First Drive: 2017 Subaru Impreza

Design evolution complete

John Lammwriter, photographer The Manufacturerphotographer

It appears the evolution is over. We've had Subaru Imprezas since 1995 and they've been cute, loveable, and reliable. Also cool, back when WRX was part of the Impreza lineup. But stylish? Not so much, though the design has been evolving.

Now, with the 2017 Impreza, that evolution seems complete. You could park the little Subie next to a Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, or Ford Focus with pride, away from the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

As before, the Impreza sports two body styles, a 4-door sedan and what's called a "5-door" that looks suspiciously like a station wagon. What the new design has is simply more character. The hexagonal grille is better defined, as are the so-called "hawk-eye" headlights. Thanks to sculpted lines along the flanks, the sides have added dimension.

Out back (sorry, no pun), the taillights are now in two pieces, one each for the body and the trunk lid/hatch. This change not only has a more substantial look, but also significantly increases the load space opening. Match that with the low weight and balance of the trunk lid or hatch door, and power assist is just a silly thought.

This design upgrade works nicely on the sedan, but even more so on the wagon, particularly in the way the design flows aft of the B pillar. Aero would vary somewhat from model to model, but Subaru puts a number of 0.29 on the Impreza. Two versions include an active grille shutter.

As with the exterior, there's a more sophisticated look to the Impreza's interior. Much of the layout is similar to the past, like a two-instrument pod ahead of a button- festooned steering wheel in our upgraded test car. The center stack still has the 3-control ac/heating controls at the bottom. Look up and you'll see the screen and audio controls are more prominent, now flanked by HVAC vents. Above that is another small info screen.

Subaru builds the 2017 Impreza on its new Global Platform, which will become the underpinnings of various upcoming models that will be longer, shorter, whatever. In the Impreza, the platform stretches the wheelbase an inch to 105.1. Overall, both models are 1.6-inch longer, 0.4-inch lower, and 1.5-inch wider. Given those dimensions, it's no surprise that interior headroom is almost unchanged but shoulder and hip room get a slight improvement.

Let Subaru talk about that new platform and they happily go on about specifics like tailored rolled blanks, continuous spot welding, and structural adhesive. What you'd really care about is the 70 percent gain in the rigidity of the body structure, all the better for improved ride and handling and a quieter cabin. Then there's the claimed 40 percent improvement in crash energy absorption and a lower center of gravity.

Other tech notes of importance: Lighter weight steering with a quicker 13:1 ratio versus 16:1. Front and rear suspension layouts are as before — MacPherson-type struts up front, double wishbones out back — but modified. For example, the rear anti-sway bar is now mounted to the body.

In a nod to the future, Subaru points out that the new platform is meant to support not just gasoline-fired vehicles, but also plug-in hybrids and EVs. Makes one wonder what's next?

On the matter of motivation, the 2017 Impreza's flat-4 is the same — but different. Same in that it still has aluminum block and heads, 16 valves, and a 84 mm x 90 mm bore and stroke for 1995 cc. Still, we're told that 80 percent of the components are new and the engine is 26 pounds lighter.

One change has the compression ratio upped from 10.5 to 12.5:1. The block is stiffer and, most importantly, the cylinders are now fed by direct injection. Torque is unchanged at 145 lb-ft, while horsepower increases a mere four to 152. No official 0-60 time, but likely in the sub-9.0 second range. Initial fuel mileage is pegged at 28-mpg city/38-mpg highway.

No surprise, every Impreza features all wheel drive, long a key element of Subaru's appeal. Big surprise is that roughly 10 percent are bought with a 5-speed manual gearbox, well above the take rate of most every non-sports car.

Those who don't care to row their own get Subaru's CVT, which was said to have been redone to reduce weight; it now uses a shorter chain and has a wider ratio coverage. What's important to those who aren't fans of CVTs is that it has seven "steps" to mimic an automatic in manual mode. It works effectively via paddle "shifters" with little of the dreaded motorboating, but most drivers will likely just leave it in "D."

Driving the Impreza? As with the others in its class — Mazda3, Ford Focus, et al — it's their size and nimbleness that make them both useful and fun. Load them with stuff and take a vacation or just a trip down a winding road with a smile on your face. Steering response fits this small car image, while all-wheel drive means the Subie knows how to respond to nasty weather. It's sort of the state car of Vermont.

In fact, potential shortages of certain Subaru models have made the news in that state. The automaker is hedging its bets with the new Impreza by shifting production from Gunma, Japan to Lafayette, Indiana.

Here's what they will be building: Subaru has simplified the Impreza line somewhat to four models, 2.0i base ($18,395), 2.0i Premium ($21,195), 2.0i Sport ($21,995) and 2.0i Limited ($24,095). Destination adds $880.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and a rear vision camera are standard on all models. You can imagine the build-up from there — sound systems, alloy wheels, the 8-inch multimedia audio screen, leather upholstery, etc. Active torque vectoring is available in the Sport model, plus the latest safety aids, from lane departure warning to reverse automatic braking.

2017 Subaru Impreza Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $18,395
Engine: 2.0L DOHC 16-valve flat-4/152 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 145 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: CVT
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan or hatchback
EPA Mileage: 28/38 mpg city/highway (est)
L x W x H: 182.1 in (sedan)/175.6 (5-door) x 70.0 in x 57.3 in
Wheelbase: 105.1 in
Weight: 3,034 lbs
0-60 MPH: 8.8 sec (est)
Top Speed: N/A
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