Photo: Travis Okulski / Business Insider
The Subaru Impreza has always been the quirky alternative in the compact class.Whereas competitors would offer front-wheel drive and inline engines, the Impreza has all-wheel drive and boxer engines. It’s a unique combination that has made the Impreza a different choice for ages.
But during the last generation, Subaru hit the car with about five ugly sticks. While it was competent to drive, it was blindingly ugly to look at.
If it weren’t for the Imprez-ive (sorry) WRX and WRX STI models, the last generation car may have been the end of Subaru’s long running compact.
Photo: Travis Okulski / Business Insider
Thankfully, the Impreza is all-new for 2012. But Subaru is making an effort to go more mainstream and take on the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and other players directly.So has this rally-bred ride lost the goofy charm that made it a favourite in snowy regions? I recently spent a week with an Impreza 2.0i Premium, which was delivered with a window sticker of just over $20,000, to find out.
For that reasonable price I had a car with all-wheel drive, heated seats, Bluetooth connectivity, and an attractive blue paint scheme.
And the new styling made it look pretty good.
Not a bad start.
The Subaru faithful need not worry: The Impreza still uses Subaru's iconic flat four engine. Not only does it lower the centre of gravity, I love the way it sounds.
There is just something very mechanical sounding about the Subaru. Plus, since Porsche is also famous for boxer engines, you can tell all your friends that the Subie sounds like a budget supercar.
For an economy car, I was impressed with the handling. I must admit, I didn't push it very hard, but steering had the right mix of being light and communicative. It also felt like it could handle a lot more power.
And, like always, it's a treat to have a modern car with a manual gearbox. The Impreza also has a 'hill holder' clutch. It will keep the brakes on if it feels the car rolling backwards. This actually gave me more trouble starting on a hill than without one.
It just felt weird and I wasn't confident in when the brakes would release and the clutch would engage. Kind of a strange system.
Anything would be an improvement over the last generation Impreza.
But this is actually quite an attractive car. Other models in Subaru's lineup have become bloated and bulbous, which really makes the chiseled lines of the Impreza stand out.
It reminds me of the late 1990s Impreza 2.5, which was a great looking car.
The 16-inch wheels are a nice design, but they are also a bit on the small side. It kind of makes the Impreza look like it's riding on tiny caster wheels. Upper trim levels offer 17-inch wheels, which would help the looks.
Two things in the interior stand out for completely different reasons: the steering wheel and the gear shift.
The wheel was substantial and pleasing to the touch. The gearshift is plain black and just looks cheap.
However, look past those two points, and the cabin is actually quite nice. The white dials are illuminated by the red needle, and it creates a halo effect that looks cool at night.
The seats are comfortable and supportive as well.
One complaint was the Bluetooth system. It would not automatically recognise my phone each time I got in the car. But that's more of a slight annoyance than a true issue.
The best thing for me, by far, is the way the car sounds. I think the flat-four is just plain cool and you'll have a tough time mistaking it for anything else on the road.
On the outside, the car is also a vast improvement over the last generation in the style department. While the old car could give owners and bystanders nightmares, the new one actually looks quite pleasant.
For a $20,000 car, it was also well equipped. The test car had heated seats and Bluetooth, features that aren't usually found in this price range.
Don't kid yourself into thinking the Impreza is fast; it isn't.
However, the ratios in the gearbox did not work with the engine to showcase its strengths. Instead, the gearing was made to optimise fuel economy at all costs.
It's almost as if the gear ratios were picked out by an engineer who was wearing a blindfold. Each one was a surprise. First can pull a stump out of the ground while second was so long that there were times I thought I'd need to shift back into first to keep momentum going.
The overall result is varied. On the highway, the Impreza gets superb fuel economy. Around town, the car had a tough time carrying fourth gear at 35 MPH.
I'd gladly sacrifice some fuel economy on the highways to keep the engine from falling on its face around town.
Consumer Reports recently ranked the Impreza as a 'Top Pick' for best small car, beating out stiff competition from the Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra, and others.
But does that make the Impreza mainstream after years of being a niche ride?
I don't think so. The Impreza still caters to a market that wants to go against the grain. That's why it has a flat four and all-wheel drive.
However, the latest car makes an effort to appeal to a wider range than ever before. While I don't think it will unseat veterans like the Honda Civic, I do believe more people than ever will be heading to a Subaru dealer to buy an Impreza. And that's a good thing.
If Subaru decides to invest the profits from better sales in the next generation Impreza-based performance cars, I'll be a happy guy.
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