Subaru WRX VS Lexus IS
- Huge AWD fun
- Signature turbo engine
- Still decent safety
- CVT auto. Really?
- Feeling old inside
- Rough around town
- Looks a lot better now
- Improved media system
- Better safety tech
- Still the same engines
- Largely the same interior
- Feeling a little old
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|
No it isn’t an all-new car. It might look like it, but the 2021 Lexus IS is actually a heavy facelift of the existing model, which originally went on sale way back in 2013.
There have been significant changes to the look of the new Lexus IS, including a revised front and rear end, and the company has widened the track and made “substantial chassis changes” to make it handle more adeptly, too. Plus there is a whole raft of newly added safety features and in-car technology, despite the cabin being, largely, a carryover affair.
Suffice to say that the new Lexus IS 2021 model - which the brand describes as having been “reimagined” - carries over a few strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor. But does this Japanese luxury sedan still have enough quality traits to compete with the likes of its main rivals - the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Genesis G70 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class?
Let’s 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.
The new-look Lexus IS takes several steps forward over its predecessor - it’s safer, smarter, sharper to look at and still pretty well priced and equipped.
It is feeling its age inside, and the competition has moved on in terms of engines and EV tech. But even so, if I was buying a 2021 Lexus IS, it would have to be the IS350 F Sport, which is just the most fitting version of this car, though the IS300h Luxury does have plenty to like for the money, too.
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.
You either get the Lexus look or you don’t, and I think this latest version is possibly more agreeable than the IS in years gone by.
That’s partly because the brand has finally done away with the odd spider-eyes twin-section headlights and daytime running lights - now there are more traditional headlight clusters, which look a lot more resolved than before.
The front end still features a bold ‘spindle’ grille, which gets different treatment depending on the grade, and the front, to my eye, looks better than before but still very much stuck in its ways.
At the side you’ll notice the giveaway windowline hasn’t changed, despite the chrome trim line having broadened as part of this facelift, but you can tell the haunches have muscled up a bit, with the new IS now 30mm wider overall, and the wheel sizes are 18s or 19s, depending on the grade.
The rear accentuates that width, with an L-shaped lighting signature now spanning the entire re-sculpted boot lid, giving the IS a pretty tidy rear end design.
Overall dimensions for the IS are 4710mm long, making it 30mm longer nose to tail (on an unchanged 2800mm wheelbase), while it now spreads across 1840mm (+30mm) and is 1435mm tall (+5mm).
The exterior changes really are impressive - I think it is a more purposeful but also more pleasant looking car now than it ever has been in this current generation.
The interior? Well, there’s not a whole lot to talk about in terms of design changes, aside from the repositioned and larger media screen - which sits 150mm closer to the driver because it’s now a touchscreen with the latest smartphone mirroring tech. Otherwise it’s a carryover affair, as you can see from the interior pictures.
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.
The interior design of the IS, as mentioned, hasn’t changed dramatically, and it is starting to feel old compared to some of its contemporaries.
It’s still a nice place to be, with comfortable front seats with electric adjustment and heating across all grades, and cooling on many variants, too.
The new 10.3-inch touchscreen media system is a nice unit, and means you can essentially do away with the silly trackpad system that still resides near the gear selector, so you may still end up bumping it accidentally. And the fact the IS now has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (though neither are wirelessly connectable) does further its appeal on the multimedia front, as does the standard 10-speaker Pioneer stereo - though the 17-speaker Mark Levinson unit is an absolute blinder!
The centre stack below the media screen retains a CD player, and still has the electromagnetic temperature adjustment sliders as well. That part of the design is dating it just as much as the transmission tunnel console area, which looks a bit out of touch by modern standards, though still incorporates a pair of cup holders and a reasonably large centre console bin with soft armrest padding.
The front doors feature trenches with bottle holders as well, while in the rear doors there is still no drink storage - a carryover annoyance from the pre-facelift model. However, the middle seat in the back doubles as an armrest with pop-out cupholders, and there are rear air vents too.
Speaking of that middle seat, you wouldn’t want to sit in it for long, as it has a raised base and uncomfortable backrest, plus there’s a huge transmission tunnel intrusion eating into leg and foot space.
Outboard passengers also miss out on toe room, which - for my size 12s - is an issue. And it’s hardly the roomiest second row in this class for knee room and headroom, as my 182cm frame was a touch squished behind my own driving position.
Children will be better catered for in the back, and there are two ISOFIX anchorages and three top-tether attachment points for baby seats.
The boot capacity varies on the model you buy. Choose an IS300 or IS350 and you score 480 litres (VDA) of cargo capacity, while the IS300h has a battery pack that robs it of some boot space, with 450L available.
Price and features
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.
The updated 2021 Lexus IS range has seen a number of pricing changes, and a reduction of variants, too. There are now five IS models available, down from seven prior to this update as the Sports Luxury model has been axed, and you can only get the IS350 in F Sport trim now. However, the company has expanded its “Enhancement Pack” strategy across the different variants.
Opening the range is the IS300 Luxury, which lists at $61,500 (all prices listed are the MSRP - not including on-road costs, and are correct at time of publishing). It has the exact same equipment as the IS300h Luxury model, which is $64,500, and that ‘h’ stands for hybrid, which will be detailed in the engines section.
The Luxury trim is equipped with items such LED headlights and daytime running lights, 18-inch alloy wheels, proximity keyless entry with push-button start, a 10.3-inch touchscreen multimedia system with satellite navigation (including live traffic updates) and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring tech, plus a 10-speaker sound system, eight-way power-adjustable front seats with heating and memory settings for the driver, and dual-zone climate control. There’s also auto headlights with auto high beam, rain sensing wipers, power steering column adjustment, and adaptive cruise control.
Indeed, there’s a raft of safety technology included - more on that below - and there’s also a number of Enhancement Pack options.
Luxury spec models can be equipped with a choice of two Enhancement Packs: the $2000 Enhancement Pack adds a sunroof (or moonroof in Lexus speak); or Enhancement Pack 2 (or EP2 - $5500) further adds 19-inch alloy wheels, a 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, cooled front seats, high-grade leather-accented interior trim, and a power-operated rear sunshade.
The IS F Sport trim line is available across the IS300 ($70,000), IS300h ($73,000) or the V6-powered IS350 ($75,000), and it adds a number of additional features over the Luxury grade.
As you can probably tell, F Sport models get a sportier look, with a body kit, 19-inch alloy wheels, standard fit adaptive suspension, sports front seats with cooling, sports pedals, and five drive modes to choose from (Eco, Normal, Sport S, Sport S+ and Custom). The F Sport grade also includes a digital instrument cluster with an 8.0-inch display, as well as leather-accented trim, and scuff plates.
Buying the F Sport grade allows customers to add further goodies by way of the Enhancement Pack for that grade, which costs $3100 and includes the sunroof, 17-speaker sound system and rear sunshade.
What’s missing? Well there’s no wireless phone charging in any grade, and no USB-C connectivity either. Note: the spare wheel is a space saver in the IS300 and IS350, but there is only a repair kit in the IS300h as there are batteries where the spare wheel would go.
There’s no go-fast IS F model sitting at the top of the tree here, nor is there a plug-in hybrid to compete against the circa-$85K BMW 330e and Mercedes C300e. But the fact the IS models all come in below $75K means it’s a pretty decent value proposition.
Engine & trans
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 engine specs depend on the powertrain you choose. And at a glance there’s no variance between the earlier version of the IS and the 2021 facelift.
That means the IS300 model still runs a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol motor producing 180kW of power (at 5800rpm) and 350Nm of torque (at 1650-4400rpm). It has an eight-speed automatic transmission, and like all IS models, it is rear-wheel drive (RWD/2WD) - there is no all-wheel drive (AWD/4WD) model here.
Next up the spectrum is the IS300h model, which has a 2.5-litre four-cylinder Atkinson cycle petrol motor teamed to an electric motor and nickel metal hydride battery pack. The petrol engine is good for a 133kW (at 6000rpm) and 221Nm (at 4200-5400rpm), and the electric motor produces 105kW/300Nm - but the combined total maximum power output is 164kW, and Lexus doesn’t provide a maximum torque figure. The 300h model runs a CVT automatic transmission.
The big horsepower offering here is the IS350, which runs a 3.5-litre petrol V6 engine, producing 232kW of power (at 6600rpm) and 380Nm of torque (at 4800-4900rpm). It runs an eight-speed auto.
All models have paddle-shifters, while the two non-hybrid models have seen tweaks to the transmission software that is said to “estimate driver intentions” for better enjoyment.
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.
There’s still no diesel model, no plug-in hybrid and no full electric (EV) model - which means that while Lexus was at the forefront of electrification with its so-called “self-charging” hybrids, it is falling behind the times. You can get plug-in versions of the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class, and the Tesla Model 3 plays in this space in full-electric guise.
As for the fuel-sipping hero of this trio of powertrains, the IS300h is said to use 5.1 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle fuel test. In reality, our test car’s dashboard showed 6.1L/100km across a mix of driving.
The IS300 with its turbocharged 2.0L engine is next best for fuel use, claiming 8.2L/100km. On our short launch drive of that model, we saw 9.6L/100km on the dashboard.
And the full-fat IS350 V6 petrol claims consumption of 9.5L/100km, while on test we saw 13.4L/100km.
The emissions for the three models are 191g/km (IS300), 217g/km (IS350) and 116g/km (IS300h). All three are Euro 6B compliant.
Fuel tank capacity is 66 litres for all models, meaning your mileage range for the hybrid model could be considerably longer.
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.
With the engine at the front and drive to the back, it has the ingredients for a pure driver’s car, and Lexus made a bit of a big deal about the new-look IS being more focused thanks to chassis adjustments and track width improvements - and it does feel a pretty nimble and tied-down car in the twisty stuff.
It is competent at stitching together a series of corners, and the F Sport models are particularly adept. The adaptive suspension in those models includes both anti-dive and anti-squat tech, which is designed to make the car feel solid and flat on the road - and it does, thankfully without feeling twitchy or uncomfortable, with good suspension compliance even in the most aggressive Sport S+ drive mode.
The 19-inch wheels on F Sport models are fitted with Dunlop SP Sport Maxx rubber (235/40 front, 265/35 rear) and there’s plenty of tarmac tenacity.
The grip from Luxury-spec models on 18s could be better, with those Bridgestone Turanza tyres (235/45 all around) proving not quite the most enthralling.
Indeed, the IS300h Luxury I drove felt very different in character to the F Sport IS300 and 350 models. It was surprising how much more of a plush-focused model the Luxury grade feels, and likewise it wasn’t as impressive in dynamic driving due to the tyre grip and less-enthusiastic drive mode system. The non-adaptive suspension is a touch more jittery too, and while it’s not to the point of discomfort, you might expect better for a car on 18s.
Across all models the steering is accurate and direct enough, with predictable response and decent feel to the driver’s hands for this electric power steering setup. The F Sport models have even further retuned steering for “an even sportier drive experience”, though I found at times it could feel a little numb for rapid changes of direction.
As for engines, the IS350 is still the pick. It has the best zest, and feels the most fitting powertrain for this model. It sounds good, too. The auto transmission is pretty clever, there's easily enough pulling power, and it's probably going to be the last of the non-turbo V6s in Lexus's line-up when this cars life-cycle is up.
The IS300's turbo engine was the most disappointing, lacking some urge and constantly feeling bogged down by turbo lag, transmission confusion, or both. It felt underdone in enthusiastic driving, though in dull day-to-day commuting circumstances it came across as more acceptable, though the remapped transmission software was far less impressive in this application than in the IS350.
The IS300h was a lovely, quiet and refined experience all around. It’s the one you should go for if you don’t really care about all that go-fast stuff. The powertrain is proven, it accelerates with nice linear delivery, and at times it’s so hushed I found myself looking down at the instrument cluster to see if the car was in EV mode or if it was using the petrol engine.
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.
The facelifted version scores auto emergency braking (AEB) with day and night pedestrian detection and daytime cyclist detection (from 10km/h to 80km/h) and car detection (10km/h to 180km/h). There’s also all speed adaptive cruise control with low speed following.
The IS also has lane keeping assistance with lane departure warning, lane trace assist, a new system called Intersection Turning Assist which will brake the car if the system judges the traffic gap isn’t big enough, and there’s also road sign recognition.
Plus the IS has blind-spot monitoring on all grades, as well as rear cross-traffic alert with auto braking (below 15km/h).
And beyond that, Lexus has added new Connected Services features, including an SOS call button, automated collision notification if an airbag deploys, and stolen vehicle tracking.
Where is the Lexus IS built? Japan is the answer.
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.
On paper, Lexus’s ownership offer isn’t quite as enticing as some other luxury car brands - but it has a strong reputation for blissful ownership.
The Lexus Australia warranty period is four years/100,000km, which is better for duration than Audi and BMW (both three years/unlimited km) but not as accommodating as Mercedes-Benz or Genesis, each of which offer five-year/unlimited km warranty.
The company has a three-year capped price servicing plan, with maintenance every 12 months or 15,000km. The first three visits cost $495 each. That’s okay - but Lexus doesn’t offer free servicing like Genesis, and nor does it offer prepaid service plans - for three to five years for a C-Class, and five years for Audi A4/A5, for instance.
There is complimentary roadside assistance for the first three years, too.
That said, the company has its Encore ownership benefits program that allows a number of experiences and deals, and the service team will collect your car and return it, leaving you with a loan car if you need it.