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 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.