It’s the particularly unpleasant sort of weather that Vancouver does best: temperature hovering just above zero degrees socialist, wind whipping a smirr of fine rain up and around uselessly flapping umbrellas and directly into your unprotected earhole, an all-pervading dampness seeping up from the puddled sidewalk and penetrating to the very bone. “Beautiful BC” my chilly posterior; today’s as cold and wet as a Beluga’s swim trunks.
Then again, it’s also perfect weather for testing out a new Subaru.
I’m an early arrival to this event, having popped downtown on public transit past the expected snarls of traffic, and so walk into a nearly empty press room. The usual assortment of items is laid out on the table (if I ever decide to open a lanyard n’ thumb-drive emporium, I’ve got at least a year’s worth of stock) along with a Subaru-branded toque.
A toque. How appropriate.
And how telling. During the power-point presentation, we’re shown a picture of a enormous Subaru badge mostly obscuring a silver previous-gen Impreza sedan. Besides the relief of not having to look at the carved-from-a-bar-of-Lever-2000 shape of last year’s Subie, there’s a message here.
The PR folks explain: Subaru is a brand with strong associations. Mention it and the image immediately springs to mind of a Forester with two kayaks strapped to the roof and interior perfume by wet golden retriever. Either that, or some mud-caked, flared-out STi, flinging quad-roostertails of gravel as it pop-pop-pops through the sharp turns of a forest stage, sandblasting the spots off Bambi and giving Thumper tinnitus.
Impreza? Oh, that’s the cheapest one they make. It’s sturdy, and utilitarian, and about as sexy as a tarp. It’s not particularly efficient or stylish, but those are the penalties you pay if want a small, all-wheel-drive car.
Not any more, so sayeth the Subaru sages. It’s time for the WRX/STi line to get a divorce from the Impreza, freeing the smallest Subie to be lightened and dialled in for normally-aspirated fuel economy. What’s more, it’s also time to shift design – and perception – away from “rugged” to “urban”, and by doing so, hopefully onto more small-car buyer’s shopping lists.
From a styling perspective, the Impreza is already a triumph. Discounting the rally special WRXs – box flares and hoodscoops can be a kind of stylistic panacea – there’ve been about four good-looking Subarus ever: this new Impreza is one of them.
Side-by-side with the old model, the sharp, angular lines of the Impreza go beyond “a breath of fresh air.” Front headlights have a touch of Dragonball-Z anime about them, and the Impreza wears the new corporate creases much better than the slab-sided Legacy. The multi-spoke 17” wheels of this Sport package look great, but are sure to be a huge pain in the ass to clean.
Other than that, few of the styling improvements seem to have generated compromises. Just look at the comparative size of the greenhouses in both cars. While the larger, highly-raked windshield is immediately apparent, you can also see that the belt-line’s come down somewhat, improving visibility. The big fix at the rear is, of course, getting rid of those ghastly clear tail-lights – and dig that rear spoiler – but blindspots haven’t really increased.
Inside, the cabin’s also much better. It’s a conservative layout, but quite pleasant, and the amount of soft-touch plastic has quintupled. I particularly liked the boiled-sweet appearance of the park-anywhere button and the chunky dials on the HVAC controls seem designed for easy use by gloved hands. Seats are comfier too, if perhaps not overly bolstered.
Of course, there’s still plenty of room for interior improvement – this is a Subaru after all. The tiny switchgear for the heated seats is crammed just aft of the emergency brake and tricky to use. The stereo is the old double-DIN setup, and while there’s iPod connectivity, it’s not exactly powerful – I didn’t have a chance to try out the Pioneer audio upgrade. The Multi-Function display with the AWD use read-out (put me in mind of the old XT6) is a bit of fun, but it doesn’t display iPod functions.
Cargo-wise, the hatchback takes top bill-of-lading, with seats folding mostly-flat and transforming your Impreza into a gravel-ready moving van. Better yet, both sedan and 5-door have increased rear leg room from the mildly stretched wheel-base, and the rear door openings are also larger. Fans of wind-noise-inducing frameless windows will probably want to buy a CD of didgeridoo music or something.
Anyone who’s ever tried to cram a rear-facing child-seat in the back of an older Impreza will doubtless appreciate the bigger rear portals, as well as the increased boot-space in both the sedan and hatchback variants. Subaru showed a display featuring three golfbags fitting upright in the back; fair enough, but they more usefully could have provided us with one of those enormous running strollers that are like a sand rail with handlebars. However, a quick eyeball test indicates such monstrosities should fit.
Of the dozen vehicles available for testing, only one had a manual transmission. In the interests of research and science, I Occupied it – everyone else was clustered around for show and tell on the display model.
Here’s what you need to know about the new Impreza in terms of performance: the new, long-stroke, timing-chain-driven 2.0L boxer engine has less power than the old 2.5 lump (down from 170hp to 148hp), but the new chassis is slightly stronger and lighter (by 165lbs). It is also slower than the outgoing model – at least in a straight-line.
Subaru makes a big deal about the CVT-equipped car being actually slightly quicker to 60mph than the automatic-equipped ’11, but let’s face it, the antediluvian 4EAT 4-speed wasn’t doing the previous-gen any accelerative favours. I think that thing was originally developed for use in Hannibal’s Alp-crossing four-wheel-drive elephants.
With the 5-speed manual – tweaked for fuel economy with a taller top gear – you notice the decreased low-end power immediately. Is it a problem? Not really.
It took a little time to get out of the city and onto the leaf-littered and sodden streets that run through the far Western part of West Vancouver. These are narrow little capilliaries, twisting and turning up and down the hilly coastline, looking like somebody spilled vermicelli on the map.
The Mazda3 is the current benchmark for fun-to-drive in the compact segment, right? Well, with this new Impreza, that should hold true right up until it rains.
On these wet and winding roads, this little car is an absolute gem. The steering is heavy and direct. The grip from the all-wheel-drive is phenomenal. New, fatter anti-roll bars do their job, and while I can’t claim to feel the extra bite of having disc brakes at all four corners now, the Impreza stops just fine.
Torque is a bit low, but it’s not a bother to continually shift gears to keep things on the boil. This is essentially the same transmission as the old Impreza, but it has a decent shifter feel. Cost may be an issue here, but a 6-speed with closer ratios would be better, given the very moderate power. Also, heel-and-toers take note: you can rev-match your downshifts, but a new brake-override system is going to trip up fancy footwork.
The little 2.0L lacks the lumpy character of the 2.5L, but it’s got a gruff little growl to remind you it’s a boxer, and as such, it’s fun to wring it out a little. Having said that, you will find yourself wishing for more power, but it’s only because the Impreza is so well-composed: it sticks and sticks and sticks and then very slightly washes wide.
Stepping out of the stick-shift and into a CVT-equipped Impreza, things get a little less sporting, but remain good overall. A continuously terrible transmission is never going to be the enthusiast’s choice, but banish all thoughts of the hair-scrunchie-driveline Justy from your head: Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT is actually quite good.
As there isn’t much twist below 4k from the 2.0L boxer engine (145lb/ft at 4200rpm), ascending one of the local mountains in the CVT-equipped car meant that four thousand revs was where we were hanging out. However, during stop-and-go driving, the CVT was smooth and well-behaved, and the paddle-shifters were actually a bit of fun. Not that it’s an objective term, but the car felt less “motorboaty” than the CVT-equipped ’12 Maxima I drove right afterwards.
The real story in the CVT-equipped car was not so much the transmission, which proved perfectly acceptable, but the way it handled the slushy snow we ran into. If Subaru’s 27/36mpg fuel economy figure takes the disadvantage out of AWD, then here’s the advantage: this is still a car that’s happiest when the weather gets poor.
“You’re going too fast for the conditions,” my co-driver admonished me. I backed off, somewhat abashed, but when time came to swap seats, I happened to sneak a peak at the speedo as she ran through the same section downhill – going even faster. PSA: AWD ain’t gonna help you stop with all-seasons, so slow down and use your road-sense, but the lighter, less-powerful Impreza still handles the white stuff like a tank. Make that a Sno-Cat.
Overall, splitting the WRX from the Impreza is a smart move for Subaru. I’d wager there’s not much buyer spillover from the halo effect of the turbo-nutter models anymore: if you can’t swing the payments on a new WRX, you don’t move down to a base-engined Impreza, you start shopping for a used WRX.
And, unlike the whoopsie-daisy 2008 WRX that missed the mainstream mark somewhat, Subaru has managed to add a touch of broad appeal to their small car, while still keeping it alluring to those with the stars of Pleiades in their eyes. In fact, I’m fairly sure one of the local Impreza club members is going to buy one to replace his TSD-rally-scarred ’07 Impreza sedan (he’s got a kid now).
The Subaru faithful will descend on dealerships with their clipboards and check-lists and comparison data, but they’ll inevitably like this little car, and they’ll buy it. More importantly, folks who were looking at a Mazda3, Civic or Focus might find the Impreza showing up on their radar, and if they drive it, they’ll be surprised at how agricultural it’s not.
As for myself, WRX divorce or not, there’s got to be a way to cram a EJ257 in this thing. Hello, Nordstrom? I’m going to need your largest shoe-horn…
Subaru provided the Vehicles tested, insurance, gasoline, some nice sandwiches, and the aforementioned toque which was bloody useful for the cold slog home.