Driven: 2012 Subaru Impreza

By John Beltz Snyder

October 04, 2011

—New York, New York
The night before we were to drive it, Subaru gave us a presentation on the 2012 Impreza, detailing what made this vehicle a better machine than the generation before it, as well as giving us a chance to finally meet the vehicle in person. The 2012 model ditches the 2.5-liter engine for a new 2.0-liter boxer four, providing 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. This allows for a significant increase in fuel economy (27 city, 36 highway mpg for cars equipped with the continuously variable transmission), without sacrificing speed. In fact, the new Impreza is capable of hitting 60 miles per hour from a standstill in under 10 seconds—not amazing, but better than before.
The Impreza has gone on a diet, losing 110 pounds. Its use of electric power steering is also partially responsible for making the new Impreza the most fuel-efficient all-wheel-drive car in the United States. Finally, Subaru put some effort into drag reduction to help hit that 30-mpg-combined rating.
Of course, it couldn’t be considered “all-new” without some dimensional changes. The 2012 Impreza uses more high-strength steel, allowing for narrower A-Pillars. The base of the windshield has moved forward almost eight inches, and a front glass partition has been incorporated into the door, helping visibility. The driver now sits about an inch higher, and the dash panel and shoulder line have both been lowered, with the same effect of providing a better view.
The new Impreza is essentially the same size on the outside, while becoming roomier on the inside. The car’s wheelbase is an inch longer, but the overall length remains the same, and the overhangs are shorter. The door sills are lowered, making it easier to get in and out of the vehicle. Backseat passengers are treated to two more inches of legroom than before. Later, when actually driving the vehicles, we were actually really impressed by the amount of room left behind us, even with our far-back seating position.
All passengers are likely to appreciate the higher-quality interior. Subaru did a great job of incorporating what feels like acres of soft-touch plastics, giving surfaces a much more civilized feel. We were able to spend some time with the new available leather interior, and found that this did wonders to up the perceived quality of the cabin. Were it our money, we would definitely opt for a model with leather, which really helps extinguish the economy-class feel of Imprezas of old.
The Impreza now offers four different levels of audio interface, ranging from the most basic, to a 6.1-inch LCD touchscreen navigation display. We didn’t get a chance to sample the top-shelf system, and the rest were all nothing particularly special. Still the display above the center stack is bigger and offers more functionality than just a clock, as it can display gas mileage, average speed, and the like. For the driver, the gauges are clear, well placed, and attractive. This cockpit definitely speaks more to our sporting sensibilities, as well as to our self-esteem.
Though we started our drive the next morning in the bustling, fast-paced streets of New York City, we soon found ourselves on meandering, hilly roads as we drove toward our destination in Connecticut. We began our first and shortest leg of the trip that day in a sedan with a five-speed manual transmission. As we dodged pedestrians and fought for rightful space in our lane from adamant cab drivers, we noticed the shifting experience being very natural. The lever fell into place smoothly, if short of crisply, with a decent and tangible heft. The uptake on the clutch was on the early side of normal, making quick shifting a breeze.
As we got out of the city traffic and onto the gradual highway curves we didn’t notice much in the way of steering feel. The ride was comfortable, if a bit bouncy, but it gave us a sense of what was going on while filtering out the particularly messy sections of road. Acceleration was mostly smooth, with the power leaning toward the low and middle end of the rev range. We were just starting to have some fun as the roads got tighter and more undulating, and were somewhat reluctant to give up the keys to another driver so soon.
Shortly after a lunch break somewhere in the lake-dotted Berkshire Mountains about where New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut meet, we hopped into the driver’s seat of an Impreza Sport five-door with a CVT. We liked the initial look and feel of the hatchback better, as it felt roomier and more spacious. As we descended our mountain heights, we came across others in our group, and got a driver’s-eye view of the Impreza on the road. From directly behind, the hatchback has a more blocky design than it did before, almost looking more like one of its American counterparts, with a distinct horizontal character line. Our nostalgic side prefers the quirky, standout look of the old model, but the new Impreza’s more mainstream looks and aggressive wheel arches might reach a broader audience. (Subaru had admitted to us that the reason most shoppers gave for rejecting the last Impreza was styling.)
Through the varied landscape, we got a chance to really familiarize ourselves with the driving dynamics the new car offers when being driven a bit more enthusiastically. One really impressive trait was the very flat cornering of the new car. It has a stiffer chassis, and even features the STI’s pillow ball bushings in the rear, making this thing really feel tucked down onto the road, free of flex and body roll. With always-on all-wheel-drive, it felt very stable and confident under high-speed cornering and back-and-forth slaloming. Grip was great, even where we found small stones scattered across the pavement. The steering still didn’t offer much in the way of feedback, but we had no problem aiming the car precisely where we needed to go, and the weighting felt perfectly natural. We were even confident in the car’s response to dodging the chipmunks that dared dart out in from of us—each critter fared just fine.
As we used the Impreza’s wheel-mounted paddle shifters, we realized something rather profound: this CVT didn’t make us want to scream angrily at the Subaru engineers. In manual mode, we found them quite useful in controlling our downhill speeds. In straight-line acceleration, the transmission actually did a good job of imitating actual gear changes, rather than simply failing to feel genuine, smooth, or usable, the way many other CVTs do. When left to its own devices, the CVT offered smooth operation, without the buzziness associated with the transmission/engine combinations of other cars. Instead, we were treated to a nice rising song from the healthy boxer engine. In fact, we would almost be okay with opting for the excellent CVT over the simply decent manual transmission, were we a buyer on the lot.
As we made our way toward our destination in New Haven, Connecticut, we mulled it over, and decided that this is a decent driver’s car for the pragmatic, budget enthusiast. While it lacks the passionate feel and robust power of the WRX and STI, we found it to be a perfectly livable car, especially for someone who is concerned with capability and efficiency. Starting at $17,495 for the manual-equipped sedan, it promises to be one of the more adept all-season drivers in the class, as well as perhaps the most confident in handling. The changes to the new model help its case, but the fact of the matter is that the Impreza’s all-wheel drive is what will always give it the competitive edge.
Pricing for the four-door 2.0i starts at $17,495, with the CVT putting it at $18,495. The five-door 2.0i begins at $17,995 for the 5MT, $18,995 for the CVT. The Impreza also features Premium and Limited trim levels for both body styles, the Premium starting at $18,795 (four-door). The 2.0i Limited four-door starts at $21,595, and includes the CVT and adds leather. The 2.0i Sport Premium is only available for the five-door, and features an all-weather package, roof rails, and fog lights, and costs $20,295.  
VS: Volkswagen Jetta
The Jetta starts a grand less than the Impreza, and also has the appeal of being all-new. The Jetta is even a fun handler, and could challenge the Subaru in a slalom. The Jetta S is underpowered, though, and the SE offers the somewhat clunky 5-cylinder engine, while the TDI raises the cost quite a bit. Even in the most expensive Jetta, you can’t get the all-wheel control of even the base Impreza. And the Subaru beats all but the TDI in fuel economy.
VS: Mazda3
Again, the Subaru wins right away with all-wheel drive and gas mileage. In the past, the 3 has suffered from a very rental-car-like interior. In mere weeks, though, we will be testing the 2012 Mazda3 with the new SkyActiv engine. Depending on the other updates, this one could give the Impreza a run for its money. Stay tuned.
2012 Subaru Impreza Sport
Engine: Flat-4, 2.0 liters, 16v
Output: 148 hp/145 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 9.8 sec
Weight: 3075 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 27/36 mpg
Base Price: $20,295
On Sale: November 2011


+ WR Video: 2011 Subaru WRX STI