2012 Subaru Impreza Review
It's a better Impreza, but it's still not revolutionary.
- Fuel mileage is significantly improved, finally
- Interior takes another big step toward high-end
- Standard AWD remains a plus in this category
- Uninspired acceleration, especially with CVT
- Exterior aesthetics awkward from some angles
- Confusing audio/navigation options and controls
Let's face it, the Subaru Impreza has always been a fun car to drive. That, along with its all-wheel-drive capability, has made the Impreza a favorite among enthusiasts and the masses alike. However, it isn't without flaws; namely, the Impreza has always delivered poor fuel economy and its looks have been somewhat in question. That is, until now.
For 2012, Subaru has given this strong all-wheel-drive performer a new 2-liter engine, a continuously variable transmission and a more aerodynamic body in the hopes of improving efficiency, which it has — from 27 to 36 mpg on the highway.
Combine those changes with a couple of new trim levels and an improved interior and you could consider the new Impreza technically better in all regards than the model it replaces. However, the 2012 model has a more disconnected driving experience, and the old-school manner in which the new-found efficiency was achieved — meaning, a smaller engine — may leave a sour taste for some.
The Impreza has been restyled for 2012, and its new 2.0i trim is available in a handful of flavors. In addition to the base model, buyers can opt for Premium, Sport Premium, Limited and Sport Limited variants. The Limited versions are new for 2012. All of these can be had in both 4-door sedan and 5-door wagon body styles, except for the Sport trims, which are only available on the 5-door. Subaru hopes to have a greater market impact with the sedan variant this time around, ideally catching thrifty buyers downsizing from more costly vehicles.
The latest Impreza can also be equipped with either a revised 5-speed manual transmission or an all-new continuously variable automatic unit, both of which are mated to the all-new engine and Subaru's signature all-wheel-drive system. The Limited trims are only available on automatic-equipped versions.
The base trim comes reasonably equipped with all the standard features you'd expect these days, and it rolls on 15-inch hubcapped steel wheels. The Premium trim packs standard 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels and some must-have goodies, including a 6-speaker Bluetooth/iPod-ready audio system. Optional on the Premium are 17-inch wheels, a cold weather package, a navigation system and a moon roof. Many of these options become standard on the Sport Premium, Limited and Sport Limited versions, along with some minor exterior and interior enhancements.
Under the Hood
The new engine, a 2-liter 4-cylinder boxer unit, produces 148 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque. Featuring double-overhead camshafts for the first time in a standard Impreza, the engine was designed for efficiency, and delivers a significant improvement in fuel economy over the larger 2.5-liter mill found in the outgoing model. Surprisingly, however, it lacks direct fuel injection, hybrid technology or any number of recent innovations proven useful for both performance and economy.
The manual transmission still makes do with five forward gears, although ratios have been tweaked for 2012. While anything less than six gears is somewhat of a rarity nowadays, perhaps the CVT automatic compensates for this with its theoretically infinite ratios. The CVT allows for paddle-shifting between six virtual gears, and replaces an aging 4-speed automatic.
Each transmission option includes its own unique all-wheel-drive system — the manual with a continuous setup and the CVT with an active design. Subaru's Vehicle Dynamic Control system, which provides constant traction and stability control, is standard on all models.
The 2012 Impreza's cabin is a noted improvement over the previous generation. Materials, fit and finish all take a welcome step upscale. For the first time, leather surfaces are available in the entry-level Impreza. It's a cool environment with a clean design. It's assembled well, clearly representing a new level of quality for the Japanese automaker.
That said, while the interior design may look nicer, it's still a bit confusing when it comes to actually operating some of the controls. For instance, the new Impreza offers no less than four choices of entertainment systems, at least two of which could stand to be a bit better fleshed out. The top option, complete with navigation, remains as counterintuitive and complex as ever.
The cabin itself is plenty roomy for both occupants and cargo (particularly in 5-door guise) and features 60/40 fold-down rear seatbacks. All the expected safety systems and airbags are there, including a new-for-2012 driver's knee airbag.
On the Road
We weren't able to sample either the sedan or the 5-speed manual options, so our driving impressions are limited to CVT-equipped 5-door examples.
The good news is that the Impreza handles fairly well, and thanks largely to the all-wheel-drive system, it stays stuck to the road with impressive tenacity. With rebound-spring shocks and a new rubber-wrapped "pillow ball" rear suspension lifted largely from the existing high-performance STI variants, the ride is smooth, quiet and confident.
Unfortunately, it's a bit hard to enjoy, due to the over-boosted electric-steering feel that plagues most current cars. The sport versions seem to improve feedback, though — credit the tires. Still, this lack of direct communication to the road is only made worse by the rubbery CVT and its awkwardly lurching upshift behavior. Although we couldn't sample it at this time, we'd still waste no time recommending the 5-speed manual over the CVT. The automatic transmission, while partly responsible for the new car's fuel mileage, took away any lasting remnant of fun and made it difficult to connect with the car, let alone judge the new engine's abilities. This brings us to the engine itself.
The bottom line is, the new car doesn't feel particularly fast, partially thanks to the half-liter drop in torque. Luckily, the weight savings do make up for this, and the end result is actually performance similar to the previous 2.5-liter Impreza. Not bad when you consider that the point was to increase the underwhelming fuel economy of the previous car rather than reach new levels of performance. That said, is it any surprise that a smaller engine would be more efficient?
The end result is fine, a little watered down but not a bad car, although it left us feeling as though this is how the Impreza should've been for years now, rather than feeling that the bar had been raised for 2012.
Right for You?
Without question, the standard all-wheel-drive remains the Impreza's strongest selling point, as it should — it's a great system. To safety-conscious buyers, or buyers living in harsh climates, the Impreza will continue to be a practical choice, and the 2012 updates are certainly not going to hurt matters.
Driving excitement aside (Subaru never claimed this was a sports car), our main issue may simply be the manner in which the car was improved. The company proudly boasts a 30 percent improvement in fuel efficiency, yet quiets down when explaining that this was achieved primarily by simply shrinking the engine size by 20 percent (and then only when fitted with the lackluster CVT transmission). That's not to mention that the 2011's less than stellar fuel figures weren't exactly hard to improve upon to begin with.
This engine update stands in contrast to the high-tech, high-efficiency mills emerging from the competition, not even counting the hybrids. This includes new 1.6-liter GDI unit from Hyundai, or, more directly in Subaru's crosshairs, the new Mazda SkyActiv 2.0-liter engine (soon to be found in the Mazda3, both of which produce similar power to the Impreza while achieving a whopping 40 mpg. Considering we're essentially in "the future" now, it's not unreasonable to want serious technology out of today's vehicles. If this Impreza had arrived five years ago, it may have been a better fit. But even then it wouldn't be particularly groundbreaking.
That bit of fuss aside, the Impreza is a well-made vehicle and offers a lot for the money, especially considering the standard all-wheel drive. With the new generation's $17,495 starting price identical to that from 2011, it's hard to complain about the updated Impreza, and we doubt anyone will.
(As part of an automaker-sponsored press event, Subaru provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)
James Tate cut his teeth in the business as a race team crew member before moving to the editorial side as Senior Editor of Sport Compact Car, and his work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Automobile, Motor Trend and European Car. When not writing, Tate is usually fantasizing about a vintage Porsche 911.
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My next vehicle I'm really looking at the Outback so when it comes time to look I'll compare the Impreza to the Outback and see which one I like. So far, everyone I've talked to have been very pleased with both.
Any vehicle made by a Japanese company. Contrary to the common myth, God does NOT personally make them and send them down in little wicker baskets to their proud new owners. They are sometimes assembled in America, sometimes in Japan, but the money always goes to the Japanese company that makes them, so they are foreign vehicles, by definition. (See also: "United Auto Worker" and "Starvation in America") Japanese cars are always cheap and junky, although sometimes they are wrapped in expensive plastic or leather, to give the impression of quality. "Giving the impression..." is what Japanese cars do best (see also: "Pearl Harbor Sneak Attack") because they usually do this for 3 or 4 years, and then they disappear, never to be seen or heard from again. You can usually see the process of Japanese cars returning to the earth beginning on 4-5 year-old examples, usually manifesting as rust holes around the rear wheels. There is much mythology surrounding "older" Japanese cars, but, like the Loch Ness Monster, no one ever actually sees an "older" Japanese car. Compare this to 15-30 year old American cars, which can be seen on a daily basis. (As a curiosity, some people have pointed out that American cars can not attain 100,000 miles or more. This is true, all older American cars have 5-digit odometers, therefore they can not ever hit 100,000 miles, and so they automatically self-destruct at 99,999 miles.) When General Motors and Ford go out of business, Japanese cars will suddenly triple in price, and the American government will contract with Japan for all war vehicles in the future. Of course, Japan is a peaceful nation (see: "Bataan Death March", "Kamikaze", "Comfort Women", "Japanese War Crimes") so with their leadership, there will likely never be another war in the world.