All-Wheel-Drive Stalwart Stays The Course
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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...
New Car Test Drive
All-new, and chic.
The more things change, the more they stay the same; that adage has applied to Subaru for decades. These concise, tough, traditionally plain cars have an exceptionally devoted following in the marketplace, largely because Subarus have the lived-in familiarity of a favorite pair of old shoes. The skeletal aspects of the all-new fourth-generation 2012 Subaru Impreza, its structure, minimalist boxer four-cylinder engine and on-demand all-wheel-drive, follow faithfully in the Subaru tradition. But for 2012, something new, and almost un-Subaru, has been added.
The new 2012 Impreza is the most dashing, stylish car Subaru has ever dared produce. Dared? Yes. Given Subaru's conservative, don't-rush-me tradition, this 2012 Impreza is, in its own way, revolutionary. Subaru fully intends the new Impreza to continue to appeal to its traditional buyers on the basis of its sturdy, capable all-weather characteristics. But at the same time, Subaru hopes the new car will reach out to brand-new buyers with its well-styled looks.
With Subaru's penetration of the American market inching constantly upwards, its market share is 3.47 percent, the highest ever, the company has good reason to look beyond its current owner base for new sales. A primary obstacle is that, at present, few people think of Subaru as a sedan-maker; they are more inclined to associate the brand with crossover SUVs.
But the new four- and five-door 2012 Impreza models are mass-market sedans, or in the case of the five-door, wagon-like utilities. Though many American buyers eschew hatchbacks, the five-door Impreza is perhaps the most well-proportioned model of the line.
The 2012 Impreza is revolutionary in other Subaru-like ways. Its all-new 148-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, downsized from last year's 2.5-liter, produces similar power and performance, while increasing fuel efficiency by a massive 36 percent. At a stellar 36 mpg Highway/27 mpg City on the EPA cycle, the Impreza is the most fuel-efficient all-wheel-drive car in America. At the same time, while many competing cars continue to get heavier, the new Impreza, depending on model and equipment, has lost up to 165 pounds in curb weight, contributing to increased fuel efficiency.
Subaru has long established itself as a builder of rugged small cars. According to the company, 95 percent of Subarus sold in the past 10 years are still on the road. With the fourth-generation Impreza, Subaru fully expects to outsell the previous model, the best-selling Impreza ever. Only the loss of six weeks' production due to the tsunami in Japan slowed 2011 sales. But the efficient new 2012 Impreza, starting at the same base price as the 2011 Impreza, achieves a significant jump in efficiency, value for dollar and appeal. Subaru means to climb still higher in the market with a car that will beckon to more Americans.
The 2012 Subaru Impreza 2.0i comes in 4-Door and 5-Door models in several trim levels, all with the 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve flat opposed four-cylinder engine. Most models come standard with a 5-speed manual gearbox; a CVT continuously variable transmission (which works like an automatic) adds $1,000. The Imprezas in some states are tuned to meet government regulations for Partial-Zero Emissions Vehicles, which increases all the prices listed here by $500. (All listed prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices, which do not include destination charge and may change at any time without notice.)
The Impreza 2.0i sedan ($17,495) comes with cloth upholstery, air conditioning with air filtration, height-adjustable driver's seat, 65/35 fold-down rear seats, four-speaker AM/FM/CD, radio data system, two 12V outlets, power door locks, power mirrors, power windows with driver's auto up/down, rear window defroster, rear-seat heater ducts, remote fuel door release, tilt/telescope steering wheel, dual overhead map lights, dual visor vanity lights, ECO fuel-economy gauge, automatic-off headlights, trunk light, variable intermittent wipers, 15-inch steel wheels, 195/65 R15 all-season tires, green tinted glass, roof-mounted antenna. The 2.0i 5-Door ($17,995) includes all the above plus cargo tie-down hooks, grocery-bag hooks, rear window wiper/washer, rear roof spoiler.
Impreza 2.0i Premium sedan ($18,795) and 5-Door ($19,295) upgrade to 16x6.5-inch alloy wheels, 205/55 R16 all-season tires, six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3, Bluetooth, hands-free phone, iPod, USB, body-color exterior mirrors, adjustable center armrest, chrome interior door handles, cruise control, fog lights, illuminated ignition switch, rear stabilizer bar, steering wheel cruise/audio/Bluetooth controls, and cargo cover (5-door). Impreza 2.0i Limited comes standard with the CVT, 17-inch alloy wheels, and upgrades to leather-trimmed upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, rear-seat armrest, premium audio, 4.3-inch display, Bluetooth, iPod capability, All-Weather Package, automatic headlights, climate control, chrome exterior accents, fog lights.
The 2.0i Sport Premium 5-door ($20,295) adds 17x7 alloy wheels, 205/50 R17 all-season tires, HD radio 4.3-inch display screen, iTunes tagging capability, 3.4-in. aux. input jack, heated front seats, heated exterior mirrors, windshield wiper de-icers, auto on/off lights, climate control, chrome exterior door handles and grille accents, chrome-trim fog lights, leather upholstery, leather steering wheel and shifter, dual rear cup holders. Impreza 2.0i Sport Limited includes the CVT and upgrades to leather-trimmed upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, rear-seat armrest, premium audio, 4.3-inch display, Bluetooth, iPod capability, automatic headlights, climate control, silver-accent grille.
Options include an All-Weather Package ($500) with heated front seats, heated exterior mirrors and windshield wiper de-icers; Moonroof ($1,000); Moonroof plus Navigation System ($2,000).
Safety features on all models include the mandated airbags plus a driver's knee airbag, anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), VDC electronic stability control, TCS traction control, brake assist, brake override system, hill-hold start, all-wheel drive, mandated internal trunk lease, child-restraint anchorage system, mandated tire pressure monitor, whiplash-preventive front seats, 24-hour roadside assistance.
The external appearance of the 2012 Impreza four-door and five-door is a vigorous leap forward in Subaru styling. But this dynamically forward-thrusting new shape is more than just a pretty face.
The overall length of the 2012 Impreza is identical to its 2008-2011 forebear (180.3 inches for the four-door, 173.8 inches for 5-door), but the 2012 Impreza makes vastly more efficient use of the interior space it encloses. The new car's wheelbase is one inch longer than the previous Impreza, and the base of its A-pillar has been moved a massive 7.9 inches forward. This slants the windshield steeply back resulting in a sleek, modern profile.
This aggressive cabin shape, besides looking great, allows Subaru designers to achieve startling improvements in interior space and efficiency. The new Impreza is roomier, more comfortable and easier to get in and out of. A major element in this improvement is the fact that front door opening is almost five inches longer front to rear. The lower lip of the doorsill is also one inch lower than in the previous model, adding to ease of entry. The rear door opening is also longer, achieving the same benefits. All of this in a car that isn't one inch longer than the previous-generation model.
In other respects, the new Impreza is a pleasing, modern shape. Its low, short hood and streamlined shape contribute to an enthusiastic form that moves through the air efficiently, registering a low coefficient of drag of 0.31 for the four-door and 0.33 for the five-door. The nose is aggressive, with dual low air intakes, shrouded for the lowest amount of aerodynamic drag. The rakishly shaped headlight clusters seem to glower with determination. The Impreza's sides have three character lines, thrusting downward and ahead. Finally, the wheel wells are surrounded by a distinctive flat semicircular bevel that keeps the profile from looking too heavy.
A stiffer chassis floor for 2012 allows the suspension to react more accurately to changing loads and more spirited driving.
All in all, the 2012 Impreza is one of the most attractive small cars in the marketplace, replacing the cheap/minimalist theme of some others with an appearance of true chic.
Entering the cabin for the first time, the 2012 Impreza has an airy, nicely stylish feel, with a relatively low beltline and a large greenhouse with large windows that welcome the outside world. The instrumentation on the dash looks simple and straightforward, as opposed to high-tech and demanding. It is a look that is fully in keeping with Subaru's geewhiz-free approach. But the controls are by no means a throwback to the previous (2008-2011) model. The dashboard cover and switchgear are redone with very nice soft-touch materials that give them an expensive, adult feel.
In keeping with this well-equipped package, the Impreza models are fitted with a new driver-side knee airbag, complementing the full standard array of mandated airbags.
Similarly, the layout and dispersion of instruments and controls is nicely intuitive; you feel you understand all you need to understand from the first exposure to them. The main dials for engine speed (redline 6600 rpm) and vehicle speed are black-on-white and almost disappointingly plain in keeping with Subaru's no-nonsense tone. The cruise control, audio control and hands-free phone controls on the steering wheel were dead simple, with little toggles that did their job well. A small multi-function Info display is located dead ahead between the tachometer and speedometer.
The front seats are average in terms of comfort and lateral support, appropriate to this thrifty, fuel-efficient car's place in the market. But the front seats have been improved in a major way for 2012: The seatbacks are taller, better protecting bigger drivers from whiplash injury.
In the rear compartment, legroom has been resourcefully increased by scalloping out the backs of the front seats.
Trunk volume in the four-door sedan is 12.0 cubic feet, but our 5-door test car, with its cargo room maximized, delivered a generous 52.4 cubic feet. Lift-over height is moderate: 27.0 inches.
The Impreza HVAC was absolutely straightforward and powerful, and the audio was good by contemporary standards, not exceptional but acceptable. The body-color electric outside mirrors have been enlarged since 2011 and provide better rearward visibility.
This is a comfortable, well-furnished interior, fully in keeping with Subaru's down-to-earth practicality. The Impreza is a simple economy sedan in some respects, but with the 2012 version, Impreza has added style and comfort that will be attractive to buyers well beyond the Subaru faithful.
The 2012 Impreza is definitely a Subaru. The small 2.0-liter flat-4 is no racer. A twin-cam engine, unlike the prior single overhead-cam 2.5-liter, the new 2.0-liter has made major improvements in power delivery and its horsepower-per-cubic-centimeter rating.
Impreza's 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque sound minimal, but its 165-pound weight decrease over the previous model (2008-11) really helps performance, and the new 2012 Impreza with a CVT can accelerate more quickly than the previous-generation version.
Furthermore, the 36-percent leap in fuel efficiency, scoring an EPA-estimated 27/36 mpg with the CVT, is genuinely impressive. A PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) is available that lowers emissions further, though it comes at higher cost.
One characteristic we did not like is the artificially sudden throttle tip-in from a standing start. It may make the car seem faster than it is, but it was annoying and unnecessary.
Our drives in the Impreza demonstrated one great plus. At Interstate speeds, it accelerates crisply and is delighted to cruise calmly and steadily at the very highest speeds you can get away with.
We found the continuously variable transmission a big improvement over earlier CVTs, including Subaru's early version. The transmission has lost that feeling of being dragged around by a rubber band. The transmission still varies its ratio in response to engine speed, but it doesn't do this as numbingly, promoting more direct control of acceleration and speed.
Our Premium five-door had steering column-mounted paddle-shifters, the left-hand paddle for downshifts and the right-hand paddle for upshifts. Anyone used to the kind of vehicle control provided by a manual transmission, but not wishing to thump a clutch pedal every few seconds, will find these paddle-shifters a must. And the Subaru transmission doesn't play games. Within reason, you get the shift you asked for.
The transmission has another brilliant provision. With the console gearshift lever in the right-hand position, the CVT will make fully automatic shifts aimed at maximum fuel mileage. You can still paddle shift in this fully automatic mode, the transmission waiting a period before shifting to the most efficient cog. But if you insist on absolute paddle-shift control of the transmission, you merely move the gearshift lever to the left. From then on, when you make a paddle shift, the transmission holds that gear in play until you select another gear. This allows downshifting to control your car's speed descending a grade, because the downshift order stays in effect. If you want to, you can paddle-shift down two or three gears, presuming you will not over-rev the engine. This may be useful for downshifting into corners in wet-weather or snow.
The Impreza's new electronic steering delivers nicely firm steering effort, while contributing a 2-percent savings in fuel efficiency. And the Impreza's cornering and stability are surprisingly good even at relatively high cornering speeds. The new suspension keeps the car remarkably flat and stable. However, when taken to its cornering limit, a large amount of body roll takes place. We found the Impreza much more pleasant at a sporty pace than at a racy pace.
The braking system had all the expected supporting systems: Electronic Brake Distribution, ABS and Brake Assist. The brakes had fairly good feel and performed powerfully even in very wet conditions.
This traditionally modest Subaru looks far less modest than any previous Subaru. With a cruising range of 523 miles and better fuel mileage than a Fiat 500, yet with all-wheel drive, the all-new 2012 Subaru Impreza is a value leader. It is more comfortable than expected and more glamorous by far, yet it still embodies all of the admired practicality that has made Subaru among the most owner-loyal brands anywhere.
Ted West filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from New York.
Subaru Impreza 2.0i 4-door ($17,495); 5-door ($17,995); Premium 4-door ($18,795); Premium 5-door ($19,295); Limited 4-door ($21,595); Limited 5-door ($22,095); Sport Premium 5-door ($20,295); Sport Limited 5-door ($22,595).
Options As Tested
All-Weather Alloy Wheel Moonroof Package ($2000) with heated front seats, heated exterior mirrors and windshield wiper de-icers, 17-inch alloy wheels, 205/50 R17 all-season tires, leather steering wheel/shifter, power moonroof.
Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium 5-door ($22,045).
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