Think about it: There really isn't much regionalism when it comes to the millions of automobiles scattered across the country. You'll see Toyota Camrys and Chevrolet Impalas pretty much everywhere: Aside from the fact that exotic cars tend to show up at exotic locations, and minivans frequent soccer matches, and four-wheel-drive pickups seem especially prominent during deer season, this country's cars have become downright homogenized.
With one exception: Subarus.
In Florida, you'll spot the occasional Outback or hot-rod Impreza WRX, but head to New England, and Subarus appear to be the official vehicle. Alaska, too. When I was in Vermont recently, it had been so long since I had seen a base-model Subaru Legacy on the road that it took me a moment to figure out what it was.
So what are those of us in non-Subaruland missing? I spent some time in a 2007 Impreza 2.5i, the brand's entry-level model, to see.
Subaru was struggling in the early 1990s, both for sales and for an identity. Company management made a bold decision: We're going to be the all-wheel-drive company. Until then, most Subaru models, the Impreza included, were offered in front- or all-wheel-drive. It was clear that a front-drive Impreza was not going to seriously challenge a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla for that established mass market, so every Subaru Impreza from 1996 on had all-wheel-drive, a genuine safety advantage in the snow, which explains the Subaru appeal up north. But it's just as much an advantage on wet pavement, and -- in case you haven't noticed -- it rains a lot in Florida. Subaru just hasn't been able to turn that into sales here, though.
Too bad, because my Impreza was a neat little econobox. Subaru, quirky to the end, has stuck with its "boxer" engine design, meaning that its four-cylinder engine has two cylinders on one side, two on the other side, all lying flat. "Boxer" suggests that the rods and pistons on one side are boxing with the rods and pistons on the other. It's a design few manufacturers embrace, but another one who does is Porsche, so nobody laughs at boxer engines.
They have advantages, such as a low center of gravity and lots of torque, which is the measure of pulling power. But they are not particularly smooth or pleasant to listen to. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder in the test car was about as refined as this engine gets, but no one would confuse it with a Honda or an Audi. Still, it's fast.
The slightly industrial quality of the engine actually matches the Impreza's personality well, as does the four-speed automatic transmission. Fuel mileage is average at best -- don't forget Subarus are powering all four wheels -- and the test car's EPA rating was 23 miles per gallon city, 28 mpg highway.
The Impreza was nimble on winding roads, and the antilock brakes were excellent. The ride may be a little rougher than comparable small sedans, but it isn't bad. The interior, though basic, was nicely executed. Front bucket seats were surprisingly good, and rear seat room is better than I was expecting.
Outside, the Impreza had good-looking wheels and nice lines; it did not look at all like the entry-level Subaru. That's good, because it isn't really priced like one, either: It started at $17,995, and with shipping, the automatic transmission and a couple of other small features, it listed for $19,420. If you're going strictly on price, you can beat that with some Honda, Toyota and especially Hyundai models, but they won't be all-wheel-drive, and they won't be Subarus, a brand which has some of the most dedicated owner base I've encountered.
I'm not ready to join the Subaru club yet, but I can see its appeal.