Die-hard Subaru fans have been at pains to embrace the company’s push into the mainstream. Every successive generation blends in more with its surroundings: the Forester could be mistaken for a half-dozen other Asian cute-utes, the Legacy dropped its wagon model and grew to Accord-aping size, and the Impreza became an amorphous blob with driving dynamics to match.
|1. A down-sized 2.0L 4-cylinder makes 140 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque.
2. Despite the 30 hp less, Subaru claims equal performance thanks to a 160 lb reduction in weight and a new CVT transmission.
3. Fuel economy is now 27/36 mpg for the CVT and 25/33 mpg for the 5-speed manual.
4. Cargo room increases to 22.5 cu-ft and 52.4 cu-ft with the seats folded.
5. Impreza models start from $17,495.
Subaru fires back with numbers: each time a model is ‘softened’ its sales skyrocket. But the company has to remember all those fans who kept it alive during the nasty ‘90s. Compromise is an ugly word in the auto business. It implies beige passionless Toyotas, which if Subaru customers had wanted beige Toyotas, they would have already bought one…
NEW (AND IMPROVED?) LOOKS
The company (rightly) acknowledges that its ’08 Impreza five-door hatchback was perhaps a step too far. Unless in wide-hipped nostril-flaring WRX STI form, it is virtually anonymous on the road. Perhaps now a significant re-tune for 2012 will change things?
You’ll recognize the two-part grille split by a wing ‘n Subaru badge that debuted on the latest Legacy. The exaggerated fenders mimic those on the STI, but make even the optional 17-inch wheels – the largest available – look undersized. Depending on the angle, the rear has hints of Toyota Echo and Matrix, and even Dodge Caliber (yikes!). Although the creases might be sharper, it’s still generic and very color sensitive.
Thankfully, the Impreza hasn’t gotten any larger, although its wheelbase gains an inch to accommodate a two-inch increase in rear-seat legroom. Cargo space improves significantly too, up to 22.5 cu. ft. (vs. 19.5) with the seats up and 52.4 cu. ft. (vs. 44.4) with them folded flat.
SMALLER ENGINE TARGETS FUEL ECONOMY, NOT POWER
The biggest alteration involves the first major change in engines since the ‘Bug-eye’ model debuted a decade ago. Gone is the familiar 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder, replaced with a downsized 2.0-liter DOHC version of the Forester’s engine. With active valve control on both intake and exhaust cams and angled connecting rods that allow for a longer stroke without making the block any wider, the aim here is to improve low- and mid-range torque. Power is rated at 145 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque; not spectacular in this segment, and down considerably from the 170 hp/170 lb-ft of the old 2.5L.
Subaru says that despite the power loss, the ’12 Impreza is still quicker than the outgoing model. That might be true, but only for those equipped with the optional continuously variable transmission, which replaces the ancient four-speed automatic. Comparing five-speed manuals to five-speed manuals sees the 2.0-liter needing lots of revs and enthusiasm to keep up.
To keep things in the ballpark, Subaru ditched over 160 lbs. with the makeover, mainly by swapping the old hydraulic power steering for electric assist, and the use of higher strength steels in the cabin and roof structure.
Subaru knows that selling cars in today’s economic climate means you need a headline-making fuel efficiency score to even get on the shopping list. The Impreza hatch makes 25/33 mpg with the five-speed and 27/36 mpg with the CVT, making it what Subaru calls “the most fuel-efficient gasoline engine all-wheel drive passenger car in America.” There are more qualifiers in that sentence than in a FIFA World Cup, but a combined rating of 30 mpg means it is reasonably competitive. Only the Suzuki SX4 offers all-wheel drive at this size and price, so not an especially challenging task.
FIRM-FOOTED AND AGILE
The suspension retains its proven MacPherson struts up front and controversial double-wishbones in back, but the tuning is much less sloppy, especially in the Sport model we drove, which also benefits from 17-inch alloy wheels with lower-profile tires that sharpen reactions a little more. Driving with the five-speed manual is plenty involving, although clutch take-up is weird; it engages very low in its travel and very quickly, but is over-light. It can make clean getaways challenging.
Otherwise, the hatch is happy hanging its tail out over sloppy roads when driven appropriately. And although our drive was in early December, there wasn’t any significant snow or ice to be a real challenge. We’re sure that with the right winter tires, the car would be more smile-inducing in February.
The CVT completely changes the car’s attitude. Acceleration is accompanied by a high-pitched whine produced by the gear(less)box and new engine that’s uncultured at higher revs. Like the Legacy and Outback, CVT-optioned Imprezas come with paddle shifters that give drivers access to six ‘gears’ that mimic the behavior of a traditional automatic transmission. Downshifts are delivered snappily with the appropriate engine braking, but upshifts can be sloppy.
PLENTY MORE WAYS TO HAVE YOUR IMPREZA
Imprezas can now be ordered in five trims – up from three last year. Base 2.0i models are well equipped with air conditioning, power windows and locks, and a new multi-function display. Premium trims add 16-inch wheels, body-color mirrors, a rear stabilizer bar and other niceties, while the Sport Premium toughens the look with 17-inch wheels, upgraded upholstery, fog lights, and an all-weather package with heated seats and de-icers.
The new Limited and Sport Limited are only available with the CVT, and get automatic climate control, upgraded audio systems, leather upholstery and steering wheel, and metallic exterior trim.
Subaru’s trump card will come with its pricing: base Imprezas start at $17,495, stretching up to $22,595 for the Sport Limited. The dynamic Ford Focus can be had for $18,300; the Mazda3 hatch at $18,900, but that now includes the technologically impressive SkyActive engine; the Toyota Matrix, another compact hatch with available all-wheel-drive, around $18,500 too. Only the Suzuki SX4 AWD can be put on the road for less, and even then only by a few hundred dollars.
You can’t argue that new Impreza is more ‘imprezzive’ than before, but it’s still a long way dynamically, technologically and aesthetically from the class leaders. It’s ironic that the one feature Subaru is desperate to de-emphasize in its quest for greater customer acceptance – its all-wheel-drive – will remain the Impreza’s main traffic generator.