Some cars appeal to the head. Others to the heart. Judging from the marketing pitches that festooned the corporate-owned, dealer-supplied 2012 Impreza, Subaru hopes the redesigned compact will appeal to both. On the rear bumper: “The most fuel efficient All-Wheel Drive car in America at 36 MPG.” And on each front door: “Experience love that lasts.”* Will the Impreza truly “love you long time”? We went on a date to find out.
The Impreza certainly isn’t a one-night-stand sort of car, especially not when dressed in virginal white. You’re not going to lock eyes across a crowded parking lot, because you’re not going to notice it in a crowded parking lot. There’s no risk of hot-blooded lust, doomed to burn quickly but briefly. Like those of the larger Legacy it resembles, the new Impreza’s lines could have been penned by engineers. Elements that attempt to inject some character, most notably the ultra-wide bi-centric wheel arches, instead come off as clunky.
The new Impreza’s interior styling is similarly conservative to a fault. The curves that bounded across the previous Impreza’s instrument panel? Gone. Some of the materials might be a step up from the previous generation, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. Compared to a Ford Focus or even a Hyundai Elantra, my eyes see an appliance, and a dated one at that. Any chance the Limited’s leather seats had of suggesting luxury is obliterated by the dollar store center console and lower door panels that flank them. The black interior that attends four exterior colors, including a lusty red, should help. Beige (mandatory with the other four colors) rarely does an affordably priced car any favors.
Yet, if functionality was the predominant priority, why are the rocker switches for the heated seats located beneath your elbow? A mere afterthought, or did some human factors engineer thinking a bit far outside the box decide that this would make for one-stop-shopping when buckling up? Latch the belt and turn on the seat heater, all in one quick motion! Warm the buns of your partner while you’re at it!
Like VW, Subaru has figured out that a roomy rear seat sells cars. The new Impreza remains about the same size as the old one on the outside, yet there are a couple more inches of rear leg room on the inside. A 2005-2009 Legacy was a tighter fit. Just don’t expect adult passengers to feel much love from the rear seat on long trips: like many, its cushion is mounted too low.
So, after sampling the charms of the exterior and interior, love hasn’t bitten. Perhaps it’s the driving experience? The car’s priorities aren’t promising, as the list appears to have been headed by fuel economy, rarely a Subaru strong suit in the past. To this end, curb weight has been reduced nearly two hundred pounds, to under 3,000. Doesn’t seem light for a compact sedan? Recall that a couple hundred pounds of symmetrical all-wheel-drive goodness is standard in all Subarus…for a few more months. With less weight to motivate, fewer cc’s are required. Last year’s 170-horsepower SOHC 2.5-liter flat four-cylinder engine has been replaced by an all-new DOHC 148-horsepower 2.0-liter boxer. A five-speed manual remains standard, but those who aren’t turned on by a third pedal now get a CVT instead of an antiquated four-speed automatic. The CVT’s wider ratio spread and ability to keep the engine in its sweet spot make for decent acceleration. It’s not quick, but it’s not slow, either. A larger concern: the engine is loud, and its buzz resembles that of a garden variety inline four rather than the oddly appealing burble of a boxer. Your ears won’t find this engine’s sweet spot very sweet. The rubber band effect typical of CVTs is present, but can be avoided by employing the paddles to shift among six fixed ratios. The touted fuel economy: EPA numbers of 27 city and 36 highway, way up from the 2011’s 20/27. The trip computer reported high 20s when I cruised through suburbia with a light foot, low 20s when I got jiggy with it.
Just when all chances of love seem lost, there’s the chassis. The steering provides only modest feedback, but the seat makes up for it. The chassis tells you what it will do for you, and then does it with commendable balance, poise, and agility—that low curb weight paying some clear dividends. The all-wheel-drive system might also deserve some credit, though it’s not being called upon to manage much torque. The Imprezza’s intuitive handling makes it very easy to drive quickly and confidently along a curvy road. I enjoyed driving it far more than its specs and appearance led me to expect.
The flip side of the low weight and communicative chassis: a noisy, at times jiggly ride. Like VW and Toyota, Subaru has placed a bet opposite that of Chevrolet, Ford, and Dodge. If you’re seeking a premium feel in a $20,000 car, look elsewhere.
A base 2.0i with the manual transmission starts at $18,245. The 2.0i Limited with its mandatory CVT: $22,345. If you don’t want all-wheel-drive in your compact sedan, you’ll likely buy a different one. If you do, you have a choice between the Impreza and a slightly larger (but no roomier) Suzuki Kizashi. With a quarter-ton more curb weight to enfeeble a 180-horsepower, 2.4-liter engine, the Suzuki’s no quicker but manages only 23 / 30 in the EPA’s tests. In SE trim with leather, it lists for $26,014. Adjusting for the Kizashi’s additional amenities using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool reduces the gap by $900, but even then there’s a nearly $2,500 difference. While one of the buff books fell in love with the Kizashi in a few days (as touted on Suzuki’s home page), car buyers still haven’t after a few years. There’s likely to be serious cash on that hood—if you can find a dealer with a pulse. Actual transaction prices won’t be so far apart.
[Update: A reader informs us that Mitsubishi recently started offering a non-turbo Lancer with AWD. At $20,990, the 168-horse, 22/29 MPG Lancer SE is priced VERY close to a similarly-equipped Impreza (Premium 2.0i, $21,045 with All-Weather Package). But you're more likely to find rebates and discounts on the Mitsubishi--if you can find a Mitsubishi dealer.]
So the Subaru wins the battle for the head. But the numbers aren’t everything. What about love? Both the Impreza and Kizashi claim to offer it. If you’re turned on by style and refinement, then you’re much more likely to find love in the Suzuki. The way the new Subaru looks, sounds, and feels recalls old style “penalty box” small cars just a bit too much. But if you’re seeking a chassis that talks to you, and that’s a willing dance partner, then the Impreza delivers. A quiet love, perhaps, but they did promise it in small lettering.
*Before you run out and similarly adorn your ride, be warned that Subaru has likely trademarked the phrase for automotive applications.
Dwyer Subaru in West Bloomfield, MI, provided the car. They can be reached at (248) 624-0400.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.