Its squat boxer architecture meant a low centre of gravity, and by building in a low rate of roll and very little offset or castor in the MacPherson strut front suspension, the handling was truly revelatory, refreshingly neutral with precise steering…endlessly chuckable. [They]…were willing rather than fast, and there was more grip than the boxer engine…could ever hope to exploit…away from straight roads it still took a genuinely quick car to catch one.
Does this sound like a review of the 2012 Subaru Impreza? You may be surprised to read that the words here describe a car from a completely different country, with a culture and ethos that couldn’t be more different – but a car that may be the spiritual predecessor to the Impreza.
That quote, despite being hacked up to remove identifying details, is from Evo magazine’s retrospective on the Alfa Romeo Alfasud. The Alfasud was a scrappy little hatchback, powered by a fairly impotent boxer engine that was regarded as a supremely fun car with somewhat spotty build quality. Sound familiar?
Unlike the high-end, leather-clad sedan driven by Michael, my tester was a 5-speed hatch and the cabin was decidedly barebones. Black fabric covered the seats and the dash was also adorned in a dark, dour plastic. Subaru interiors have never been spectacular, but this car took it to new levels – while looking for the hood release, I managed to grab a handful of loose dashboard plastic that had a few inches of play to wiggle around. Unfortunately, my camera’s memory card corrupted, but Brendan’s preview drive has pictures of the exact same interior (minus the errant dash trim pieces, hopefully). The Impreza’s seats were too flat and firm for my liking, but the driving position itself is refreshingly old school. You can actually see that the hood exists, and you sit lower than most pseudo-CUV compacts these days.
Subaru decided to trim some weight out of the car in an effort to improve fuel economy (apparently they cut nearly 200 lbs from the car, which makes me wonder how it got so bloated in the first place), but the trade-off is less power compared to the outgoing model. The 2.0L boxer now puts out 148 horsepower and 145 lb-ft, and this tester came with the 5-speed manual gearbox, a rubbery, notchy unit that continues the Subaru tradition of building rubbery, notchy-feeling transmissions.
Any fears that this car would be a watered-down, slowpoke, mass market version of the old Impreza are immediately put to bed once the road opens up and John Law is absent from your rearview mirror. The steering is well-weighted, though hardly a paragon of feel or feedback. But the growl of the boxer is intoxicating, and the chassis communicates so well, it was probably tuned by a marriage counselor. Hit an on ramp in third gear and let the boxer get to its sweet spot around 4,000 RPM and the Impreza is absolutely tenacious, with endless grip allowing it to slingshot out of the corners. Oddly,the brake override system mentioned by Brendan didn’t make itself known during heel-toe downshifts, with chunky winter boots being the biggest obstacle. In a straight line, it’s no speed demon, but let the boxer wind up for just a second and the power is more than adequate for passing trucks or merging on to freeways.Compared to the Mazda3 SkyActiv or the Ford Focus, the boxer feels more robust, but only instrumented testing will determine that conclusively. All that driving yielded 24 mpg in mixed driving – poorer than Michael’s CVT equipped sedan got, but understandable given the chunky Bridgestone Blizzaks (10 percent poorer fuel economy right off the bat), the cold temperatures and the, ahem, spirited driving that the Impreza encourages.
Around town, the main drawback is the firm, unsettled ride. Even though Toronto’s roads are a tough test for any car, the Focus and Cruze feel much more composed than the Scoob, perhaps a trade-off made in the name of driving dynamics. The stereo system could also use a major overhaul, frequently sounding tinny and washed out. The hatchback bodystyle and compact footprint make it great for darting in and out of traffic, and rear seat room is fine for four average sized adults. The Impreza would be a very easy car to live with every day, but then, what current compact isn’t?
Canadian trim levels differ slightly, with the American equivalent of this car being the $20,295 (plus $750 destination) Impreza Sport Premium 5-door with the 5-speed manual. In Canada, the 5-door Sport costs $24,795 plus $1,695 for “Freight and Pre-Delivery Inspection” (our version of freight). So, $26,490 PLUS another $3,443.70 in sales taxes. Nevertheless, Subarus have a loyal following across the country. Independent analyst Timothy Cain’s sales figures for Canada shows that Impreza sales, year over year, are up a fair amount. People here are willing to pay for all-wheel drive, in a hatchback body style, and with Subaru dealers setting up shop in far-flung rural areas a few hundred kilometers away from major urban centers, the brand has established a foothold in snow-ridden areas similar to their strategy in New England. The faithful won’t be disappointed by these new revisions, but other consumers will have to ask themselves whether the higher cost of entry and reduced levels of refinement are worth it to get all-wheel drive, superb handling and the unique character not available anywhere else.