Going Mainstream With The Beauty Of All-Wheel-Drive

2012 Subaru Impreza

Subaru found itself in an interesting position when the North American auto market imploded back in 2009. While most manufacturers were busily darting about trying to stop their sales from bleeding out, the quirky Japanese automaker actually posted gains in both market share and earnings during the recession.

It was a dark time for most dealers. Salesmen began eying the fairest compacts on their lot for sacrifice in an attempt to appease the sales gods that had abandoned them, and showrooms began devolving into tribal law in earnest. Meanwhile, we're guessing many Subaru dealers watched through gold-rimmed monocles from across the street with a mixture of curiosity and amusement.

But what happens when the national financial ship rights itself and social order is restored once again? Will buyers still shun emblems of excess and continue to opt for practical, economy-minded Japanese all-wheel-drive wagons and compacts? If the 2012 Subaru Impreza is any indication, the company may be concerned its products aren't quite mainstream enough to retain conquests acquired through the dark days of '09. The 2012 Impreza is more comfortable, quieter and offers a more attractive interior than ever before, but those gains come with sacrifices that risk alienating the model's longtime fans, ourselves included.

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

For better or worse, Subaru has held onto the company's tradition of embracing unconventional styling. We've never loved the automaker's products because of their bodywork, and the 2012 Impreza sedan isn't out to buck that trend. Designers have blessed the four door with an aggressive face that's far from anonymous. Large, scowling headlamps lie beneath a nicely contoured hood and are split by an attractive hexagonal grille. The front fascia features a large lower air inlet with sizable fog light bezels set far toward each corner. And speaking of corners, engineers have rolled in the squared-off aero edges popularized by hybrid models like the Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Volt and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid.

We're willing to chalk up the sedan's questionable lines as par for the course from a company responsible for the likes of the curious SVX and infamous Tribeca.

From the front, the 2012 Impreza looks more like a baby Legacy than an anonymous compact. Unfortunately, that impression wanes as soon as the vehicle is viewed from the side. In profile, the 2011 Impreza simply looks awkward, particularly in sedan guise. Individual elements like a strong character line that transitions seamlessly into the taillights and expressive, exaggerated fender arches look good when taken individually, but make for a muddled finished product when combined. There's simply too much going on here for this design to be considered clean. Combine those issues with the standard 16-inch alloy wheels on our 2.0 Premium tester and a too-tall ride height, and you have a perfect recipe for awkward pie.

Whereas compacts like the Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze serve up sheetmetal that looks either more stylish or more mature than we've come to expect from the segment, Subaru seems committed to the unpleasantness of bygone compact design. But, being the generous folks we are, we're willing to chalk up the sedan's questionable lines as par for the course from a company responsible for the likes of the curious SVX and infamous Tribeca. Ugly is as Subaru does.

2012 Subaru Impreza headlight2012 Subaru Impreza logo2012 Subaru Impreza wheel2012 Subaru Impreza taillight

We've been quick to rail on the Japanese automaker for building interiors well behind the curve in the past, and it appears Subaru has finally moved to cure that ail. The 2012 Impreza now features a vastly improved material selection inside. The driver gets to enjoy a three-spoke, multi-function steering wheel, and our 2.0 Premium tester came equipped with a very attractive two-tone interior. The dash is covered in squeak-fighting soft-touch materials, and while the center stack isn't anything we'd consider beautiful, the controls are logically organized and easy to manipulate. Perhaps the best place to see an improvement is the vehicle's front door panels. These pieces have been a wasteland of hard plastic in the past, but with soft touch uppers, well-grained plastics and cloth inserts, the panels now use a multitude of materials to improve the overall feel of the cabin. On the whole, the interior is a massive improvement, though it's a bit sober and lacks cutting-edge infotainment options.

Rear passengers are now treated to two-inches of additional leg room over the outgoing model.

Fortunately, Subaru has also worked to make the 2012 Impreza more accommodating inside. Engineers have stretched the vehicle's wheelbase by a full inch, and thanks to some clever packaging, rear passengers are now treated to two-inches of additional leg room over the outgoing model. That's partially due to new scalloped front seatbacks that provide space for knobby knees. Even with the extra space, the 35.4 inches of rear legroom in the Impreza just ties that available in the Chevrolet Cruze and still falls to the 36.2 inches available in the segment-conquering Honda Civic.

Speaking of those front seats, Subaru redesigned the buckets for long-term comfort, and there's more lumbar support available than in the past. Even the base Impreza is now packed with convenience features, including power windows, locks and side-view mirrors as well as keyless entry.

2012 Subaru Impreza interior2012 Subaru Impreza front seats2012 Subaru Impreza door2012 Subaru Impreza rear seats

But if there's a reason to get excited about the 2012 Subaru Impreza, it's under the vehicle's hood. The four-door packs an all-new, dual-overhead cam naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder good for up to 36 mpg according to the Environmental Protection Agency. If that seems a shade low for the compact segment, it pays to keep in mind that this is the only vehicle in the class that comes with all-wheel drive as standard equipment. And, if a little perspective helps, the previous-generation Impreza managed to drag home a pathetic 20 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. In 2011. The outgoing model's numbers were bested even by the likes of the Honda CR-V.

But that was then. Now, the 2012 Impreza is good for 27 mpg city by the EPA's reckoning. That's a massive step up, and during our time with the vehicle, we saw an honest 31.5 mpg combined. We know previous-generation Impreza owners who would perform all sorts of sinister acts to milk that kind of fuel economy from their thirsty boxer fours. Of course, those numbers come with a sacrifice. At 148 horsepower, the new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine produces 22 less horsepower than the old 2.5-liter single-overhead cam lump. The story isn't much better when it comes to torque, with the 2012 model delivering 145 pound-feet to the 2011 version's 170 pound-feet.

2012 Subaru Impreza engine

To further complicate matters, our tester came saddled with a dreaded continuously variable transmission. There are companies that build excellent CVT gearboxes. Subaru is not one of them. While we have no problem with the idea of relying on smaller-displacement engines with lower power figures to meet fuel economy goals, the CVT means that the driver is forced to cane the breath out of the engine just to feel like the car's getting under way. The bands shift the engine from barely above idle to outright screaming at red line with little to no happy medium, leaving the 2.0-liter lump sounding like a bipolar blender. The experience is simply grating, and genuinely detracts from the overall driving experience. Of course, the fact that we spent a week with the vehicle screaming in the upper registers of the RPM band and still managed to net 31.5 mpg combined makes us wonder what we could coax from the standard five-speed manual transmission.

Or at least it would if both vehicles utilized the same all-wheel-drive system. Subaru has pulled something of a quick one when it comes to putting power to all four corners in the 2012 Impreza. Buyers who opt for the manual transmission are treated to the same tried-and-true continuous all-wheel-drive system we've come to know and love, complete with a viscous coupling locking center differential. CVT models, meanwhile, make use of an active all-wheel-drive system with an electronically controlled hydraulic transfer clutch. That means that most of the time, the rear wheels are simply along for the ride. Should the vehicle decide you need extra grip, it can kick power to the rear tires accordingly.

2012 Subaru Impreza rear 3/4 view

So, how does it drive? Subaru says that it has worked to improve the vehicle's noise, vibration and harshness with tricks like hydraulic engine mounts, and it's true that this is probably the quietest boxer from Subaru we've had the pleasure of not hearing for years. That's particularly impressive given that the company abandoned the typical quiet timing belt in favor of a more durable, but characteristically louder timing chain. By and large, the whole cabin does seem quieter, but the company's engineers seem to have created a much softer suspension to go along with the decrease in decibels. The whole car simply feels tippy when of hustling. Interestingly enough, our Premium 2.0 came loaded with a larger rear stabilizer bar than the base model, so we can only assume that our tester should be sharper than the entry-level four-door.

Subaru has effectively excised any of the light-footed precision of the previous-generation Impreza with the 2012 model, and that's sure to be a disappointment for fans of the company's fun-to-drive persona. Still, a quieter, larger, more comfortable and more efficient Impreza that still offers the grip of all-wheel drive can't help but resonate with buyers looking for a solid commuter.

Our tester arrived carrying an MSRP of $18,795 plus destination, which is fair given the vehicle's capabilities. Even so, we have to imagine we could find more playful or more comfortable ways to get around town in other competitors with the help of a set of snow tires.