Breaking out of its seemingly bi-polar granola/energy drink (Outback/WRX) shell wasn't easy for Subaru, but now that Japan's rising star has gotten the hang of things, it seems like there's nothing the automaker can't do right.
The next step in Subaru's mainstreamification
was a total revamp of its under-performing Impreza compact sedan and hatchback line. Not only do the two bodystyles look better inside and out, they boast the kind of vastly improved fuel economy that is already resonating with buyers.
Like the redesigned Legacy and Outback that preceded the Impreza, sales are so brisk that Subaru is cranking these cars out as fast as it can. All those buyers must have some reason why they're flocking to the 2012 Impreza, right?
What is it?
Impreza has long been a bit more premium than most of its compact class rivals, but that's primarily because its standard all-wheel-drive adds obvious cost and complexity. In reality, this sedan and hatchback line always seemed to force too many compromises in the name of traction.
Power still goes to all four wheels, but for 2012, the Impreza gained a substantially revised body and a new interior, but the biggest news comes under the hood. Defying convention, Subaru inserted a downsized and
less powerful 2.0-liter flat four-cylinder into the Impreza's engine bay. Motivating all four wheels is either a five-speed manual transmission or a CVT that's a distant cousin to the generally impressive unit in the larger Legacy and Outback. Gone is the Impreza's outdated conventional four-speed automatic, a 1980s-era transmission that hindered performance so much that this new, less-powerful Impreza is actually faster than its predecessor.
Our tester was loaded up with Sport garb, which means dark-finish alloy wheels and a roof rack in Subaru-speak. The appearance package doesn't bring with it any go-faster or handle-better goodies, but it does look pretty fetching for a reasonable $500 over a normal Impreza.
Gone is the slow-selling Outback Sport, but a lifted version of the Impreza will arrive soon as the Crosstrek
. If ever a car was to follow in the AMC Eagle's footsteps, this is bound to be it.
What's it up against?
Subaru is alone among mainstream five-door non-premium hatchbacks in offering all-wheel-drive, which has long made its vehicles popular in places that the Weather Channel highlights in January.
But for those less traction-minded buyers, our tester squares off nicely against hatchback variants of the Mazda Mazda3
Skyactiv, the Ford Focus and the upcoming Hyundai Elantra
How does it look?
Taking cues from the larger Legacy, the Impreza was given a serious facelift for 2012. Gone is the bubbly, nondescript look of its predecessor, replaced instead by a crisply-toned appearance with the kind of flared fenders that hint at something big going on under the hood. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait for the rally-oriented WRX's refresh later this year before this look delivers when the skinny pedal is depressed.
Interesting details abound, giving the Impreza a more upmarket look than its compact positioning might suggest. Up front, wide-swept headlamps and finely-detailed fog lamp housings provide a visual punch, while big tail lamps and a faux diffuser stand out at the rear.
We would like to have seen at least a single exposed exhaust pipe, which would have helped bolster the Sport theme of our tester, but Subaru instead chose to hide an unadorned outlet below the bumper.
And on the inside?
What a difference a model year makes. The outgoing Impreza's organic but bland shapes and rock hard plastics have been thrown out the window in place of an edgier, but still conservative, look composed of vastly improved materials.
Drivers face a nice three-spoke steering wheel and clear, simple gauges with a low-tech display clustered between the speedometer and tachometer. Like many rivals, the temperature gauge is gone, replaced instead by a vague mpg needle designed to give drivers a feel for how efficiently they're driving. From there, the center stack features a hooded binnacle covering a similarly bargain-basement single-line display controlled by an inconvenient cluster-mounted stalk button. Another button on either the steering wheel or the center console would be an ergonomic improvement.
But the worst part of the interior is, fortunately, an avoidable one: The optional navigation unit. Finicky and fussy in ways that defy any logical reason, this head unit was enough to induce plenty of head banging - and not of the AC/DC type.
Luckily, the interior's basic bones are otherwise excellent, albeit a little short on visual pizazz. Interior space is commodious both front and rear, with firm and supportive leather (and mostly vinyl)-covered seats standard on our Sport Limited tester. Materials were generally excellent, with soft-touch, low-sheen plastics covering the dashboard and door panels.
Still, at our tester's price point, rivals tend to offer more luxury touches like a power driver's seat, LCD screens and even blind spot detection, but that's the compromise buyers still make for all-wheel-drive in this segment.
But does it go?
Vaguely related to the 2.0-liter flat four-cylinder used in the sporty BR-Z, the Impreza's Boxer engine puts out 148 horsepower at a high 6,200 rpm and 145 lb-ft. of torque at a more accessible 4,200 rpm. Those sound like reasonable numbers for a compact five-door, but they're significantly lower than the 170 horsepower and 170 lb-ft. of torque found in the outgoing 2.5-liter.
Our Limited grade tester is offered exclusively with a CVT with six manually-selectable "gears" accessible by a pair of steering wheel-mounted paddles. While the fake gears don't quite replicate a conventional multi-cog transmission, they are helpful for descending steep grades.
Despite the on-paper power deficit, we found the Impreza to be a generally brisk performer. With a load of passengers or on a steep on-ramp, the CVT was eager to work its way into the relatively high-revolution power band. This brought some mild engine room noise into the cabin, but the Impreza was otherwise very quiet. With a lighter load, the Impreza felt sufficiently zippy, with good power available immediately after throttle tip-in.
Only a mild feeling of elasticity accompanies the CVT's motions; those who weren't aware that their old car's transmission actually had gears won't notice any undue actions, but we think this infinite gearbox still slightly trails industry-leader Nissan.
The CVT does certainly save fuel, though. We came in just a tick below the 27/36 mpg ratings assigned by the EPA, but even our as-measured 28.5 mpg average (below the expected 30 mpg) was top notch for an all-wheel-drive car.
And that all-wheel-drive system certainly helps roadholding. Despite some of the least communicative steering we've ever experienced in car, the Impreza is generally balanced and capable, if well short of entertaining. A robust structure and a firm but not punishing suspension helped our tester take bumps in stride, but its disconnected steering ultimately dragged down the fun factor. Despite being precise and direct, the electrically-assisted tiller could have come from an arcade game in terms of the way it filtered out anything resembling road feel.
We're confident that the next WRX will have a better setup that, with any luck, can be adapted to the standard Impreza. As it is, the Impreza simply feels a little too artificial compared to the dynamically impressive Mazda3 and Focus.
Why you would buy it:
Impreza's good looks, roomy interior and versatile powertrain finally make it a real contender and not a niche player.
Why you wouldn't:
You were hoping the standard Impreza would get a little more WRX mojo.
Leftlane's bottom line
Subaru shot for the mainstream with its Impreza and, by and large, the automaker hit the bullseye. Impreza may not be quite the enthusiast's car it once was, but it finally looks and feels the part.
If only it was a fraction as sporty as some of its cousins.
2013 Subaru Impreza Sport Limited Hatchback
base price, $22,895. As tested, $25,645.
Moonroof/navigation package, $2,000; Destination, $750.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.