The Evolution of the Subaru WRX [1992-2023]

subaru wrx sti generations

The Subaru WRX is one of the most iconic cars to ever come out of Japan. You can probably hear the signature flat-four turbo growl just because I mentioned it. They’re universally loved, saturate the silver screen, and are probably responsible for more shredded tires than anything else on Earth.

If we had to guess, you’ve dreamed of owning one, even if your not above making jokes about not knowing the difference between vape smoke and head gasket failures. But did you ever stop to think about their history?

The WRX is a car truly forged in battle, and in many ways it’s responsible for Subaru being around today. It’s a car that started out completely bonkers, reached its peak insanity in the early 2000’s, and mellowed out as it aged like a fine scotch.

Today, we’re going to take a journey through the history of the Subaru Impreza World Rally eXperimental, or the WRX.

Long ago, a man named Kneji Kita dreamed of building cars. He started Subaru, named after the Pleiades star cluster, hence the six star logo, in case you were wondering. He began building cars that were… different. They first started sticking the iconic boxer motors in cars in 1965, introduced the famous symmetrical all-wheel drive in 1972, and by the 80’s, had developed a serious reputation for being Japan’s weird car brand. That’s actually really fair. I love the Brat, but it is really weird. 

However, they weren’t really doing well as a company. So, they did two things. They started some crazy marketing campaigns, which is a story for another day, and they put all their money into winning the World Rally Cross Championship by ditching their big Legacy racecar and giving us the smaller, lighter, and way faster Impreza WRX. I wasn’t kidding when I said it was a car born to race.

1992 – 2000 Subaru WRX – The Genesis

1992 subaru wrx

The first generation of WRX were serious performers, especially for the time. They had 237 horsepower and were pulling in 0-to-60 times around 5 seconds. Remember, this is like 1992. A C4 Corvette could only pull a 0-to-60 time of less than 6 seconds if it was a really good day. Here, this weird japanese manufacture just made a little sedan that can do it a full second faster, and for like a quarter of the price.

Well, it would be a quarter of the price, but there’s really no way to know, because the Corvette and the WRX were never sold in the same market. That’s right, Japan didn’t think us folks in the United States deserved a street-legal rally car, not that we are bitter or anything.

And it’s not just about the 0-to-60 time, the symmetrical all-wheel drive system that Subaru is famous for makes the WRX a dream to drive fast. You just have endless grip all the time. These first generation cars are also super lightweight. How lightweight you ask? Well, the famous R32 GT-R weighs a mere 3,100 pounds, and the WRX comes in 300 pounds lighter. So, you get that maximum grip with the maximum flickability all the car journalists obsess over.

In 1994, Subaru released the hand-tuned STI line, and by 1995, they were winning championships left and right, which is why you’ve probably seen a first generation WRX even though we never got them here in the USA.

From the iconic Express 555 in Grand Turismo and Rally games, to Father Fujiwara’s car in Initial D, the WRX seemed to go straight from the unknown into the limelight and make every JDM fan in the States, myself included, incredibly jealous.

1993 express 555 subaru wrx

Now, for the bad news. Want a really clean first generation STI? You may be crossing the six-figure price range! The price is thanks to the fact that there’s nothing else like it, and you can only get them if they were specially imported. Plus, you’d have to learn to shift with your left hand, and go through drive-thru windows backwards. I still totally want one.  

All hope is not lost if you’re a fan of the first generation, though, with some digging, I was able to find decent examples of a WRX, not an STI, for sale with a manual for under $20,000 in Japan. Just be ready to add all the fun import and licensing fees on top of that. 

The good news is that even though the next generation WRXs are going up in price, they’re a lot easier to obtain, and are probably the most iconic WRXs ever. 

2001 – 2007 Subaru WRX – The Cars Have Eyes


In 2001, we here in the States finally got the Subaru WRX, and it instantly became the crowd favorite. You seriously couldn’t go to a car show without tripping over one that was modified to hell, or watching TV or playing a video game for that matter, since the second generation WRX was featured in just about every racing game ever, and prominently featured in series like Gymkhana and Top Gear.

Compared to the first generation WRX, the second generation wasn’t that much of a step up in performance though. The 2-liter EJ motor, and later the 2.5-liter, made around 240 horsepower, which was about the same as the first generation. The big difference is that the second generation WRXs weigh almost 400 pounds more. That’s a trend with the WRX, a really unfortunate trend. 

The power always seems to stay the same year to year, but they keep getting heavier, and it’s mostly because of pesky safety features. Don’t get me wrong, I like surviving car crashes, especially since there are so many terrible drivers out there, it’s just hard not to miss the pure driving feel of an ultra-light car.

Fortunately, people figured out that these cars are almost infinitely tunable, and as long as you learn to change the spark plugs, which is quite the task, you can bump it up to 300 horsepower easy, which is more than enough to offset the extra pounds.

There are basically three different versions of the second generation WRX. The first one is the rarest because it was only around for a few years. It’s called the “bug-eye” because they have round headlights that make it look kind of like a bug, and they’re always a crowd-pleaser.

Then, in 2004, Subaru did two things. First, they finally gave us the STI. Second, they totally changed up the front end of the WRX. They’re called the “blob-eye” or “gundam-eye” because, well, fried eggs were already taken and I guess it does kind of look like a giant robot.

blobeye subaru wrx sti

The styling is pretty much the only change between the bug-eye and the blob-eye. The motor is the same, and even though the blob-eye has more tech under the hood and a little bit better suspension control, they drive nearly identically, which is to say they drive amazingly. It can’t be overstated how much fun the tech-less, unsafe WRXs are to drive.

The final facelift came in 2006, and it’s called the “hawk-eye”, I guess because the angry eyes are hawk-like and the grill kind of looks like it’s made to eat mice. It’s the one that opened Baby Driver and starred in Ken Block’s Gymkhana 1, which if you haven’t seen the first Gymkhana, go watch it. In fact, if you have ever heard of Hoonigan, you’re obligated go to watch it.

The hawk-eye is the best performing of the group because, in addition to reworking the suspension and the making the car wider, they added another half-liter, replacing the now-aging EJ205 with the torque-happy EJ225. That extra half-liter didn’t do much for the horsepower, but the extra torque did wonders for the drivability and helped the hawk-eye become one of the most desirable cars to come out of Japan during the 2000’s.

Realistically, any of the second generation WRXs are the highest performing cars for the money. They were when they were new, and in a lot of ways they still are. Even though they are going up in value, if you want one, there are basically two paths you can take.

First, you find one that has some higher miles on it, like the hawk-eye we found with 136,000 on the clock for $11,000. It is a bit of a risk, though, because no one just left these cars stock. So, if you buy a high mileage WRX, you’re buying someone’s project, end of story. If that’s your plan anyway, then great! You might be halfway to your goal. Get a dedicated Cobb computer and have at it! If you want reliability, though, prepare to do some digging.

We did find a bug-eye WRX for $20,000, and get this, it has less than 50,000 miles on it. That’s practically brand new. However, it did have some fake STI badges, so the “you’re buying someone’s project” statement still stands. How did I know they were fake? Like I said earlier, the United States didn’t get the STI until 2004.

As the 2000’s went on, Subaru got less weird, and they started making the WRX less insane and more practical. It seems weird to think of that as a bad thing, but you’ll see what I mean.

2008 – 2013 Subaru WRX – Safety First

2008 subaru wrx

There were some huge changes to the WRX in 2008. First, the styling was completely different. The second generation WRXs were wild, with squared-off, rally-inspired hips and an overstated scoop. The thirrd generation WRX was round and bubbly, and could pass as any other car on the road. Oh yeah, and the STI was a hatchback. That’s very practical, and it’s cool to be able to take your dog with you to the snow, but I can’t help but feel like Subaru lost something with the third generation design. I’m not really alone, either, people call it the “stink-eye” because it kind of looks like the face you make when you smell something foul. Hey, I don’t make the rules.

It’s still a really fun car to drive, though. After all, it is an all-wheel drive, turbocharged Subaru making 265 horses, which is more than any previous generation, while only weighing a few hundred pounds more than the hawk-eye. Again, they added more pesky safety features. 

The biggest issue with the 2008 models is that the suspension was not very awesome. If you get a chance to drive a stock 2008 model, you’d wonder why someone replaced your car with a Corolla. So, in 2009, Subaru listened to the complaints against the WRX, and inserted a lot more of that rally inspiration back into the platform. It’s a good thing too, because the WRX still had plenty of big screen appearances to make, staring in Fast 4 and Fast 7 as one of Brian’s cars and headlining Gymkhana 2.

2014 subaru wrx fast 7

In 2012, the WRX got the same wide stance that the STI had since the 2008. And even though it started out questionably, by the end of its run, there was (and still is) a tuning and modding culture behind the third generation WRX like nothing else on Earth. You can’t go to a meetup without seeing at least five in the show and ten parked outside the gate.

Honestly, if you’re looking for the best value WRX you can get, it’s this generation. Not only do you get one of the most refined EJ motors that Subaru built, but they’re new enough that they haven’t started to appreciate in cost. We found a beautiful grey third generation WRX for $18,000. It’s a shame it wasn’t a hatchback, but that just leaves you some room to fit a ridiculous STI wing on there.

And that, ladies and germs, brings us to the current generation of WRX, which actually saw the biggest year-to-year change of the entire model run. See, in 2014, Subaru split the WRX off from the Impreza. The rest of Subaru went towards a unified, eco-design, but the WRX was free to remain a sporty four-door.

2014 – 2022 Subaru WRX – All Grown Up

2020 subaru wrx
Auto Trader

The newest generation of WRX has a few really cool features. First, the WRX got a six-speed for the first time, like its STI brother always had. Second, it got a huge interior update. That doesn’t make it a good interior by any means, it’s still just a ton of plastic and Alcantara. But, compared to previous generations, it’s a Rolls-Royce.

The biggest change is under the hood, though. While the STI still has the EJ-series motor, the WRX got the brand-new-to-the-platform FA20F. That motor is good for 286 horsepower and 255 torques, which is pretty much identical to the stink-eye. They even weigh the same!

So, what’s the deal? Did Subaru really go backwards in performance? Well, yes and no. The fourth generation WRX is more normal than any WRX before it. It grew up and became more refined. The “suddenly kill you” turbo lag was gone, and Subaru choose to really focus on road stability.

But, there’s something missing with the new WRXs. In 2017, you could get the WRX with a CVT that just leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. Maybe we’re being too mean to the VA WRX, after all, it’s not a bad car by any means. It will do 0-to-60 faster than a Mustang, and the newest Gymkhana host, Travis Pastrana, proves that you actually can rip a 2020 Subaru around just as hard as any previous generation.

The problem is that now the WRX has some serious competition, and it doesn’t stand out like it used to. See, long ago, your choices were WRX or Lancer, and the Lancer was like this rare car with a glass transmission, whereas the WRX was an indestructible supercar. So, really, if you wanted a hot four-banger with a turbo, you got the WRX.

2021 subaru wrx sti
Car and Driver

Now, it has to compete with the Focus RS, the Golf GTI, the Veloster N, and the Civic Type R. And in that field of players, the WRX just doesn’t stand out anymore. It doesn’t even look crazy anymore. If you took the hood scoop away, you’d think it was a cheap commuter. 

They definitely still have their fanboys, though, myself included. The fans just tend to wear suits now, and need a car that will protect their children in a crash, which means the bad news is that they can be a little expensive for what they offer. The good news is that you don’t have to worry too much losing money if you buy one, because they hold their value like nothing else.

We found a 2017 model for $23,000. That’s a four-year-old car with 50,000 miles on the clock, and it’s only worth about 19% less than it was new. That’s pretty much unheard of in the car world where 40% depreciation is the norm.

And if you buy it, you’ll be getting one of the fastest WRXs ever made, one of the safest WRXs ever made, and something that might actually be the last of its kind, because speculation is running wild about the next generation.

2023 Subaru WRX – The Global

subaru global platform

Subaru has this idea that they call the “Subaru Global Platform”, and they want all their cars to share the same basic internals, including the WRX. What does that mean? Well, we don’t know. Subaru is being very, very secretive about their new baby.

There was a stunning concept car released by Viziv Performance, and they keep hinting at using the FA24 motor, which makes over 400 horsepower and sounds amazing. But, they’ve also been saying awful things, like it might be a hybrid and it might be CVT-only. We’ll have to see.

With the hype for the 400Z, and BMW pledging to keep making faster cars until the last drop of gas is burned, I’m cautiously optimistic. Subaru needs the WRX so they don’t forget their way, and I need to see an awesome new WRX so I don’t lose hope either.

Brad Danger
Mr. Danger loves cars, finance and living the Ideal Lifestyle!
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