Sneak Preview: 2012 Subaru Impreza

Subaru set an American sales record in 2010, selling 263,820 vehicles, up almost 22 percent from the prior year. But you can’t attribute any of the company’s recent success to the Impreza; sales of Subaru’s compact were actually down for 2010.

Among the current competition, the Impreza rightfully belongs at the back of the segment. It’s a car defined by stodgy design and mediocre driving manners. The Impreza’s single standout attribute — all-wheel drive in a small car — can even be construed as a handicap among frugal compact-car buyers. Newcomers like the Ford Focus and the Hyundai Elantra are setting the standard with highway fuel economy ratings of 40 mpg, while the most efficient Impreza achieves just 27 mpg. City fuel economy is equally dismal, and standard all-wheel drive means that the Impreza is priced higher than its front-wheel-drive competitors.

Fortunately, the Impreza is due for a complete redesign for 2012, which should address many of the current car’s shortcomings. The new Impreza will debut at the New York auto show in April and go on sale later this year, but thanks to a concept car and the opportunity to sample Subaru’s newest engine, we already have a good idea of what to expect.

A bolder, more handsome look
Building cars has never been about design at Subaru. The company that once advertised how ugly its vehicles were is an organization that is driven by resolute engineers with a deep respect for practicality. But the Impreza concept, first seen at the Los Angeles auto show last November, suggests something much more exciting than the homely Forester or Outback. It’s not daring, but the design theme infuses the Impreza with a bold and aggressive character that feels much more connected to the STI. The concept boasts substantially more presence compared with the outgoing Impreza, thanks to taller body sides and a smaller greenhouse. The coupelike roofline, similar to that of the Volkswagen CC and the Mercedes-Benz CLS, creates a sleek profile while the narrow, angled headlights and large grille project a sporty attitude. If the details and proportions remain intact for production, the Impreza should easily be the best-looking Subaru in the showroom.

Subaru representatives credit some of the company’s recent success to new models that are finally the “right size” for buyers. That means bigger than the previous models, and the Impreza will likely continue that trend. Although the Impreza is reasonably sized for the segment, we’d expect a slight increase in wheelbase and rear-seat legroom at the very least. An accompanying increase in overall length and width is also likely. As with the current car, the 2012 Impreza will be available as a sedan and as a four-door hatchback.

Trading power for fuel economy
Subaru will target fuel-economy gains, rather than power improvements, with an all-new engine for the next Impreza. To that end, the displacement falls from 2.5 liters to 2.0 liters with power dropping as well. The new flat four-cylinder makes 148 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque, compared with 170 hp and 170 lb-ft in the outgoing car. The four-speed automatic will be replaced with a more efficient continuously variable transmission. A manual, likely with five gears, will also be available. All-wheel drive will continue to be standard equipment.

Subaru has given no indication of just how dramatic the fuel-economy improvements will be, but we predict that highway fuel economy will come in between 30 and 35 mpg while city fuel economy should near 25 mpg. Those estimates amount to substantial gains over the old Impreza, but the new Subaru will still be well behind the most efficient compacts.

We recently sampled the new third-generation flat four in a European-spec Forester. Despite that vehicle’s 3300-pound weight, we were satisfied with the modest power and its ability to move through city and highway traffic. Hard acceleration either from a standstill or at speed requires patience, though. Subaru claims a 10.7-second sprint to 62 mph, although a lighter and more aerodynamic Impreza would obviously undercut that sluggish figure.

Compared with the second-generation 2.0-liter (which hasn’t been sold in the United States recently), the new engine uses a longer stroke and smaller bore for reduced friction and improved low- to mid-range torque. The longer stroke, though, makes for a noticeably harsh and loud demeanor at high load above 3000 rpm. The uncommon coarseness stands in direct contrast to Subaru’s claim that the horizontally opposed four provides smoother operation than an in-line four-cylinder.

Although we haven’t heard a word about the next-generation WRX or STI, that’s hardly cause for concern. The two high-performance models are an inseparable piece of the Impreza brand. Expect the formula — a turbocharger, more advanced all-wheel drive, and brash bodywork — to remain unchanged.

Nowhere to go but up
Subaru still has a lot to prove with the production car, but our early preview of the 2012 Impreza shows that the brand is moving in the right direction. When we do get behind the wheel, we’re hoping to find that the manual shifter has been tightened up, the slop in the steering has been eliminated, and the interior has been made much nicer. But for now, we can say that the much-needed progress in fuel economy and the potential for an exciting new design give us hope for the next Subaru Impreza.

Buying Guide
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2012 Subaru Impreza

2012 Subaru Impreza

MSRP $17,495 2.0i (Manual) Sedan

0-60 MPH:

9.4 SECS


27 City / 36 Hwy

Safety (IIHS):

Best Pick