Subaru WRX Saigo on test: star 555
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2020 Subaru WRX Saigo
- Still feels magic on the right road
- Truly iconic performance car
- Saigo stuff gives cabin a lift
- No ‘Saigo’ branding on the car
- No extra performance
- Doesn’t have the driver-assists you might expect
I remember pulling out all the stops to go to the Auckland performance of the Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge Tour in 1995, because I thought it might be the last chance I’d have to see one of history’s most significant rock bands live (in every interpretation of that word).
Yep, so that was 25 years ago. And while the Stones are definitely in the “traditional” category these days, the band is still going strong, still entertaining and still strangely relevant.
Subaru New Zealand has just launched a limited-edition version of the WRX sedan, a model which seems very traditional next to offerings like the XV Hybrid and Forester SUVs – but still stirs up the right emotions when you’re tuned into the experience.
More to the point, this edition is called Saigo, which translates as “last” or “final”. The-end-of-the road. The farewell tour.
Except that it’s not of course, because this generation of WRX will be with us until late next year. You can say it’s the last special-edition version of this model I guess. Definitely. Probably.
Subaru NZ has always loved a special edition or four. It farewelled the previous-generation WRX in 2013 with the Ace of Spades (all black naturally), the Crouching Tiger (very orange), the Blizzard (white) and the Nemesis (incredibly blue). Then it chucked in a final surprise N1WRC edition, paying homage to the number plate on Colin McRae’s 1996 rally car.
There are just 18 examples of the Saigo to go around: manual or automatic, in black, white, blue and grey. Shades of 2013. Unlike those previous-gen specials, there’s no extra power; but it’s still a healthy 197kW/350Nm.
Saigo is based on the entry WRX ($48,990) but for the extra $7000 you get STI alloys, blacked-out exterior detailing, rear spoiler, D-shaped steering wheel, Recaro seats (heated, power operated for the driver) with STI logos, suede upholstery, “matte carbon” dashboard inserts and Harman Kardon audio.
Some exclusivity too, including the key in a special “Saigo” presentation box. It’s a nice touch, although it’s the only Saigo branding you get, because there’s nothing on the car.
A rally-referencing performance sedan with a manual gearbox is definitely a bit old-fashioned in 2020. It’s also definitely a hoot to drive on the right road.
There are still good reasons to go manual with a WRX. One of them isn’t that the automatic is a continuously variable unit, because Subaru’s version of it (Lineartronic Transmisison, or SLT) is actually great and gives the go-fast WRX a slightly surreal feel.
But the manual provides more connection and credibility to a car like this. The three-pedal version is faster to 100km/h (not a given these days) and it has a slightly different AWD system, with a proper Limited Slip Differential at the back. You get better brakes as well: those big red Brembos at the front are exclusive to the manual.
There’s a resolutely mechanical feel to the WRX that you don’t get in a more contemporary European fast sedan or hatch, which will have dual this and automated that. You’re still very aware of the turbo’s peaks and troughs, the manual gearlever goes between ratios with an audible “clack” and you can feel the AWD gripping and going through tricky corners.
There’s techy stuff happening, like torque vectoring; but it still feels very visceral. In its element, when everything comes together, the WRX feels astonishingly fast from A to B. More importantly, you really feel like you’re doing the work. It’s satisfying.
The opportunity cost of this old-school entertainment is that the WRX can be a pain around town. The ride is really hard, the engine falls off boost and feels sluggish at low revs, and the entry WRX (on which the Saigo is based) doesn’t have Subaru’s excellent EyeSight technology; so you miss out on adaptive cruise, autonomous braking and all that other driver-assist business that’s standard on the cheapest of cars these days.
The automatic transmission addresses many of the WRX’s commuting shortcomings, but it doesn’t feel nearly as involving when you’re pressing on.
You can’t deny heritage is a big part of the appeal of the WRX. But what’s wrong with that? It just keeps on rocking.
It’s nice to have something special, but if you miss out on the Saigo, the WRX Premium still looks like money well-spent for the WRX fan. It’s $2k cheaper and picks up even more comfort-convenience stuff – although you still don’t get EyeSight, which is not compatible with the manual platform.
But the WRX Premium automatic is the same price as Saigo and it does have that important safety equipment: adaptive cruise, blind spot warning, lane assist, rear cross traffic alert, front/side view monitors and automatic high-beam.
Or of course there’s the genuine STi for a few grand more: $59,990, manual-only and lime green brake calipers to show the world you’re really serious about your old-school cool.
SUBARU WRX SAIGO
ENGINE: 2.0-litre turbo-petrol horizontally opposed four
POWER: 197kW/350Nm, 0-100km/h 6.0sec
GEARBOX: 6-speed manual, AWD