Subaru WRX: Manual Gearbox vs. CVT Automatic What’s Best for You?
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Let’s face it, not all WRX buyers are die-hard Subaru fans. Around 60 percent of new WRX buyers are new to the brand. When it comes to transmission options, the 6-speed manual rower isn’t a clear-cut choice for everyone. Which transmission is best for you?
We had a chance to drive the 6-speed manual gearbox and another 2018 WRX with the Sport Lineartronic CVT back-to-back to see what the differences are in performance. Subaru put both new gearboxes in the new-generation WRX performance sedan in 2015. Previously, In 2014, WRX only came with the 5-speed manual transmission and no automatic option, so both are significant new enhancements for the new generation sport-tuned WRX.
WRX 6-speed manual
WRX now has a six-speed manual gearbox like its stablemate WRX STI. It’s a big improvement over the previous 5-speed, and the first-ever application in the WRX in 2015MY, is now standard and it complements the 2.0-liter 268hp Boxer turbo powerplant in a big way. From the very first drive, we could feel the difference with its wider ratio spread over the previous generation five-speed.
The new gearbox is a joy to shift and Subaru upgraded the drivability on the highway considerably with the extra gear with a final ratio of 0.666 compared with the 5-speeds 0.738 5th gear. The performance sedan performed better than expected on a twisty canyon road just out of Denver leading up to Evergreen. The short-throw shifter provided quick smooth shifts up and down as we powered up the two-lane canyon road.
WRX’s 6-speed gearbox features a wider ratio spread than the old 5-speed and incorporates several performance and durability improvements that improve performance. The upgrades include carbon synchronizers for first and second gears and a cable-shift linkage for smoother gear shifts during both upshifts and downshifts. The difference is noticeable.
WRX Sport Lineartronic CVT
Halfway through the week, we were at a local Denver Subaru dealer helping a friend purchase a new 2018 Forester and the sales associate asked about the WRX we were driving. I told him it was the WRX Premium with a 6-speed and I hadn’t driven a WRX CVT model yet. He said the dealer just got one in so I jumped at the chance to drive it and out we went for a test drive. We headed up I-70 into the mountains to one of my favorite roads to test performance vehicles. We took a twisty mountain road with lots of altitude gain.
The WRX CVT models feature Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI-DRIVE) and we could choose from three selectable modes; Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp. We put in Sport Sharp which gets the maximum potential from the engine. The CVT surprised me with its quick response when we mashed down the gas pedal. We kicked the WRX in gas and the performance sedan responded impressively to every push of the accelerator. It delivered smooth shifts through eight electronically controlled steps as we flew up the mountain road.
The driver can also use the steering wheel paddle shifters and choose electronically controlled steps which simulate actual gears for a more engaging driving experience. We moved the CVT into Sport mode and operated the transmission with the paddles and worked through the six-ratio automatic. The CVT responded more like an automatic with real gears when we powered the WRX manually with the paddles from a standing stop. Intelligent mode is for city commuting and programmed for the greatest fuel economy of the three.
Overall, we were genuinely impressed with the Sport Lineartronic CVT in the WRX. Would we recommend it to performance enthusiasts? For those who use their WRX as a commuter vehicle in heavy stop and go traffic regularly, the 6-speed manual can become tiring day after day. When it comes to fuel mileage, the more fuel-efficient 6-speed manual gearbox picks up a 3 mpg gain over the more fuel-thirsty CVT and the automatic is an additional $1,200 option.
When performance enthusiasts hear CVT, they run for the nearest exit and WRX purists are buying 6-speed manuals at a 20-1 clip compared to the CVT. But Subaru and Subaru Tecnica International (STI) have done a good job with this Sport Lineartronic variant. The new Sport Lineartronic CVT doesn’t sacrifice much performance and does gain a lot in driving comfort on daily commutes and driving in city traffic. You can choose your level of driving dynamics and still have a 2018 Subaru WRX that pegs the fun-to-drive meter. Unless you’ve driven one, it will be hard to convince loyal WRX fans to switch.
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Photo credit: Subaru USA