Driven: 2012 Subaru Impreza

The Impreza is the least expensive Subaru, and one of the least expensive four-wheel-drive cars you can buy. Previously, those were pretty much the extent of its selling points, but a redesign for 2012 has made the Impreza a much stronger offering.

The most notable improvement is in gas mileage, where the Impreza now claims the title of most fuel efficient AWD car; it's also as economical as many front-wheel-drive compacts. Although the Impreza has, commendably, dropped a few pounds, a major factor in its newfound economy is the switch to a smaller engine: from a 2.5-liter to a 2.0-liter four. Power has dropped from 170 hp to 148 hp, and torque has similarly slipped from 170 pound-feet to 145. Subaru claims that even so, automatic-equipped Imprezas are quicker than before, but that's to be expected with a CVT replacing the previous four-speed autobox. The stick-shift version is almost certainly no quicker, but it's not agonizingly slow either. The characteristic Subaru boxer-engine burble remains; it's pretty muted unless you run the tach needle past 4000 rpm or so.

The manual is only a 5-speed; at first you might think a 6-speed would get even better mileage, at least on the highway, but then you realize that this engine doesn't make a whole lot of torque down low, so a taller top gear probably wouldn't be such a great idea. If you want better mileage, you have to go for the CVT, which bumps the highway figure up from 34 to 36 mpg. Rather than a sixth gear, what I'd really like for the manual is slicker shift action. Also, the clutch takes some getting used to, as is often the case with Subarus, but an owner likely would adjust.

Happily, the new electric power steering (another element in the quest for greater fuel economy) is well tuned, decently weighted, and feels remarkably like a hydraulic system. Ride quality is not bad, and the 50/50 default torque split helps keep the car from feeling terribly front-heavy in corners.

Seeing around corners -- or out of the car at all -- is refreshingly easy. Visibility is all too often ignored in car design today, but evidently not here. Subaru claims to have lowered the dashboard, raised the seating position, and moved the base of the windshield forward by nearly 8 inches. Those changes, together with the slim A-pillars, are significant enough to materially improve the driver's view out.

The Impreza interior has been upgraded, with softer-touch panels and cloth upholstery that's nicer than you usually find. The design is fairly plain, but not offensive, and the simple, high-quality switchgear is welcome. That's not to say that bit of bright trim (or at least not black) wouldn't be welcome. It would.

Fancier Imprezas are available -- the Limited even comes with standard leather -- but they very quickly creep up into Legacy price territory. My 2.0i Premium test car, on the other hand, was one small step up from the base model. The Premium adds Bluetooth, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, a better stereo with an iPod input, a rear stabilizer bar, and 16-inch alloys. In contrast to most press cars, it was parsimoniously equipped, with only two options: the all-weather package (heated seats and mirrors, and a windshield wiper de-icer) and all-weather floor mats (strangely, not part of the all-weather package). As such, it was sort-of the New England Edition - ready for winter, but with no frills. Still, it did strike me as a very livable, all-wheel-drive sedan for only $20,000. And after all, building cars for no-nonsense New Englanders -- and those who think like them -- is exactly what made Subaru popular to begin with.

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