Even before its lineup went completely all-wheel-drive in 1999, the Subaru brand was synonymous with AWD. (We'll forget for a moment that Fuji Heavy plans to break that streak when it launches a rear-wheel-drive coupe with Toyota in 2011.) If you want a brand-new all-wheel-drive car and you want it cheap, a Subaru showroom is probably in your future.
With a base price of $17,640, the Impreza 2.5i four-door is the least expensive all-wheel-drive equipped sedan on the U.S. market. Suzuki's SX4 Crossover can be had for less ($15,395), but it's a five-door hatch, and four driven wheels aren't available on the SX4 Sport sedan.
While most of the Impreza has been redesigned and reengineered for 2008, the 2.5-liter boxer four carries over largely unchanged from the previous-generation Impreza. The Subaru's engine management programming has been tweaked for a few more lb-ft of torque (170 vs. 166); the brain-box changes also move the boxer's peak torque to a lower engine speed (4000 rpm vs. 4400 rpm). Horsepower takes a small hit in exchange, dropping 3 hp to a new peak of 170. Like its predecessors, the flat four is very quiet at idle, but it still produces enough growl to keep your attention on the way up to its 6000-rpm power peak.
Our test car was equipped with a five-speed manual, and it offered both easy shifting and decent feedback. As in most Subarus, the Impreza's clutch take-up is fairly quick. Fuel economy is rated at 20/27 city/highway by the EPA, and we saw an indicated 22 mpg with a mix of spirited driving and highway cruising. Those aren't stellar numbers, but they're still respectable for a small car with four driven wheels.
When it comes to road manners, the littlest Subie is pretty sedate. The 2.5i gets the softest suspension of the Impreza lot, which is to say that it's comfortable over bumps but not terribly sporty. The Impreza's redesign also brought with it a new rear suspension-control arms replace the strut-type setup used on previous models-and it offers both better packaging (aiding cargo space) and better rear grip. For a more involving experience, buyers will want to trade up to one of the WRX cars. The 50/50 split AWD system produces some understeer, which is to be expected.
When it comes to cramming people and stuff inside of the 2.5i sedan (the Impreza is also available in five-door hatchback form), the redesign has also been kind. The Impreza has grown both in wheelbase and overall length, and it offers 94.4 cubic feet of passenger volume. Trunk space is decent at 11.3 cubic feet. The interior is well laid out with everything easy to read and reach. Style is always a personal thing, but we think the interior looks more Toyota Corolla than last-gen Impreza.
The same can be said for the exterior design. Subaru has taken a more conservative approach to the four-door, shying away from the edgy, slab-sided Impreza. In its place is sheetmetal that should offend no one, while also going unnoticed in a lot full of compact cars. The available Impreza hatchback at least looks unique, but it really comes into its own in WRX STI spec with its hood scoop and bulging fenders. (The STI is no longer available in sedan form.)
But this 2.5i is not trying to be an STI, and that's probably a good thing. Each of the Impreza models serves a purpose, and the base sedan is a good car for people who want reliable, all-weather transportaiton. Look elsewhere if AWD is not a necessity, and consider the four-speed automatic (which offers fuel economy identical to that of the manual) if your driving tends to be more stop-and-go than back-road blitz.