All-Wheel-Drive Stalwart Stays The Course

2012 Subaru Impreza

It was a welcome change of pace to sit through a new car product presentation and not have to listen to company pitchmen repeat the adjective "best-in-class" over and over again. The simple truth is that the all-new 2012 Subaru Impreza doesn't really have best-in-class anything – power, fuel economy, cruising range, cargo capacity or even warranty. The major thing that sets the new Impreza apart from its competition is standard all-wheel drive – a Subaru staple (at least, until the rear-wheel-drive BRZ shows up).

By equipping the Impreza with all-wheel drive as standard kit, Subaru is hoping to achieve one best-in-class mention: drivability. With its brand-new 2.0-liter flat-four engine leading the charge, Subaru aims to offer a solid package that proves to be the most engaging steer in its segment. Besides, if this new car will someday form the basis for the hotter WRX and STI models, it had better be at least somewhat engaging in original recipe guise, right? We headed to the hills of New York and Connecticut to find out.

Let's be honest. Subarus have never really been known for their beauty, and the 2012 Impreza, while an improvement from the previous-generation car, isn't going to win any design contests anytime soon. We'll admit to feeling a little let down by the Impreza's appearance, especially since the Impreza concept car that debuted at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show was such a hot little number.

Still, like we said, this 2012 model is better looking than the car it replaces. The front end adds a bit of aggression with a more angular shape on the headlight surround, and larger fog light housings pushed out to the front corners complement them nicely. The new grille mimics the look that debuted on the 2010 Legacy, and look for it to be Subaru's new corporate face on future models.

2012 Subaru Impreza side view2012 Subaru Impreza front view2012 Subaru Impreza rear view

We spent our day staring at the five-door Impreza Sport, and even though it's the one we'd buy, we can't say that it's leaps and bounds more attractive than the sedan. On the hatchback, the squared-off corners at the rear appear to be more pronounced, and while Subaru says this design was all in the name of improved aerodynamics, we'd still prefer something a bit smoother visually. Rear three-quarter design comparisons to the 2009 Pontiac Vibe are not unwarranted.

In the case of both the sedan and hatchback, Subaru has added more pronounced wheel arches to the Impreza, similar to those on the Legacy. The designers tell us this is to better communicate the car's all-wheel-drive architecture from a styling point of view, and while those arches aren't half bad to look at, they really only work with larger wheel and tire packages. The 17-inch dark alloy wheels wrapped in 205/50-series rubber on our test car, for example, are pretty handsome and fill out those large wells nicely.

The new Impreza isn't any longer or wider than the model it replaces, but it rides on a wheelbase that's been lengthened by one inch. Subaru says this accounts for an additional two inches of rear legroom, meaning there's 35.4 inches of overall leg space for rear seat passengers – the same as the capacious Chevrolet Cruze. The biggest change we noticed about the interior is how spacious it feels from the front seats. A relatively low beltline means you won't have that sunk-in-the-bathtub feeling that's becoming so popular on new cars these days, and with small changes like having the side mirrors attached to the doors rather than the A-pillars, visibility from the driver's seat is superb. Even your author, at five-feet, seven-inches, had no trouble getting a commanding view of the road with the driver's seat in its lowest height position.

2012 Subaru Impreza headlight2012 Subaru Impreza grille2012 Subaru Impreza wheel2012 Subaru Impreza taillight

What we like the best about the Impreza's interior is how clean and simple it is, from the dashboard to the center stack to the radio head unit. Even cars equipped with navigation use a simple layout, free of excess buttons and knobs and toggle switches. The instrument cluster is clean and well-organized, and the steering wheel's controls are nicely laid out and easy to learn. Study them once, and you won't need to keep glancing down to figure out what controls what.

Frequent cargo-shleppers will appreciate the capaciousness of the five-door Impreza, with 52.4 cubic feet of usable space available with the rear seats folded. That's an improvement of exactly eight cubic feet versus the 2011 model, and 7.6 cubic feet versus the 2012 Ford Focus five-door. There are plenty of other cubbies and compartments throughout the rest of the interior, and the Subaru folks tell us that there's even room up front to house 38 compact discs... if that's still your thing.

Overall, the 2012 Impreza's interior is where we see the largest improvement in quality. The cabin is simple and refined from a design standpoint, while feeling very grown up and not as gimmicky as other cars in the segment (*cough* Focus *cough*). Subaru has added a smattering of soft-touch materials to the dashboard and doors, and while they're nice, the Cruze's interior still feels more sophisticated and refined (the same goes for the Focus, if we're being honest). Little things like the climate control dials still feel cheap in the Impreza, as does the plastic material on the steering wheel, even on the uplevel leather-laden Limited trim.

2012 Subaru Impreza interior2012 Subaru Impreza front seats2012 Subaru Impreza rear seats2012 Subaru Impreza rear cargo area

The only engine available for 2012 is Subaru's all-new 2.0-liter boxer flat-four, good for 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. Oddly, those figures represent a loss of 22 hp and 25 lb-ft versus the outgoing 2.5-liter engine, but because the new Impreza is lighter – up to 110 pounds, depending on the trim – Subaru says that the 2012 model is actually quicker off the line, which we chalk up to the 'gearing' of the new continuously variable transmission or the throttle tuning. Both a CVT and five-speed manual transmission are available, but the continuously variable unit is the only transmission offered on Limited models. The CVT used in the Impreza isn't the same one found in the Legacy and Outback, and officials tell us it has been tuned for specific integration with this new 2.0-liter engine.

Of course, we can't talk about the Impreza without mentioning the WRX, and while a new 'Rex isn't planned for the immediate future, the rally-bred hotness is coming in just a few years. This 2.0-liter engine may be optimized for naturally aspirated use, but as Subaru's director of communications Michael McHale told us, Subaru "will always be a turbo company," and we can look for a forced-induction version of this engine to produce somewhere around 270 horses. Consider us on the edge of our seats.

While this engine has allegedly been tuned for better low-end and mid-range torque, the full 145 lb-ft isn't delivered until 4,200 rpm. We only had the chance to drive CVT-equipped Imprezas during our time in New England, and as you'd expect, the transmission doesn't really behave any differently than comparable units from other automakers. The transmission quickly revs up to about 4,000 RPM, holds there, and tapers off as you reach your desired cruising speed. No, the Impreza isn't a slug off the line, but there were times on uphill climbs where we really would have appreciated some extra grunt down low. CVT-equipped cars come with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters with six 'gears' to choose from. We played with this, and no matter what preset ratio you select, mash the throttle and the engine will just spin up to about 4,000 RPM. It's pretty pointless, if you ask us.

2012 Subaru Impreza engine

We talked to folks who were able to drive cars equipped with the manual transmission, and we didn't hear great things here, either. Primarily, the problem with low-end power is even more glaring when you're rowing the gears yourself. "Lots of downshifting," a fellow journalist told us. We'll wait to pass final judgment until we get behind the wheel of a self-stirrer, but this was discouraging news.

Lower weight and lower power has improved overall economy, though, and even with all-wheel drive, the Impreza can achieve up to 36 miles per gallon on the highway. That makes it the most efficient all-wheel-drive vehicle on the market – that's some sort of "best-in-class" statement, right? With the manual transmission, the Impreza nets 25/34 mpg city/highway (in the sedan – the hatch's highway number drops to 33 mpg with the manual box). That isn't quite the magic 40 mpg number that Ford, Hyundai and Chevrolet all manage to achieve, but 36 mpg isn't anything to sneeze at, especially with an extra pair of driven wheels.

But with less power and a slushy CVT, is the new model just as good as the 2011 model when the roads start to get interesting?

2012 Subaru Impreza paddle shifter2012 Subaru Impreza shifter

The Impreza uses a MacPherson strut and lower L-arm front suspension with a double-wishbone setup out back. Combined with Subaru's Symmetrical AWD system, the Impreza is nicely balanced on all road surfaces. The suspension is never crashy and provides a comfortable ride quality without feeling wafty. Having power sent to all four wheels inspires confidence from behind the wheel, and while it's no sports car, the Impreza feels genuinely reassuring while being tossed about, even on wet surfaces.

A new electric power steering system has been applied for 2012, accounting for a marginal gain in overall fuel economy. And while many of these systems give off a feeling of false involvement and can feel twitchy, the Subaru unit is linear and direct, with good on-center feel.

For our shekels, the current fun-to-drive champ in this segment is still the Mazda3, and while we'd have to drive the two cars back-to-back to pick a winner, at least on these roads, the Subaru felt just as engaging as we remember from the Mazda. Yes, we'd like some more power down low, and we're not in love with the CVT, but in terms of suspension refinement, the Subaru is top notch. All-in, the Impreza is a solid steer, and from behind the wheel, it feels more refined than many of its competitors, particularly the Honda Civic and Volkswagen Jetta.

2012 Subaru Impreza rear 3/4 view

Despite all the changes, pricing for the 2012 Impreza hasn't changed from 2011 – the base, four-door car starts at $17,495 (plus $750 for destination), with the five-door commanding an additional $500. Three trim levels are available – base, Premium and Limited – and at the top of the range, the Impreza Sport Limited with CVT stickers at $22,595.

The Impreza has never been a sales superstar, with Subaru's Outback, Legacy and Forester models all posting higher sales numbers throughout 2011. Yes, the current car is at the end of its lifecycle, but even so, we don't expect the 2012 model to set sales charts on fire like Volkswagen's new, lower-priced Jetta or the surprising Chevrolet Cruze. What Subaru has done here is create a new Impreza that offers more refinement, better economy and modestly improved styling over the car it replaces.

As for being the most fun-to-drive car in its class, the Impreza might not be our first pick, but it's in the hunt. Current Impreza owners should really like this new car, and C-segment shoppers would be wise to give the Subie a look, especially those who live in the Snow Belt. It may not offer best-in-class efficiency, technology, power, or beauty, but all in, the Impreza is a solid offering with some of the best road manners in its class.

Now, about that WRX...