First Drive: 2012 Subaru Impreza

The 2012 Subaru Impreza is lighter than its predecessor. It's better looking and its fuel economy is vastly improved. It's also faster and the exhaust pipe emits only ice cream. The ice cream is magic and if you eat it, you won't get fat and everyone will think you're sexy. Impreza? This car will influence so many people, they should've called it the Influenza.

There's no doubt that the 2012 Impreza is, in fact, better looking and stingier with a gallon of gas. But I'm not completely buying Subaru's assertion that it's also quicker. The revised car lost a maximum of 165 pounds. Meanwhile, the new 2.0-liter flat-four is down 22 horsepower and 25 lb-ft of torque compared to the old 2.5-liter. To the naked eyeball, it wouldn't seem that 165 pounds would cancel out that kind of power loss, and I'm pretty sure it doesn't. Subaru is careful to apply the "quicker" designation to cars equipped with an automatic transmission, and that transmission has morphed from a prehistoric four-speed automatic to a very nice CVT. So combine the diet with the new transmission, and you get a car that sneaks under the 10-second mark on 0-60 runs, a few tenths faster than its predecessor. But when you ask about the five-speed car, Subaru people suddenly go all Oliver North and can't really remember much about the numbers. Well, here they are: The lightest version of the old Impreza had a power to weight ratio of 17.96 pounds per horsepower. The new car is dragging 19.66 pounds per horsepower. That's a significant difference, and despite some tinkering with the ratios in the five-speed, I'd put my money on the 2011 model in a drag race.

Yes, I've devoted probably too much energy to thinking about power to weight ratios in naturally aspirated Imprezas. My official prediction is that the automatic car will be a little quicker, the manual car will be a little slower and in any case no one who buys a non-WRX Impreza will care. The librarians of Vermont don't race for pink slips.

But they do care about mileage, and in that respect the new Impreza embarrasses its predecessor. The CVT-equipped car actually gets better city mileage (27 mpg) than the four-speed automatic model could manage on the highway. With a combined economy rating of 28 mpg for the manual and 30 mpg for the automatic, Subaru says the automatic Impreza is the most fuel-efficient all-wheel-drive car you can buy in the U.S. And that newfound thrift carries benefits into other areas, too -- for instance, a smaller gas tank allows a flat load floor in the five-door, which is one of the ways that Subaru increased interior volume while maintaining the same footprint as the 2011 model.

That interior is also a much finer habitat than before. The dashboard is covered in soft-touch materials and leather is an option for the first time on a non-turbocharged Impreza. On cars with a navigation system, the route planner dispenses an amazing amount of detail. Want to know how many kilograms of CO2 you'll emit on the way to the Sierra Club meeting? The Impreza will tell you exactly how guilty to feel.

After spending a day attacking the low mountains of the Berkshires in both five-speed and automatic Imprezas, I'd say that this car absolutely owns the title for "chassis that could handle significantly more horsepower." On one long on-ramp, I kept feeding in power on the expectation that the tires would start howling and the front end would wash out. But by the time the rubber began to voice any protest, I was far exceeding the speed limit on the highway ahead and my driving partner was looking faintly concerned about his choice of companionship for the day. With all-wheel-drive, the boxer engine's low center of gravity and double wishbones out back -- what we around here refer to as "classy rear suspension" -- the base Impreza is a lot of fun in the corners. Which makes sense, since it's basically a WRX without the power.

The new 2.0-liter is smoother than growly old 2.5-liter, but you're regularly aware that the torque peak is north of 4,000 rpm, especially with the CVT. Normally CVTs cause me to make a face like someone who smelled a fart, but this one features shift paddles on the steering wheel that allow you to hold one of six preset ratios if, say, you're terrorizing an on-ramp in rural Connecticut. I'd still go for the five-speed, but if you bought the automatic, I'd understand.

The base Impreza 2.0i with a five-speed goes for $18,245, making it one of the nicest all-wheel-drive cars for under 20 grand, as well as one of the only all-wheel-drive cars for under 20 grand. In other words, Subaru probably could've cheapened it out and hit their sales targets anyway, so it's admirable that they went in the other direction. In particular, dropping weight costs money, and the new Impreza's diet included the increased use of pricier high-strength steel. The improved interior materials aren't free, either, so it's impressive that Subaru carried over the old base price.

However, when I don my green-tinted visor and take a gimlet-eyed look at the numbers, I spy an unlikely all-wheel-drive competitor for the newly suave Impreza: the Legacy. Depending on which trim level you choose, the Legacy can be cheaper than the Impreza. An Impreza 2.0i Limited costs $22,345, while a Legacy 2.5i Premium with the all-weather package goes for $22,220. And the Legacy is a bigger (but not much heavier) car, with 170 horsepower and a six-speed manual transmission. Granted, a $22,000 Legacy wouldn't have leather or a 36-mpg highway rating, but the price overlap will surely cause more than a few moments of introspection on Subaru lots across the land.

But if you're reading this article, your Impreza thought process is probably off in another direction entirely. You're thinking something that occurred to me more than once during my day in the Berkshires: This thing is going to make a hell of a WRX.

2012 Subaru Impreza
On Sale:
Now
Base Price: $18,245

Powertrain
Engine:
2.0-liter H-4
Power: 148 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque: 145 lb-ft @ 4200 rpm
Transmissions: 5-speed manual, continuously automatic
Drive: 4-wheel
EPA fuel economy (city/highway): 25/33 mpg (manual); 27/33 mpg (CVT)

Measurements (sedan)
Length:
180.3 in
Width: 68.5 in
Height: 57.6 in
Wheelbase: 104.1 in
Cargo capacity: 12.0 cu ft

Measurements (hatch)
Length:
173.8 in
Width: 68.5 in
Height: 57.6 in
Wheelbase: 104.1 in
Cargo capacity (rear seats up/down): 22.4/49.7 cu ft

Strider77
We agree ...... this review simply nails it! Just bought a 2012 Impreza Touring with CVT for my wife. We are both certain the car should be a game changer. Great Mileage & Sophisticated AWD and lots of other reasons - who could ask for anything more?
dondiecast
This is a great look for the Impreza. The last few years has not been very good to it. Subaru seems to be moving to better place for all of it's models, with the exception of the Forester which has had more eye appeal in previous model years but, I would like to congratulate Subaru on a job well done.
cmss2000
Isn't the SX-4 under $20,000?
DBallant1.
Well written, my friend. My computer monitor thanks you for the coffee I just spit all over it after reading the first paragraph.Best car review I've ever read.

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