2012 Subaru Impreza Road Test

Subaru finally combines all-wheel drive with good fuel economy.

What It Is/Who It's For
For 2012, the Impreza sheds its boy-racer aesthetic for compact title contender.
Best Thing
Fuel economy and all-wheel drive are not mutually exclusive terms.
Worst Thing
Great fuel economy comes at the expense of power.
Snap Judgment
The 2012 Subaru Impreza is the all-wheel drive Civic you've always wanted.


Most car enthusiasts gasped when they heard that the 2012 Subaru Impreza would not have a turbocharged engine. After all, it was the turbocharged Impreza WRX and Impreza WRX STI rally racecars that really put Subaru on the global map. But strip out the turbo and you're basically left with a sedate-looking, compact sedan. Which is precisely where we come in.

We've driven comparable cars -- the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, and Chevrolet Cruze, but none of those vehicles had what the Subaru Impreza is also known for: all-wheel drive. Subaru is, in fact, the only auto brand to offer full time all-wheel drive on all of its vehicles, and it's considered a necessity and luxury to those who live in harsh, wintry climates. But in the ultra-competitive compact segment, a niche technology like all-wheel drive has not been embraced because it adds weight to the car and tends to be less fuel-efficient. Subaru thinks it has found a way around this conundrum, finally allowing it to compete outside its foul-weather-friendly niche.

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The 2012 Subaru Impreza uses reduced weight, and a new, smaller engine -- among other features -- to enable it to achieve the best fuel economy of any gasoline-powered, all-wheel drive car on the market. But can it keep up with the compact kings from Honda and Hyundai?

What We Drove

The 2012 Subaru Impreza has two body styles and a total of five models for 2012; three for the sedan and two for the five-door hatchback. The Impreza ranges in price from $17,495 to $22,595, minus destination and options, and for the first time, is left turbo-less after the separation of the sporty WRX from the Impreza lineup. Though they share similar underpinnings, those cars begin at $25,595 (topping out at $37,445) and are now officially named WRX and WRX STI.

Our tester, however, was the range-topping Impreza 2.0 Limited sedan, listed for $21,895. Like every Subaru, the Impreza is distinguished from its competition by the inclusion of symmetrical all-wheel drive. Stated simply, this means that the engine sends power to the front and rear wheels for greater traction instead of just the front, or just the rear. Every other car in the Impreza's segment is limited to front-wheel drive. In addition to all-wheel drive -- important to mountainous and inclement-weather areas of the US -- the Impreza is equipped with stability control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake distribution, which balances braking force in panic-stop situations, traction control, a federally mandated tire pressure monitor system, and seven airbags.

Differing from the two models beneath it, the 2.0 Limited features 17-inch aluminum wheels; leather-trimmed upholstery; steering wheel mounted controls and paddle shifters; heated front seats; an automatic climate control system; premium audio system with Bluetooth and iPod connectivity; and a continuously variable transmission. Our tester also came with the $2,000 option package "08," featuring a power moonroof, and a GPS navigation system with touchscreen. Including destination, the as-tested price is $24,645, more than Ford Focus Titanium, Honda Civic EX, Mazda3, and Hyundai Elantra GLS Premium.

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The Commute

The Impreza 2.0 Limited has an impressive on-paper list of amenities for a compact car, but we walked away underwhelmed with the interior. Gone are the days when leather seats and power windows and CD audio signified luxury. Today, nearly every car has these features and more. And so does the Impreza.

There is a familiarity to Subaru's functional interior aesthetic. Though it's one that you can actually feel, it's one that feels bland and uninspired. The tanned-leather seats are handsome and supple to the touch, but they're also wide, flat, and lack support. The touchscreen is easy to read from the driver's position, and audiophiles will love the intuitive audio equalization controls, but you shouldn't have to tap the screen twenty times to change the frequency. You could save your presets, but if there's a volume knob, why not also a tuning/selection dial? The standard Impreza audio system has this, and we'd much prefer that route. In the center stack, the three-knob climate controls are some of the easiest to control of any car we've tested, but hasn't interior form progressed beyond the simplicity of the 1990s? The leather-wrapped steering wheel has the confidence-inspiring directness of a bicycle handle, but the stiff gas pedal uncharacteristically launches forward with the slightest input. Place the gearshift lever into Drive from Park, and the gears splash and clunk forward with awkward sedition.

But the Impreza makes up for these shortcomings elsewhere, namely on the highway with an EPA estimated 36 mpg and a fuel tank range of 392 miles. That economy claim is the highest for any gasoline-powered all-wheel drive vehicle in America, and it's one that I had no problem beating. On a trip to San Diego and back, I averaged 38.1 mpg. And then I drove another 70 miles on streets and in traffic for an observed 34.7 mpg mixed. That's 230 miles on less than half the tank with 4.7 mpg better than EPA estimates. Color me impressed.

The Grocery Run

Around town, the Impreza is more Bart Simpson's "Santa's Little Helper" than "Brian" from Family Guy. And that's fine with us. Its well-mannered and predictable tendencies require little effort backing down the driveway, maneuvering around pot-holes, or stopping at a last-second yellow light. The all-wheel drive gives the Impreza a solid impression from the wheel, and it feels more connected than front-drive cars with looser power steering, a fact you'll notice in tight parking spaces and narrow alleys, thanks to its tight turning radius and steering ratio.

Up front, both driver and passenger have plenty of knee and toe wiggle room, while in the backseat, the space felt generous for a car its size, and nearly on par with the Honda Civic. Compared to the Focus, the Impreza's backseat is cavernous. Parents will particularly like the LATCH points (and the tethers!) which were easy to find and latch, but which also featured convenient leather flaps for when not in use. The trunk has impressive depth, average height, and a narrow-ish opening, but nothing that would inhibit a week or two's worth of groceries. You could do much worse than a mild-mannered, easily controlled sled to putt around town, and for this, we'd take the Impreza over similarly equipped commuter vehicles in the segment.

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The Weekend Fun

Don't mistake the Impreza for the previous generation Impreza WRX or Impreza WRX STI. As mentioned above, the economical Impreza is no longer associated with the turbo-powered, World Rally Challenge-inspired sports cars that grew to prominence over the past two decades. Instead, the Impreza is -- not so much relegated, but certainly reclassified to -- a dutiful life of sipping fuel and hauling groceries. It's very good at those things, but there's little reward or fun for a weekend jaunt.

While the Impreza's balance, weight, and all-wheel drive lend it a shred of dignity for weekend extracurriculars, its 148-hp 2.0-liter flat-4 engine negates the intention. Despite being quicker to freeway speeds (0-60 in about 9.4 seconds) than the previous model, which had a larger engine, this Impreza just doesn't feel very fast. It does a lot of panting and screaming at high revs if you punch the gas, but it just doesn't pick up as much or as quickly as you need when you need. Slip the CVT into Sport mode though, and it livens up a tad. Nearly the entire staff was smitten with the excellent paddle shifters, allowing you to manually control gearshifts -- even if the Corolla in the lane over outsprints you to the next stoplight.

We have a feeling that most consumers will gladly trade the extra 25 horsepower for the 9 additional highway mpg. And so we have no problem recommending the Impreza as a compact contender. If we've learned anything from the Initial D street racing comic, it's that lightweight cars don't need a lot of power to be fun driving down a mountain road. This Impreza is more than up to that task.

Summary

For the segment, this is the car that most of the Automotive.com staff would buy. Although it's the most expensive, the Impreza 2.0 Limited offers the best mix of fuel economy, creature comforts and technology, safety, and perception of quality. Moreover, its shortcomings -- flat seats and lackluster engine power -- are so minor, that we hardly consider them a compromise. What it does offer more than make up for the added cost: a nimble, appeasing platform, all-wheel drive assurance and safety, ample space and storage, and very good fuel economy. If the Subaru Impreza is to appeal to a large audience -- and according to May 2012's record-breaking sales, it's up 236-percent from May 2011 and 170-percent on the year -- then it will need to embrace its niche role in the market while offering consumer's the things they need in a compact sedan. It's a very simple observation. And that observation is catching on: The Impreza out-Civics the Civic and is more focused than the Focus while retaining its class-exclusive all-wheel drive. It isn't buried with gimmicks, and it's honest. It doesn't pretend to be anything other than a very good compact sedan. It isn't the fastest, or the most fuel-efficient; it isn't the sexiest, and it doesn't have the most technology -- it simply has the best mix of all these features.

But about that price: For $3000 less, you could jump into the Impreza 2.0 Premium. That car has a standard five-speed manual transmission, but can also be equipped with the CVT. And aside from wearing 16-inch wheels and cloth upholstery, there aren't a lot of other differences. That puts the Impreza 2.0 Premium in the all-important sub-$20,000 price range, a relative bargain compared to lesser cars in the segment. For our money, we'd boot the GPS and stick with the 2.0 Limited with leather interior for around $22,500.

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Spec Box

Price as tested: $24,645
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 27 mpg
EPA Highway: 36 mpg
EPA Combined: 30 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 392 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Average

Notebook Quotes

"The Impreza interior is very neatly arranged, if a bit dull, and the switchgear feels quality." - Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor
"I would feel comfortable recommending the Impreza to a friend, however, I'd caution them that there's really nothing too exciting about it. It's just there. But lined up against the Civic and Corolla, the Impreza just seems to have more to it." – Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"The Impreza's AWD makes the sedan feel planted to the ground but still light on its wheels." – Joel Arellano, Senior Editor
"The Impreza is not merely Subaru's Corolla. It has the space of a Civic, the fuel economy of a base Cruze, all-wheel drive, 80-percent of the fun of a Mazda3, a great reputation for reliability, and not horrible styling. I think it's one of the best cars in the class." - Jacob Brown, Associate Editor

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