It used to be the case that if a customer walked into a Subaru dealership hoping for an Outback or a Forester, but the customer's finances didn't quite stretch to allow the purchase of one of those perennially popular Subaru models, the salesperson would gently guide the customer to the back of the showroom and present to them the Impreza. The Impreza was the forgotten Subaru, the one no one cared about, the price leader. It was bland, it was boring, it wasn't remotely competitive with compacts like the Mazda 3 and the Honda Civic, and it didn't even offer very good fuel economy, but at least it was a Subaru, and it was one of the cheapest ways to get an all-wheel-drive car. So, even though it was the bastard stepchild of the Subaru lineup, it found a few takers, people who really, really wanted a Subaru and were willing to live with the Impreza's aesthetic, performance, and efficiency weaknesses. (The Impreza also formed the basis of the popular WRX sports car, but that's another story altogether.)
With this all-new, fourth-generation model, Subaru aimed to drastically change perceptions of the Impreza. I suspect they will succeed. The new car isn't what you'd call pretty, but at least it has modern, purposeful lines. The interior seemed comfortable during my admittedly short drive, and it's a pleasant if still somewhat uninspiring place to be. Forward visibility is excellent thanks to the deep, wide windshield and big windows in the front doors. The hatch opens easily with a fingertip to the rubber touch pad under the door lip, revealing a reasonably big cargo area with a low lift-over height. There's appreciably more interior room than before thanks to a longer wheelbase, but the vehicle's overall length is virtually the same.
Pathetically, the previous-generation Impreza could not even crest the 30-mpg highway figure, but this one is rated at 27/36 mpg city/highway, thanks in part to Subaru's second-generation continuously variable automatic transmission, called Lineartronic. The bummer is that the CVT whines and moans like so many of them do, but that's the price you pay for fuel economy that's some 30 percent better than the old Impreza's. Yes, you can opt for a five-speed manual tranmission in place of the CVT, but if you do so, you'll sacrifice 2 mpg on both the city and highway EPA cycles. Still, at 25/34 mpg, an Impreza hatchback with the manual transmission and standard all-wheel drive is an attractive proposition, a car that can sit proudly in the front of the Subaru showroom.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
I'm impressed with the 2012 Subaru Impreza. Part of the reason may be because my wife owns a 2009 Forester that's been incredibly reliable and the interior has been very durable, even though it's been used to transport a variety of pets over the years. The only downside to the Forester is its four-speed automatic transmission and resultant 25 mpg we are averaging in mostly highway driving. That used to be the price one paid for full-time all-wheel drive. Now Subaru has figured out how to make an AWD car almost as fuel efficient as a FWD compact.
Subaru does a really good job of optimizing the ride for comfort. Some compact cars transmit way too much impact harshness, but the Impreza glides over bumps in a manner that approaches that of a luxury car. On the flip side, that means the Impreza prefers to be driven in a relaxed fashion instead of hustled along entertaining roads. The good news is that Subaru offers the WRX and STI for compact car lovers who prefer going fast to being coddled.
The worst part of our test Impreza was the new infotainment system. I disliked the touch-screen interface because there are no redundant buttons or knobs for changing the radio station. I don't like taking my eyes off the road to manually tune the radio, and Subaru is the last manufacturer I would have expected to take away physical controls for tasks like changing the radio station. Lower trim levels do still offer physical controls for this sort of thing, so this issue can be avoided by skipping the navigation system.
What I really appreciate about Subaru vehicles is the back-to-basics mentality that shows through in the finished product (aside from the perennially frustrating equalizer for the stereo that intimidates everyone this side of a professional audio technician, that is). One of the reasons these cars are so durable is because they don't have overly complicated mechanisms for simple tasks. I'd happily park an Impreza in my garage.
Phi Floraday, Senior Web Editor
Despite my colleagues' appreciation for the newest Subaru, I can't help but dislike this car immensely. Initially, it was because the new 2012 model's design has become more mainstream (read: bland) and the car had lost a lot of the spunky character that made the Impreza stand out from the rest of the compact crowd. However, in the quest for sales, Subaru has resigned to do away with any distinctiveness the old car had.
The 2.0-liter flat-four is powerful, but when routed through the CVT as in our tester, it sounds like a cow that has some gravel caught in its throat. I also took issue with the new - and simplified - interior. The old car's dashboard was nothing to write home about, with numerous surfaces covered in hard, cheap plastic, but at least it looked good with sweeping faux-aluminum trim. Here, the interior is all-black and full of angles - I thought the compact segment had moved away from the "penalty box," but that was exactly what came to mind sitting behind the wheel of the Impreza (it's also available in a beige/black combination that looks much less dour in pictures). What differentiates the Impreza in its very-competitive class is the availability of all-wheel drive, but that might not be enough anymore without its spunky character.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
As one who drives on some challenging back-country roads in winter, the 2012 Impreza's blend of fuel economy and all-wheel drive has piqued my interest. Subaru reportedly used the universally esteemed Mazda 3 as its benchmark for ride and handling - and although I don't think its engineers quite matched the poise offered by the Mazda, they still managed to turn out an impressive product. The Impreza exhibits a little more body roll than the Mazda but also delivers impressively comfortable ride quality that's capable of soaking up even severe speed bumps. The electric power steering is decently weighted, and offers some feedback, if not enough to appease the enthusiast. I'm a little surprised by some of my colleagues' remarks on the interior - although it's not the most artistic cabin you'll find in this segment, I'd argue this is a vast improvement over the previous car. There's a surprising amount of soft-touch materials on the upper instrument panel, and gaps between panels seem to be slim and consistent. I'm glad Subaru finally saw fit to update its dated navigation interface, but like Phil Floraday, its lack of hard controls for most audio functions proved distracting during driving. At this point, the only thing that doesn't impress me about the new Impreza is noise - and I'm not talking about the sound that comes from pairing the odd-sounding boxer four-cylinder with a CVT. There's a surprising amount of wind noise in the cabin - perhaps some of this can be chalked up to the hatchback body style, but it also seemed quite a bit was transmitted from elsewhere as well.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
After my first drive, the new Subaru Impreza left me with some very positive impressions. The car looks very good: angular, simple, tough, but somewhat unassuming and inoffensive. I particularly love this test car's sharp Carmellia red pearl paint and how it's complemented by the gunmetal-finished wheels.
Those wheels come standard on the Sport Premium trim level, which is the fanciest trim you can get with a manual transmission. Our test car was the tip-top-of-the-line Sport Limited, which adds a CVT, leather upholstery, automatic climate control, and HD radio. CVTs are not my favorite transmission, but the Impreza's did its job well over a weekend of driving, although straight-line and passing acceleration is generally sluggish, as the powertrain takes its time revving the engine to peak torque.
Granted, this is the top-trim model, but so far the new Impreza seems to me much, much better than the old car, which had lots of nasty plastics inside and felt quite basic.
I am now very, very excited about the prospect of driving the WRX edition of the new Impreza. This normally aspirated test car cornered very well and gave the driver plenty of feedback. More power should be lots of fun.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
At this point, I really don't know anymore what to tell people looking for a small car recommendation. There are so many highly efficient and refined offerings -- Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda 3, Chevrolet Cruze, Volkswagen Jetta, Honda Civic -- that it's difficult if not impossible to pick one. Now we can add the Subaru Impreza to that list. The littlest Subaru's basic virtues of all-wheel drive, value, practicality, and indestructibility have always made it worthy of consideration for those who live in northern climates. The new edition merely tacks on attractive styling, a soft-touch interior, and better driving dynamics. Add in its much improved fuel economy, and there's no reason not to consider it, even if you don't need all-wheel-drive traction. My one remaining complaint is with the engine's graininess at high rpm. Subaru's flat-fours typically produce a pleasant growl but this one, paired with a CVT automatic, grates and whines.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
The first thing you notice when you see the new Impreza is the more subdued styling. Some (like my colleague Donny Nordlicht) might think it has become bland, but I for one am thankful that the overly bejeweled rear end of the last Impreza hatchback is a thing of the past. Yes, there are a few clunky sharp edges -- such as the one where the rear fascia and side panel meet -- that could be softened, but in general, I find the 2012 Impreza more attractive than its predecessor.
Driving the Impreza is not exactly a thrill-a-minute, but its capable powertrain and all-wheel-drive traction are enough to make it a solid entrant in its segment -- especially now that its EPA fuel economy ratings approach those of many of its competitors. The interior isn't especially inspiring, but neither is it confusing or too busy. I especially like that the gauges in front of the driver (one tachometer, one speedometer, and a small fuel gauge) are clear and uncluttered. The new navigation system is a little fussy, but that's an option that can be easily skipped if that bothers you.
The Impreza also strikes me as a very good deal. This very top-of-the-line model stickers for less than $26,000, and there are several less well-equipped models that can be had from the high-teens to the low twenties.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms