Subaru Impreza — Less is more

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

When speaking of the excellent new crop of compact cars now in American showrooms or on the way later this year, seldom is the Subaru Impreza part of the discussion. That may change with an all-new, stylish and more fuel efficient 2012 Impreza. The redesigned Subaru is better looking, has more interior space and is more fuel efficient than its predecessor.

The biggest complaint about the last generation Impreza was its poor fuel economy rated at just 20 mpg city and 27 highway from a 170-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. Those are anemic numbers for a modern compact sedan.

Subaru has answered that criticism with a significantly more fuel efficient powertrain for 2012 improving gas mileage by nine miles per gallon highway and seven city. This prodigious achievement came about by cutting body weight a commendable 165 pounds and by reducing the size of the engine.

Even though the new 2.0-liter horizontally opposed 4-cylinder engine — rated at 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque — has 22 fewer ponies than the previous 2.5-liter engine, it feels just as adept at handling the driving chores of life. Chalk that  up to the weight loss and the addition of a continuously variable transmission (CVT) in place of the old, outdated four-speed automatic.

We found that the performance, even loaded up with four adults and a trunk full of cargo for a 130-mile weekend round trip, was more than adequate; but the Impreza is no speedster in the compact segment, completing a 0-to-60 run in around 9 seconds, according to several recorded times.

The new boxer engine derives 27 mpg city and 36 mpg highway — 30 in combined driving — with the CVT. The, increased gas mileage in the new era of $4-a-gallon gas clearly trumps the nearly imperceptible loss in performance. Opting for the five-speed manual will put more spring in the Impreza's step, but will reduce mileage slightly to 25/34.

The mileage is even more impressive when you consider that the Impreza continues to come with all-wheel drive as standard equipment

The Impreza's highway manners are impressive. The steering is nicely weighted, the ride is compliant, the cabin relatively free of road and wind noise, and the brakes are solid-feeling.

The restyled exterior brings the Impreza more up to date against a host of stylish competition. It a carries a strong family resemblance to the restyled mid-sized Legacy. The sedan has a fastback look with a short nose and sharply raked windshield. Like the Legacy, the Impreza headlights wrap around the fender. The Impreza offers an attractive yet conservative look.

The interior design is stylishly user-friendly with straight-forward controls. Fit and finish is good, and materials appear to be of top quality, a big improvement over the previous Impreza. Hard plastics have mostly been replaced with soft-touch surfaces. The front seats are comfortable, and reaching an optimum driving position was not a problem for us.

Our rear-seat passengers both said they were satisfied their leg and foot room without need for adjusting the front seats forward. The trunk holds a reasonable 12 cubic feet of cargo, and the seatbacks can be folded forward for more storage.

If you opt for the hatchback design, the world of cargo hauling opens up. Capacity with all seats in place is 22.5 cubic feet and increases to 52.4 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded down.

The new Impreza comes in both sedan and hatchback models starting at $18,245 and $18,745 respectively. Standard features on base models are considerable and include full power accessories, air conditioning, a height-adjustable driver's seat, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, keyless entry, air conditioning, and a four-speaker sound system with CD player.

The Impreza 2.0 sedan comes in six trim levels and the 2.0 hatchback in a mind-boggling 10 trim levels with only subtle differences in price and equipment. Some study will be required before making a purchase. Our 2.0i Premium sedan carried a bottom line of $21,045. Pricey options include navigation ($2,000) and upgraded audio system with 10-inch powered subwoofer ($543).

For those of you with a bent for performance, the Impreza WRX and STI, boasting powerful turbocharged engines, are mostly unchanged for 2012.  The WRX is outfitted with a turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer four making 265 horsepower and 244 pound-feet of torque. The STI gets a version of the same engine boosted to 305 horsepower and boosts 0-to-60 times in the mid-four-second range. Starting price of the WRX is a bargain at $26,345. The STI starts at $36,845.

The compact segment is loaded with numerous stylish and fun-to-drive models. Even with the strong competition, the new Impreza should be a solid choice for shoppers looking for a well-made, comfortable and safe sedan or hatchback. And Subaru has a trump card — standard all-wheel drive.

Base price: $18,245; price as driven, $21,045
Engine: 2.0-liter Boxer four
Horsepower: 148 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 145 pound-feet @ 4,200 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 104.1 inches
Length: 180.3
Curb weight: 3,014 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 12.0 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (regular)
EPA Rating: 36 highway, 27 city
0-60: 8.6 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Chevrolet Cruz, Honda Civic, Volkswagen Jetta

The Good
• Standard all-wheel drive
• Dramatically improved fuel economy
• Spacious interior for a compact model

The Bad
• Audio system a disappointment

The Ugly
• Engine loses 22 horsepower