A brand-new Subaru WRX is a rare occasion. The all-new 2022 model will be on dealer lots soon enough, and it’s been seven years since that last happened. Today, the initial first-drive reviews are in: The new rally-inspired sport sedan sticks to the proven formula, but perhaps something is missing. I believe it’s the same thing that is missing from nearly every modern Subaru: the EJ engine.
I was once a Subaru Guy. I owned a 2008 Legacy Spec.B, a choice for a true Subaru connoisseur. I worked at Yimi Sport Tuning, one of the best Subaru shops in the country. I fell hopelessly in love with my Legacy the first few yards of the test drive and that relationship cratered cataclysmically the last few yards before it rolled into Yimi Sport for the 15th time. The greatest source of joy and pain in that car was the EJ255 Version 2 engine that was so sweet, yet so unforgivingly shit-garbage.
The EJ flat-four engine is a special and rare case in the automotive business. The original EJ was first snuggled into a Subaru engine bay in 1989 and the turbocharged, four-cam icon many of us revere today started duty in the mid-’90s. Subaru would update the engine with a simple “version” system lasting until the 2000s. It wasn’t until the WRX STI Version 7 that we have the EJ207 that looks mostly like what we have today.
That’s right—today. The current 2021 WRX STI is still powered by an engine that began life in the 2004 WRX STI (Modified Version 8 for you nerds), got updated a bit for the 2008 WRX STI and furiously stamped out to this day. Now, there’s a couple of ways to look at that. First, what the actual hell is Subaru doing? or, it’s the last old-school holdout from a generation of Japanese compact performance cars that have since left us. And—this is very important—the old EJ still has unequal-length headers, bequeathing it with the Subaru rumble that filled the hearts of any car enthusiast. That setup is a huge part of the character and sound that made gearheads fall in love with Subaru in the first place.
The current and the upcoming WRX are both given the gift and damnation of the newer FA engine series. The pros are notable: improved reliability, actual fuel economy, and a modern engine with modern technology. You can only meet emissions standards with a motor that began in the ‘80s for so long.
But the cons are substantial as well: the newer engine’s equal length headers rob the sound from the boxer engine, poor factory engine tuning means that it is actually horrible to drive hard and will probably explode, and the next generation of Subaru hardware like electric power steering and cable-shifted gearbox.
In its pursuit to make the WRX more modern and tenable to customers, Subaru has achieved goals that perhaps should have never been accomplished. To old-school Subaru folk like myself, the magic of Subaru’s is how industrial and charismatic it is. Its flat-four setup feels more like something from an old Porsche than any of the new, anonymous-feeling turbo inline-fours that proliferate the market.
Also, the STI TY856 six-speed manual gearbox that is still attached to the modern WRX STI is rod-shifted and has some of the best shifter feel money can buy. Best of all, the EJ doesn’t leave space for an electric power steering motor – the STI is all hydraulic, baby.
For all its numerous flaws, the EJ is still the go-to in any question relating to Subaru. Travis Pastrana’s Gymkhana STI? EJ powered. Stage rally cars? EJ. Rallycross? Still EJ. Granted, it has decades of research, development, and racing heritage to call back on that the FA just doesn’t have. Still, the answer is always EJ. Not just in motorsports but even on road cars. There is a reason that the WRX STI is still EJ-powered: because it is the seminal work of Subaru. And they’re having trouble letting it go.
Rumors say that the next-generation WRX STI, based on this VB chassis, will be powered by a modified version of the FA24F in the WRX. I’m inclined to believe this because Subaru really cannot justify making this old engine anymore. They officially stopped making the 2.0-liter WRX STI in Japan and the 2.5-liter North America-spec engine is almost surely making a quiet exit from production as we speak, thanks to this 2021 model year being the final one for the current WRX STI.
I think when the next-generation STI debuts with a new engine, celebrations will be mixed. The reasonable and logical side of my brain says that the EJ can’t live forever and it’s ridiculous that Subaru charges customers $40,000 for an engine from 2004. And Subaru, like every automaker, has emissions and fuel economy standards to meet. The passionate side says that we’re losing an automotive institution. The EJ is quirky, weird, but fun, just like Subaru used to be. Now, it’s like everyone else: Trying to relive the glory years with impressive numbers but not capturing the essence of what made them great.
The EJ might be a giant pile of garbage for a long-term owner. In my experience, it was the sweetest, most addictive pile of trash I’ve ever owned. My Legacy treated me exceptionally horribly, with all kinds of misfires, expensive sensors, phantom boost leaks, and all-around anxiety about burning a valve, but I still miss it. There were nights where I genuinely worried about my financial security and got pushed to my emotional limits owning that car. Yet, I still miss it.
What we seemingly have in the new 2022 Subaru WRX is a good car, but maybe not a good Subaru. A good Subaru is probably an empirically bad car. But it’s a bad car that makes your eyes flash with dirt rooster tails, stage rallies, and the narrow backroads of Corsica. It’s in the sound, the feel, and the experience. All of that is gone. In its place is another direct-injection 2-point-something liter engine that makes around 270 horsepower with numb electric power steering.
I’ll withhold final judgment until I drive it myself, of course. I hope that I’m wrong and that the era of experience over performance at Subaru isn’t coming to an end. Until then, one thing is certain: Enjoy the rumble of the EJ25 while you can, because it won’t last forever.
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