To the uninitiated, a Subaru dealer may seem like an odd place to shop for a sports car. Isn’t Subaru the expert on all-weather SUVs? You can pay $30k or so for a safe and satisfying family SUV, right? So then why does Subaru offer a surprisingly capable sports car, one reminiscent of the golden age of rally-style performance rides?
A Standout Offering
I can’t speak for Subaru, even if I also tend to associate this attainable auto brand with families on a budget. The Subaru WRX may seem out of place in their lineup. However, these performance cars are surprisingly competitive, offering a high performance-to-cost ratio; rival performance car brands may feel a tad bothered that Subaru (of all brands) is giving them a run for their money. While Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and other high-end performance names may look down their noses at Subaru, the latter may scoff back at their imported luxury price tags.
No, not even the latest Subaru WRX can outrace luxury models, even though it has quite impressive ratings of its own. But that’s not Subaru’s main market, anyway. Subaru is actually in stiff competition with other affordable auto brands, those who offer fun performance rides that don’t require you to take out a second mortgage.
I’m looking specifically at Toyota, the longtime dominator of the four-door car market and specialist in good value. Inspired by stellar reviews of the GR86, its affordable sports car, Toyota has now tinkered with the beloved Corolla to create quite the beast; the fuel-efficient, long-lasting, cheap-to-maintain Corolla is now amped-up with a turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive. The 2023 GR Corolla is designed to shake up their hatchback, a staple of their lineup for decades, and give it some much-needed fire.
But which of these surprisingly affordable performance rides actually delivers on its promise? Let’s be real here; at prices around $30k for each, neither one of these cars is going to eclipse a Bugatti. Once again, that’s not their intention; instead, the Subaru WRX and Toyota GR Corolla promise to give working-class drivers a taste of rally car performance. But sometimes, brands don’t deliver on their promises.
Subaru WRX: A Closer Look
First introduced in 1992, the WRX—short for World Rally Experimental—was Subaru’s unexpected entry into the rally car market. It quickly garnered praise, including several manufacturer’s awards, as well as titles in the World Rally Championship and beyond. This Subaru earned critical acclaim for its combination of entry-level pricing and sheer driving bliss.
Redesigned on a new, more aerodynamic platform for 2022, this all-wheel-drive compact car’s edged-out looks demonstrate performance figures to match. It’s the kind of sleek bodywork with an angular hood and arched cabin that would make passersby think, “That’s a Subaru?!”
The WRX is once again standard with all-wheel-drive, but there are fun additions this time around that make this sporty ride even more competitive. A heftier, 2.4L turbocharged engine produces 271 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. While these figures are certainly outdone by luxury offerings, the 2022 WRX nonetheless feels peppy and fun to drive. Available with a 6-speed manual, shifting is smooth as butter, and its responsiveness blurs the line between driver and machine.
Choose the automatic transmission model for other sports car essentials, including paddle shifters, various driving modes, and adaptive dampers. While not standard in any model, the 18-inch wheels with performance tires provide additional muscle. Best of all, even outfitted with upgrades, the WRX stays affordable.
It reaches a top speed of 145 mph, which is delightful, though not groundbreaking. A 0-to-60 time as low as 4.7 seconds (according to Car and Driver) isn’t neck-breaking, either, but is certainly respectable. And no, there isn’t an STI version for 2022—it’s been discontinued, and while Subaru has teased that it may be reinvented as an EV, the beloved, amped-up speedster is sure to be missed. However, the remaining WRX model is sure to satisfy if you’re shopping on a budget.
Finally, the new WRX has a cabin to match. Just as the WRX itself seems like an odd member of the Subaru lineup, this model has historically lacked the interior creature comforts for which Subaru’s crossovers and SUVs are beloved. The 2022 edition, though, is sleek and comfortable, with blacked-out upholstery and surfaces—against which red stitching and carbon fiber accents glimmer. The supersized, 11.6-inch touchscreen dominates the center console, and ergonomic seats are the perfect balance of supportive and comfy. But, there’s still a sports car twist; the flat-bottomed steering wheel and classic analog gauges remind you that the WRX is not your average commuter car.
Toyota Superpowers the Corolla
The upcoming 2023 Toyota GR Corolla takes the fuel-efficient hatchback and injects it with a little something extra—to hulk out this longtime favorite with unexpected performance figures. Gazoo Racing, Toyota’s performance division, is hoping to release this glow-up to the same level of praise leveled for the recently refreshed GR86 sports car—or the now GR-fueled Yaris that also received the Dr. Frankenstein treatment.
Like the Subaru WRX, the GR Corolla is a compact all-wheel-drive performance car, though all similarities between the two are henceforth blurred. For example, the 2023 GR Corolla will only be available with a 6-speed manual, and its 1.6L 3-cylinder is certainly lighter than the powerhouse of the WRX. Expect the GR Corolla to produce around 300 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. Toyota’s GR-Four drivetrain system adjusts traction and power distribution to the wheels for distinct driving modes—features not yet witnessed in the humble Corolla.
Meanwhile, front and rear limited-slip differentials will be available in the Circuit Edition trim or with the optional Performance Package. While this important feature was available on the old STI, it is not an option on the new WRX. Inside, the 2023 GR Corolla has a racing-inspired cabin; though most Toyotas aren’t known for their luxurious interiors, early glimpses of the GR Corolla’s matte surfaces, aluminum hardware, and ambient interior lighting are unbelievably suave.
The 2023 Toyota GR Corolla is like a DIY auto enthusiast’s dream. Just like the WRX, it is an innocuous car turned racing machine thanks to a turbocharged engine—with a sophisticated-yet-sporty cabin to match. Possibly the only advantage of the Subaru’s interior lies in its grander, more convenient infotainment touchscreen. Then again, the GR Corolla is likely to be costlier, especially because many of its elevated (and highly advertised) features only come standard in the Circuit Edition—especially performance offerings.
Athleticism at a Discount
Overall, the 2022 Subaru WRX is a solid, entry-level sports car, promising fun rides in a sophisticated cabin—all without the expected price gouging. While other seemingly affordable brands defy their value promise with their sports entries—Chevy starts its Corvette at over twice the price of the WRX, as does Toyota with its Supra model. As for the upcoming GR Corolla, it’s likely not as well-priced as you’d expect of the Corolla name.
The affordable sport compact market is an essential one, breaking the all-too-common assumption that thrilling drives demand an arm and a leg. Between the two, the 2022 Subaru WRX is the best choice for drivers with champagne dreams, though Toyota’s Gazoo Racing lineup certainly offers a bit more in the way of power and luxury. However, the latter tacks on a significantly higher price tag that, like the car’s sporty habits, seems uncharacteristic of Toyota.