2012 Subaru Impreza: First DriveS

With off-the-mark fuel economy and iffy styling, the last-gen Impreza found itself behind a couple of curves. Indeed, 41% of buyers who'd considered but didn't choose the previous Impreza cited styling as the reason. But will the 2012 Subaru Impreza change all that? Let's find out.

Full Disclosure: Subaru wanted me to drive the new Impreza so bad they put me up in a boutique hotel near Yale University and hosted dinner and some mild ritual imbibing at a local Yalie tavern, presumably not to remind me of all the bad choices I made in high school.

Remember how mothers of WW1 veterans couldn't convince their sons to return to the homestead after they'd spent 30 minutes in a left-bank bordello with a pair of filles bordelières? (Yeah, sure that's not what the saying meant.) Well then, imagine how difficult it might be to evaluate a base Subaru Impreza once you've been full-lock in an STI. Of course, life isn't all vacant lots and racetracks and back-woods switchback.

Sometimes, perhaps the midst of a gnarly winter, mom has to get to her rock-climbing class and home again without burning up your inheritance on 93 octane. Or maybe she and dad want to turn your old room into a shooting range, and must lug a few bales of hay, a roll of paper perps and a lead ventilation system home from Tractor Supply Company. (I'm just assuming.) Obviously, I don't know your parents, but I do know that they need what they need.

2012 Subaru Impreza: First DriveS

And so, for them, Subaru has addressed some basics of the Impreza's fuel economy and interior volume that might have previously led mom and dad into the arms of another automaker who builds empty-nest economy cars. But then, they wouldn't get the all-wheel drive, and you know, you have to have the all-wheel drive. Right?

No worries. Subaru's invested in a new, 2.0-liter flat four that's a little less powerful and more frugal than the old 2.5-liter. It's also canned the old (and by old, I mean 2011 spec) four-speed automatic in favor of a CVT. In case you haven't driven a CVT, and you care anything at all about driving experience, let me warn you: please don't. It's got an elastic feel that's attributable to its variable-ratio belt-and-pulley system that keeps the engine in its most efficient range. Often, despite an honest attempt to introduce a paddle-shift algorithm (in the Premium, Sport and Limited models), it feels like you're connected by bungee cord to an out-of-control coal cart.

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No, leave the CVT to mom and dad, who will appreciate the significant fuel-economy bump. The 2012 Impreza CVT's EPA numbers top 27 city, 36 highway (formerly 22/26) — making it the most fuel-efficient AWD car in the US. It's the same CVT introduced in the current Legacy and Outback, only smaller for packaging's sake. The efficiency increase also comes from a 160-pound reduction in weight, lower rolling-resistance tires and electric power steering. In other words you'll want to wait for the next WRX. Lest I forget to mention (I did), the standard 5-speed manual makes the Impreza only a little less sippy, at 25/34.

And here's why you'll want to wait. All that emphasis on economy obscures what could be the new Impreza's brightest spot — its chassis. While the wheelbase has grown nearly an inch, the chassis is more rigid, the benefits of which emerged on the curvy Connecticut back-roads of the drive route. Add a manual, and mechanical steering, and the new Impreza might be a decent drive after all. To be sure, I'm cautiously optimistic for the next-gen WRX, for which we'll have to wait until around 2013.

Design wise, the new Impreza's curves are curvilinear by way of rectilinear. On the five-door, gone is that kind of turnipy, upward-rising taper, in favor of a flatter, more generic overall shape. Same goes for the sedan. No doubt it's less likely to offend, though now less likely to be noticed in a crowd. Can't have both, I suppose.

2012 Subaru Impreza: First DriveS

But back to mom and dad. With two inches of extra rear legroom and eight more cubic feet of cargo volume over the 2011 model (with the seats down), they'll have plenty of space for the accoutrements of suburban living, be they animal, vegetable or mineral or firearm. Notable improvements in the quality of interior materials and a new multifunction display that lets them know when to aerate their mulch (or whatever that ECO thing means) might also help convince them that downsizing from the family wagon won't make them feel all Tom Joady, which in this economy is a good thing.

And speaking of that, the new Impreza starts at under 20 grand. That's $17,495 for the base model 4-door, $18,495 for the CVT. (The base 5-door starts at $17,995 / $18,995). It's all-wheel-drive, it's got good fuel economy and it can carry more stuff.

Fine, but when's the WRX coming?