance application, where snappy response and a predictable, linear riding out of the rev-range are really necessary to extract maximum enjoyment.
I was surprised to find the CVT isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Perhaps through sheer torque, the WRX does hammer into its 2400rpm peak torque band rather quickly, for an immediately impressive 0-100km/h sprint of around six seconds, but it’s beyond this point where you’ll start to get dull, rubbery, and occasionally hesitant response from the accelerator. Not particularly appealing attributes when you’re carving up a few corners.
Handling-wise, the WRX is excellent with its robust all-wheel-drive system and firm-to-a-fault suspension. This makes it a true joy to fling around bends, with equally firm and rewarding steering giving you a truly organic and controlled handle on what’s going on at the wheels.
Subaru’s boxer engine gives the WRX a signature gruff sound under acceleration, with some turbo noise to boot, but with this particular transmission you won’t be getting the satisfying turbo blips you can extract with a swift kick of a clutch pedal in the manual.
Driving it around town every day is a little rough, with a brittle and busy ride, while the heavy steering will get on your nerves when you’re just trying to park the thing.
The firm ride, large wheels, and slim tyres makes the cabin noisy at all speeds, and occasionally sends shockwaves through the front of the car if you’re unfortunate enough to hit a pothole. It’s hardly the most pleasant companion to have on a freeway.
Honestly, if you’re after an automatic performance car, there are better options out there both in terms of response and everyday comfort, although none are quite like a WRX. I’d implore you to pick the manual if you can, it’s a better, more engaging experience in every way.
You can expect AEB with pedestrian detect, an exit warning system, lane change warning, rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear parking sensors and a reversing camera - all of which contribute to the A4's five-star ANCAP safety rating.
The high-tech stuff joins the eight airbags (dual front, front side, side bags front and rear and curtains front and rear), but if you want more, you'll have to pay.
Adaptive cruise control with Stop&Go, active lane assist, Audi pre-sense, Collision avoidance assist, high beam assist and turn assist all arrives as a package on the 35 TFSI, costing between $1900 and $2470.
The same kit, only with a head up display, park assist and a 360-degree camera will cost you between $2900 and $3770 on the 35 TFSI S line and 45 TFSI S line.
In good news for the WRX, Subaru’s signature EyeSight suite is mostly present here, albeit a slightly older version than the one that appears in its newer products. Regardless, key active items include auto emergency braking (works to 85km/h with brake-light recognition), lane-departure warning with lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, and auto high beams.
It misses out on reverse auto braking from more modern Subarus but features active torque vectoring to add to the standard suite of electronic aids like traction, brake, and stability controls.
The WRX has a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, although it dates way back to 2014, well before active safety items were even considered.
All Audi's are covered by a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, with servicing required every 12 months or 15,000km.
You can pre-pay your service costs for three or five years, which will set you back $1710 or $2720 for petrol engines, or $2050 and $3190 for diesel engines.
Annoyingly, the WRX requires six-monthly or 12,500km service intervals, a hold-over from Subarus past. It’s not cheap, either, with each six-monthly visit costing between $319.54 and $819.43 (ouch) for the first 10 visits covering five years of ownership. It averages out to $916.81 per year for the first five years. These are numbers which rival some premium European options.