2012 Subaru Impreza (© Rod Hatfield)

2012 Subaru Impreza

Subaru pulled the tarps off two new vehicles this week: the XV, a bold crossover concept revealed at the Shanghai Auto Show; and the far more demure 2012 Impreza sedan and hatchback, here at the 2011 New York International Auto Show.

Not that anything's wrong with a redesigned 4-door and 5-door with a quantum leap in fuel-efficiency and a raft of new safety features. But the XV's panoramic glass roof, green-accented white leather seats, and muscular 245/45ZR19 tires seem inspiring even on the other side of the world, and represent a rare design risk for Subaru.

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2012 Subaru Impreza

Click to enlarge picture2012 Subaru Impreza (© Rod Hatfield)

2012 Subaru Impreza

Click to enlarge picture2012 Subaru Impreza (© Rod Hatfield)

2012 Subaru Impreza

What is it? The fourth generation of Subaru's all-wheel-drive (AWD) compact sedan and hatchback.

What makes it hot? Despite more room in the cabin (two inches more legroom in back, and more hip and shoulder room for everyone) and an updated 4-cylinder, 148-horsepower boxer engine (with slightly more torque, at 145-lb-ft on the baseline 2.0-liter model, up from 141 lb-ft), the continuously variable transmission version of the new Impreza will supposedly boast 36 mpg on the highway. That would be a boost of 30 percent over the last generation, and the best mileage of any AWD car in the United States. We also expect the new Impreza to ace independent safety tests, thanks to features like a shell-shaped passenger airbag, a knee-level driver's side airbag, side mirrors with 23 percent more surface area, and Subaru's usual attention to frame strength and dynamic stability and traction control.

What concerns us? Up against bold designs from Chevy, Ford and Hyundai/Kia, the 2012 Impreza is almost begging to be overlooked. Subaru's draw has always been its poor-weather handling, but that's no excuse for stalled design.

How much and when? Though Subaru hasn't announced a price, both the 4-door and 5-door models will go on sale this fall.

Our verdict? Subaru is preaching to the converted — drivers who prepare for the worst, and don't care about looking their best. It's both admirable and annoying, but what we think doesn't much matter. Those impressed by the Impreza will be impressed all over again.

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Based out of the Boston area, Erik Sofge is frequent contributor to Popular Mechanics and Slate.com. He specializes in everything scientific and technical.