Impreza and Outback Sport use a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine teamed with a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. The engine produces 170-horspower, enough power for everyday needs and enough oomph for good passing punch. We drove it in the mountains of Colorado and found it up to the task, but it had to work hard up steep grades partly due to the thinner air at high altitude. Drivers who want more power should consider the turbocharged Impreza WRX, which is surprisingly civil in behavior.
The Impreza powertrain is competitive with anything in the compact class, but some rivals offer six-speed automatics that improve fuel economy. The Impreza's fuel economy is on par with other all-wheel-drive compacts, but it suffers compared to front-drive rivals. If fuel mileage is your main concern, the Impreza is not the best choice among compacts.
All-wheel drive adds handling stability and traction on slippery roads, however, and we found it kept us safe on a snowy ski trip. Even a minor wreck costs more than a tank of gas.
The Impreza also has a handling advantage versus several competitors. Advanced suspension geometry, a platform built to host the high-performance WRX models, and a low center of gravity thanks to the boxer engine all add up to crisp handling with little body lean in corners. And yet, the Impreza also offers a comfortable ride.
Inside, the Impreza is nicely appointed, with a look and feel that would be appropriate for a car costing thousands more. The gauges are easy to read, and there is plenty of storage space for small items. The front seat has enough head room and leg room for tall drivers, and visibility is good to all corners. The back seat is impressive for a compact car, with enough leg room for tall passengers provided the front seats aren't set too far back.
The Impreza sedan has a decent trunk, but buyers looking for more utility will want to choose the hatchback. The hatchback's rear seats are split 60/40 and fold flat to open up a useful cargo area with a flat load floor.
In short, the Impreza is a lot of car for the money, and its standard all-wheel drive makes it an excellent choice for buyers who want an extra measure of security and stability in inclement conditions.
Subaru Impreza 2.5i sedan ($16,995), hatchback ($17,495); Outback Sport ($19,995)
The Impreza gets a completely new look for 2008. The front end changes from Subaru's somewhat controversial horse-collar shape to the new corporate design that is short and wide. The shape of the grille flows into a pair of cat's eye-style headlights, and its basic shape is repeated below the bumper in an air intake that is flanked by fog lights. The outline of the grille leads into character lines on the hood. The whole effect is more organic and flowing than most cars these days.
The sides of the car are largely uncluttered, except for bold BMW-like shoulder lines that run from the front wheelwells to the taillights. The fenders are slightly flared at the wheels, again lending an organic, flowing shape.
Perhaps most important, the Impreza now has fully framed door windows, which reduces interior noise and the possibility of leaks. Reviewers have complained about Subaru's frameless windows for years.
The Impreza sedan ends with a high trunk line, a fairly generic rear end design, and red taillights.
The Impreza hatchback, on the other hand, has a raked rear window that leads to an integrated roof spoiler, giving it a sporty demeanor. The hatchback does not have separate opening glass, and its taillights are clear.
The Outback Sport, which is only offered as a hatchback, has a couple of exterior visual cues, including a raised suspension (though it sits only 0.2 inches higher), and two-tone paint.
The hooded instrument pod features a large central speedometer flanked by a tachometer and the fuel gauge. The gauges are black with white markings, red needles and raised silver rings. The gauges are easy to read and the overall look is pleasing.
The center stack has a vehicle information center with the clock, outside temperature indicator, and trip computer information set in a hooded area at the top of the dash. The radio is right below that, followed by a pair of air vents, and finally three easy-to-use climate control knobs.
With the optional navigation system, the radio controls are integrated along the sides of the nav screen. This makes some of the controls small and a bit hard to find, but it shouldn't be a problem after a few weeks. We found the screen hard to read with polarized sunglasses on and hard to read during the day with the headlights on.
Small items storage is quite good. The glove box is of a good size. The center console features two cupholders and a deep center console to store CDs and life's little trinkets. There is also a small change tray in front of the cupholders, and the front of the console has an open tray to set cell phones and the like.
Inside, the Impreza has plenty of room for a compact car. On the whole, there is more room than the last model. Even tall drivers should find enough head and leg room. Visibility to all corners is also largely unobstructed.
The back seat is quite impressive. It has good leg room with all but the tallest occupants up front and toe space under the seats is good if those front seats need to be set farther back. Rear head room is excellent. The only minor complaint is the fact that the seat bottoms are fairly flat, meaning long trip comfort may suffer.
Cargo room is good, especially in the hatchback. The rear seats are split 60/40 and they fold flat easily via pull-up knobs. In the hatchback, folding the seats down opens up 44.4 cubic feet of cargo space. (That's less than the previous-generation wagon, which offered nearly 62 cubic feet.) The load floor is flat, the opening is large, and the liftover is low enough to allow for easy loading. We hauled two people with their luggage and ski equipment on a trip to Colorado and found the Impreza hatchback had plenty of room. The sedan has 11.3 cubic feet of trunk space, which is about the same as the last model and is fair for the class.
We highly recommend getting the optional Premium package which includes lots of interior, exterior, and safety equipment that would cost much more if priced separately.
Subaru says it has modified the engine's torque curve to improve low end response. We drove the 2.5i in the mountains of Colorado and found it to be up to the task, though it certainly had to work hard on steep grades. If we had to deal with those conditions on a regular basis, we'd prefer the added power of the WRX's turbocharged engine, which is more powerful and less affected by altitude.
Fuel economy is generally good. At an EPA-estimated 20 mpg City and 27 mpg Highway, the Impreza isn't nearly as fuel-efficient as the Honda Civic, which gets 24/36 with an automatic transmission, but it is slightly better than the AWD Toyota Matrix, which is EPA rated at 20/26 mpg.
The Impreza offers two versions of Subaru's Symmetrical All Wheel Drive system. Models with the manual transmission have a viscous coupling locking center differential that splits power 50/50 front to rear. Models with the automatic use an electronically managed continuously variable transfer clutch. Both versions of the system transfer power to the wheels with the best grip. Both also provide a measure of all-weather security that gives Subaru an advantage over other makes. That was proven in Colorado, where all-wheel drive gave the Impreza stable handling on snowy mountain roads.
The Impreza also has a handling advantage versus several competitors. The Impreza hosts the performance-oriented WRX and WRX STI models, and the base models benefit from the built-in handling prowess needed for the top models. In addition, Subaru's flat boxer engines can sit lower than other engines, allowing for a lower center of gravity and therefore better handling.
Get behind the wheel, and you find the Impreza's steering and handling are crisp, and there is little lean in corners. Still, with standard 16-inch wheels and soft suspension settings, the Impreza is not twitchy or harsh riding. The new double-wishbone independent rear suspension helps both handling and ride quality, and we never found the Impreza uncomfortable. These are enjoyable cars for people who like to drive.
The brakes provide worry-free stops and good pedal feel. They come standard with Electronic Brake-force Distribution, with apportions braking power to all four corners. We recommend buyers opt for the electronic stability control system, which is included in the Premium package and comes with Brake Assist.
We are impressed by the Impreza. With alloy wheels, plentiful interior room, and a thoughtfully designed interior, the $20,000 sticker price for our test car seemed like a deal. Standard all-wheel drive adds all-weather security, and Impreza's fine ride and handling make it a worthy choice for anyone looking for a small, well-built car. The Impreza 2.5i hatchback and Outback Sport models offer a lot of utility with their big cargo capacities. The Outback Sport looks more expensive but is loaded with popular options. Choose any model: When it snows or rains heavily, these Subarus are class leaders.
Kirk Bell filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Chicago.