Blog: All-Wheel Drive On A Budget

By Brandon Turkus

April 19, 2012

If you look back through the digital pages of, you’ll come across a story we did in May of 2011. We covered four different sports sedans based on the buyer we thought they’d appeal to the most.
Today, we’ll be doing the same thing. Instead of sports sedans though, we’ll be covering a niche of the small car market. Although cars like the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Kia Forte, and Hyundai Elantra cover a large portion of the market, there are certainly buyers that need something a bit more capable.
Namely, those in northern climes look for all-wheel drive. There’s perhaps no cheaper way of getting into a new AWD vehicle than with the three that we’ve picked down below. We recently spent a week in each of the vehicles below and here's what we came away with.
The Traditionalist: 2012 Subaru Impreza
Looking back on small, affordable, all-wheel-drive cars, it’s tough to find a time when the class leader wasn’t Subaru. The Impreza has been the go-to choice since it debuted way back in 1992. The Subie saw a hefty refit for 2012, with new sheetmetal, a significantly upgraded interior, and a new range of engines and transmissions.
The result is an Impreza that is far more pleasant to drive than the one it replaced. With 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque on tap, it’s decently powerful, although the Mitsubishi outguns it. Its real trump card is its fuel economy. The 2.0-liter flat-four will net 27 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway, easily besting the Mitsubishi and Suzuki.
The Impreza was the slowest of our three cars, due to its lack of power versus the Mitsu and its overall heft compared to the light Suzuki. Still, outside of a drag race, we were never hurting for more thrust. Low and mid-range punch were acceptable, and the flat-four exhaust note was hands-down our favorite.
The Impreza’s cabin is a welcomed upgrade, but we’d still rather be spending time in the higher-quality Mitsubishi. The strongest part of the Subie’s cabin were the seats, which offered more support and were more comfortable overall.
We like the level of versatility afforded by the Subaru. It’s available in four-door sedan and five-door hatch trims, and the new XV Crosstrek promises a more rugged Impreza-based model. The Subaru’s different body styles are a fairly big deal to us, as both the Lancer and SX4 (at least in all-wheel-drive form) can only be had in one configuration.
The base Impreza starts at $17,995. Were we to order an Impreza, though, we’d be opting for the long-roofed Sport Premium model with a five-speed manual transmission. Total cost would be $21,345.
The Alternative: 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer SE
If there are just a few too many Imprezas on the roads for your taste, then the Lancer is the car for you. After being on sale for years, Mitsubishi has given its formerly front-drive-only Lancer a version of the company’s All-Wheel Control system. AWC is only available on the SE. We aren’t really sure why it took Mitsubishi so long to offer all-wheel drive on its bread-and-butter model, but we’re certainly pleased that it’s finally arrived.
The SE gets the 2.4-liter MIVEC four-cylinder found in the Lancer GT, which produces an ample 168 horsepower and 160 pound-feet of torque. It nets the lowest fuel economy of these three though, with 22 city and 29 highway miles per gallon, narrowly losing out to the SX4’s 23/29 ratings.
Make no mistake, the Lancer felt like the quickest of the three, although it was hardly helped by its lethargic CVT.
The Lancer’s cabin is a fine place for a drive, but its unsupportive seats and lack of telescopic steering made getting comfortable a challenge. While it’s nice to look at, we were looking forward to getting out.
We have to give a shout out to the folks that set up the Mitsubishi’s navigations system. The touchscreen system is vastly superior to the setup found on the Subaru. It features a large, easy to read screen that is quite responsive to touch inputs. Contrast this with the obstinate, small, dark, and difficult to read Subaru, and it’s clear why we’d avoid ticking that option box on our model.
A base Lancer SE starts at $20,195, making it cheaper than our Sport Premium Impreza. Still, we’d need to toss on an additional $2295 for the Mitsu’s navigation system. We’d avoid all twelve of the aesthetic option packages, including our testers Exterior Package (body kit, and decklid spoiler). The resulting Lancer would cost $22,490.
The Fun Seeker: 2012 Suzuki SX4 Crossover
The Suzuki is an all-together different approach than either of these two. It’s markedly smaller (its wheelbase is over five inches shorter, and its eleven inches shorter overall) than its closest competitor, the Lancer. Still, we were never really hurting for space in the SX4, as it was noticeably taller.
With a 2.0-liter four-cylinder producing 148 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque, the Suzuki could net 23 city and 29 highway. Its low curb weight (220 pounds lighter than the Impreza, and 254 pounds lighter than the Lancer) meant that the SX4 felt relatively quick on its feet.
It also contributed to the feeling of chuckability that the Suzuki exhibited when we were behind the wheel. This is a fun and tossable car, and feels decidedly more willing to be driven quickly than our other two testers.
It isn’t without its downsides though. Its age is beginning to show, having been on sale since 2006. Where our other two were fairly quiet on road, the Suzuki transmits too much road and wind noise to the driver’s ears. Its cabin was the least pleasant of the group, and its Garmin-based navigation system feels decidedly second-rate in execution, sitting awkwardly on top of the dash (although the actual act of using it is no more troublesome than any other Garmin we’ve tested).
Besides being an absolute hoot to drive, the SX4 is the steal of this group. A base model (with a manual transmission!) starts at $16,999. We had the upmarket Technology Value Package with a CVT transmission, but thankfully you can get the same package with a manual, which is exactly what we’d do. Total cost would be $19,799, making it the cheapest car of our test.