The Subaru Impreza is dashing and stylish and inexpensive to operate. Its rigid structure, low-mounted boxer four-cylinder engine and on-demand all-wheel drive follow faithfully in the Subaru tradition. Indeed, this fourth-generation Impreza boasts all-weather capability and premium-brand engineering. Yet it's wrapped in well-styled good looks and features frugal fuel economy.
All Imprezas are powered by a 148-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which delivers a 36 mpg Highway/27 mpg City on the EPA cycle, making the Impreza is the most fuel-efficient all-wheel-drive car in America. In fact, Impreza rivals some of the best front-wheel-drive compacts for fuel efficiency.
Impreza comes in four- and five-door models, the latter offering wagon-like utility and nice proportions.
Changes since this fourth-generation model was launched as a 2012 model have been confined to equipment upgrades. Bluetooth and iPod capability became standard on all models for 2013, and a rear-vision camera was added to the optional navigation system. 2014 Impreza Limited models come with the rearview camera. Aha infotainment smartphone integration is included with navigation; and all 2014 Imprezas ride more quietly thanks to increased sound insulation.
Additionally, the 2014 Subaru Impreza has earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick rating. And the Impreza is designated a Partial-Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) in all 50 states.
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. In addition, the Impreza delivers efficiency, value and appeal.
The Subaru Impreza presents a dynamically forward-thrusting shape. The base of its A-pillar is planted well forward, which rakes the windshield steeply back, resulting in a sleek, modern profile. But this is more than just a pretty face.
In overall length the Impreza sedan measures just 180.3 inches; the 5-door is actually shorter, at 173.8 inches. But the aggressive cabin shape, besides looking great, has allowed Subaru designers to achieve startling interior space and efficiency. The Impreza is roomy, comfortable, and easy to get in and out of. The front door opening is enormous, and the rear door opening fairly large also.
In other respects as well, the Impreza is pleasing and modern. 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 4-door and 0.33 Cd for the five-door. The nose is aggressive, with 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.
It's fairly easy to distinguish one grade from another, once you know what to look for. Base 2.0i models wear six-spoke plastic wheel covers which look like, well, plastic wheel covers. Premium models upgrade to alloy wheels of a pleasingly simple 10-spoke design. Limited rims look sophisticated and airy; there are 15 spokes total, 10 of which are visually paired, so 5 pairs alternate with 5 singles. Add fog lights and a dash of chrome here and there, and the Limited is hands down the most elegant and mature of the line. Sport-model rims feature 10 flattened, angular spokes that, with their gunmetal-grey finish, manage to look at once sturdy and tortured. Topped with their conspicuous black roof racks, Sport models look more ready for a safari than a road rally.
All in all, the Impreza is one of the most attractive small cars in the marketplace, eschewing the cheap/minimalist theme of some others for an appearance of true chic.
Entering the cabin for the first time, the 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 looks simple and straightforward, as opposed to high-tech and demanding. It is a look that is fully in keeping with Subaru's gee-whiz-free approach. The dashboard and switchgear are covered with very nice soft-touch materials that give them an expensive, adult feel.
In keeping with this well-equipped theme, all Impreza models are fitted with a 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 are dead simple, with little toggles that do their job well. A small multi-function Info display is located dead ahead between the tachometer and speedometer.
Audio systems for Limiteds have their own 4.3-inch display, which becomes a 6.1-inch LCD screen when you order navigation. For 2014, the navigation system incorporates Subaru's Aha smartphone integration, whose features include radio stations, newsfeeds, audiobooks and more. Aha uses the Nav system's synthetic voice and voice activation technology not only to receive commands but to read Tweets, podcasts, etc. out loud, so drivers are less tempted to take their eyes off the road.
The front seats are average in terms of comfort and lateral support, appropriate to this thrifty, fuel-efficient car's place in the market. The seatbacks are tall enough to provide some whiplash protection to bigger drivers.
In the rear compartment, legroom is resourcefully increased by scalloping out the backs of the front seats.
Trunk volume in the 4-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 is absolutely straightforward and powerful, and the audio is good by contemporary standards, not exceptional but acceptable. The body-color electric outside mirrors are large enough for decent 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 sufficient style and comfort to attract to buyers well beyond the Subaru faithful.
The Impreza is definitely a Subaru. The small 2.0-liter flat-4 is no racer, but with its efficient twin-cam heads it develops 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. And while those may not be big numbers, remember that the base Impreza sedan weighs just 2944 pounds.
Impreza scores an EPA-estimated 27/36 mpg City/Highway with the CVT. Those are impressive numbers and all the more so considering Impreza comes with all-wheel drive and compares well against some of the best front-drive compacts: Ford Focus (26/37 mpg), Toyota Corolla (29/37), and Honda Civic (28/39). (All figures for base engine and automatic transmission.) Also in its favor, the Impreza qualifies as a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) in all 50 states.
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 high speeds.
We found the continuously variable transmission a big improvement over earlier CVTs, including Subaru's own 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.
Whether equipped with the 5-speed or the CVT, all Impreza models feature Incline Start Assist, which helps prevent the vehicle from rolling back when moving away from a stop on an incline.
The Impreza's 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 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 has all the expected supporting systems: Electronic Brake Distribution, ABS and Brake Assist. The brakes have fairly good feel and performed powerfully even in very wet conditions.
Subaru Impreza is a value leader, with a cruising range of 523 miles and better fuel mileage than a Fiat 500. Its all-wheel drive ensures stable handling in the worst weather. It is more comfortable than expected and even a touch glamorous, yet it still embodies all of the admired practicality that has made Subaru among the most owner-loyal brands anywhere. On top of all that it looks great.
Ted West filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from New York. John F. Katz contributed from South Central Pennsylvania.