Editor's note: This review was written in October 2011 about the 2012 Subaru Impreza. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2013, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The redesigned 2012 Subaru Impreza's most compelling attributes are evident before you even start the engine. Take a glance and you'll see more mature styling in both the sedan and four-door hatchback. Get inside and you'll find excellent sightlines, roominess and improved quality. Look at the specifications and you'll see impressive mileage for a car in the compact class — especially for one with Subaru's signature standard all-wheel drive: 27/36 mpg city/highway. If you like what you see so far, driving the Impreza probably won't deter you, but it won't close the deal, either.
The 2012 Subaru Impreza undeniably has broader appeal than ever before, but there are still downsides associated with its standard all-wheel drive, not just in terms of price.
Both body styles come in three trim levels: 2.0i (base), 2.0i Premium and 2.0i Limited. The hatchback, which Subaru calls the "5-door," adds two more levels: the 2.0i Sport Premium and 2.0i Sport Limited.
Subaru has discontinued the Outback Sport, a butched-up hatchback modeled after the larger Outback SUV. The turbocharged WRX and WRX STI versions continue as they were in 2011; they're 2012 models but not redesigns. All new Imprezas hit dealerships in November.
To the outside observer, little distinguishes the Impreza's various trim levels. The base side mirrors are black-colored and fold, and the door handles are body-colored. Fifteen-inch steel wheels with wheel covers are standard. The hatchback includes a spoiler atop its liftgate.
The Premium trim level adds 16-inch alloy wheels and body-colored side mirrors. The Sport Premium hatchback adds fog lights, rocker panel extensions, black roof rails and 17-inch gunmetal-gray alloy wheels. Two-tone body color is optional.
The Limited trim level adds chrome accents to the fog lights and grille, and the Sport Limited hatchback incorporates silver grille accents instead.
Behind the Wheel
I believe the greatest obstacle facing Impreza shoppers is the car's power. The new, smaller engine is less powerful than the previous generation's power plant. Though the base car has shed 165 pounds and the new automatic transmission manages to shave a few tenths off the 2011 model's zero-to-60-mph time, it remains just under 10 seconds. Major competitors beat that by as much as 3 seconds. This is what you might expect from a highly efficient new take on an existing model, but the even more efficient Hyundai Elantra – winner of our recent Cars.com Shootout — is about a second quicker. What's behind this? The additional weight of the Impreza's standard all-wheel drive certainly plays a part.
I'm no horsepower freak. Cars that some deem underpowered I instead call modestly powered. Still, if you load up the 2012 Impreza and/or take to the hills — especially at higher altitudes where the air is thinner — the normally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder will have its work cut out for it. Subaru says the regular Impreza won't get a turbocharger. That's left for the WRX and STI, which come at a substantial premium.
On the upside, when the Impreza's horizontally opposed engine is earning its keep, it sounds quite good — by no means quiet, but deep and refined when compared with the frenetic whine or gravelly rasp many small four-bangers emit.
Replacing the previous generation's optional four-speed automatic is a continuously variable automatic transmission. It's standard on the Limited trim level and optional on all others for $1,000.
We at Cars.com haven't warmed to CVTs because of their typical hesitation and the droning they elicit from engines. Like most automatics, CVTs are at their worst when teamed with small engines, so I was wary of this one, which Subaru describes as a more compact version of the one in the Outback and Legacy.
Overall, I was relieved. Though the car takes a few seconds to really get going from a standing start, it feels natural enough. Likewise, the lag when you jab the accelerator for passing power is acceptable. Sometimes you don't even notice it. The engine provides enough oomph at lower engine speeds that it need not rev up to the heavens at the slightest request for power. More than some CVTs, the Impreza's allows the engine to wind down pretty quickly when you let off the gas, giving it a more natural feel like a conventional transmission does when it shifts up a gear after a quick sprint. The CVT also has an effective hill-hold feature so you can take your foot off both pedals when waiting on an incline, and the car won't roll backward.
A CVT has truly succeeded if the average driver can hop in, drive and never know there's anything different about it. The Impreza isn't quite there, but it's as close as any four-cylinder/CVT combo I've driven, and maybe closer.
Anyone who wants to pretend he's driving a regular automatic can use the steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles to select "gears" sequentially. They aren't gears as much as six fixed ratios along the CVT's wide range.
If you want a true manual, you can get that, too, standard on all trim levels but the Limited. The five-speed has a light clutch pedal and a journeyman shifter and is pleasant enough to use, but the advantages are fewer than ever. Yes, it will save you $1,000, but the mileage advantage is gone — 25/34 mpg versus 27/36 mpg with the automatic, in the sedan. (The manual hatchback gets 1 mpg less on the highway.)
The transmission also needs another gear, both for efficiency and performance's sake. As manual transmissions' mileage advantage slips away, I suspect automakers will learn that they appeal mainly to those who simply want to drive a manual, and those buyers will demand more performance, not less. The manual 2012 Impreza doesn't fit that description.
Apart from the manual gearbox's inherent limitations, it teams with a simpler, viscous-coupling all-wheel-drive system rather than the automatic's sophisticated electronically controlled clutch-based hardware. The latter can apportion 100 percent of the power to the front or rear axle while the manual splits it 50/50. This is the norm across Subaru's other models (except the high-performance STI), in which I've found both systems to be excellent in snow and off-road. Most drivers wouldn't perceive a difference.
Ride & Handling
My first drive of the 2012 Impreza was on dry, warm pavement, where both the 16- and 17-inch alloy wheels lent a comfortable ride. (I didn't drive the base 15-inch steel wheels.) You're always aware of the road surface, but the harshest impacts are damped out, and I wasn't fatigued after a day of driving. Subaru has clearly softened the car for 2012, as it has done in recent models, including the WRX. Unfortunately, with the softening has come pronounced body roll — a shortcoming that is not the inevitable trade-off we once accepted from more compliant suspensions. Note that a rear stabilizer bar comes in the Premium and higher trim levels I drove, so the base 2.0i can only be worse in this regard.
The Yokohama Avid all-season tires provided enough grip that the car held on through winding roads with no drama, and the electric power steering is among the better executions in this class. The car's limits aren't easily found, thanks to the all-wheel drive, but it felt to me like something was missing. Even without the opportunity to slide about, the nose felt heavy, and the body roll made me feel like I was pushing a car to do something for which it wasn't intended. Will sportiness be the sole province of the WRX and STI?
A Larger, Classier Cabin
At a time in automotive history when vehicles' shoulder lines are getting high enough to make a submariner claustrophobic, the 2012 Impreza is more like a skiff. The 2012's windowsills are almost 2.5 inches lower in the front than they were in the 2011 model. The dashboard sits lower, and the driver sits almost an inch higher. Even though the A-pillars emerge from farther out on the hood, they're narrow enough not to obstruct one's vision. The side mirrors are large, and the over-the-shoulder view is good with either body style. This is all great for normal driving, but I'd still like to see optional parking sensors or a backup camera — features that are making their way into compact cars but aren't available here.
Shorter drivers will love the low hoodline and generous range of seat-height adjustment. Everyone will appreciate the same from the tilt/telescoping steering wheel. For its class, the Impreza has ample front headroom and legroom. While the backseat's legroom specification doesn't seem exceptional, it's nearly 2 inches more than the previous generation, and I found it uncommonly accommodating for someone who's 6 feet tall. Credit goes to the shape and softness of the front seatbacks. With the front seats fully back, my knees pushed into them, but I didn't feel squeezed. There's no backseat center armrest except in the top trim level, however, and the backrest angle isn't adjustable, even in the hatchback version. The center floor hump is high, too, when compared with some front-drive compacts.
The 2012's cabin quality improves markedly over the 2011's. Silvery plastic is sparse. The center control panel bezel and steering-wheel spokes are a higher-quality gray material. The headliner isn't woven fabric, but it's not as cheap-looking as traditional mouse fur. Likewise, though the sun visors are still vinyl, gone are the sharp seams and general cheapness of the past.
There are more soft surfaces than before, including the entire dashboard as well as the armrests and other so-called touch points. The center console remains hard and simple but does the job. The Limited offers leather for the first time in an Impreza. Just because a car has leather doesn't mean it's well-done, but it is in the Impreza.
The sedan's trunk is still on the small side at 12 cubic feet, but it's 6 percent larger than in the 2011, and the hinges don't encroach on the cargo area. The hatch's cargo area is wide, low and easy to load. Twelve cubic feet are available under the optional retractable cargo cover, and there's 22.5 cubic feet behind the backseat, otherwise. The total volume is 52.4 cubic feet with the backseat folded.
As of its launch, the 2012 Impreza's starting price is unchanged at $17,495 for the sedan ($500 more for the hatchback in all cases), but a comparison shows a few things have been sacrificed — most notably cruise control. Standard features on the 2.0i include power locks, side mirrors and door locks with one-touch up/down operation for the driver. Also included are air conditioning, 65/35-split folding backseat, a driver's seat height adjustment, floormats, auto-off headlights, 15-inch steel wheels, a locking glove compartment, dual visor vanity mirrors, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel and variable intermittent wipers. The hatchback includes a rear wiper/washer as well.
The standard AM/FM/CD stereo on both body styles offers no connectivity for portable players. The only option at this level is the automatic transmission.
The Premium trim level ($18,795 for the sedan) adds 16-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, body-colored side mirrors, fog lights, chrome interior door handles, a sliding center armrest, a rear stabilizer bar and, for the hatchback, a retractable cargo cover. The stereo adds a USB port and analog auxiliary jack along with iPod connectivity and Bluetooth for audio streaming and hands-free cellular. Audio controls join the cruise control buttons on the steering wheel.
The sole individual option for the Premium is the automatic. Various packages allow you to add 17-inch alloy wheels, a leather steering wheel and shifter knob, and a stainless-steel tailpipe for the sedan. The All-Weather Package has heated front seats and side mirrors and a wiper de-icer. The Premium is also eligible for a voice-activated navigation system, whose 6.1-inch touch-screen display also supports iTunes tagging, text messaging and XM Satellite Radio and Navtraffic (subscriptions required).
The 2.0i Sport Premium hatchback ($20,295) comes with gunmetal-gray 17-inch wheels, rocker panel extensions, black roof rails (cross-bars sold separately), fog lights, sport cloth upholstery and the All-Weather Package.
The 2.0i Limited sedan ($21,595), hatchback ($22,095) and Sport Limited hatchback ($22,595) add the automatic as standard equipment, along with 17-inch alloy wheels; chrome on the door handles, grille trim and fog lights; leather upholstery; automatic climate control, a backseat armrest; auto-on/off headlights; and the All-Weather Package. The stereo gets a 4.3-inch LCD screen, though it's replaced if you choose the navigation system, which is packaged with the moonroof.
A loaded Impreza Sport Limited hatchback tops out at $25,345 including the $750 destination charge.
Missing features found elsewhere in this vehicle class include keyless access and push-button start, automatic locking and any type of parking assist.
As of this writing, the all-new Impreza hasn't been crash-tested. The WRX retains its Top Safety Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway safety, having earned top scores of Good in all the tests, but its results don't represent or foretell the redesigned Impreza's crashworthiness.
The Impreza has seven airbags: the frontal pair, seat-mounted side-impact airbags for the front occupants and side curtains that cover the front and rear door windows. The seventh is a new driver's knee airbag.
Four-wheel disc brakes are standard. As is federally mandated for all 2012 models, the Impreza also has antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. The front seats have active head restraints that also adjust forward and back across five positions. Click here for the full list of safety features.
Impreza in the Market
The improved Impreza stands to steal buyers away from brands that have taken their eyes off the ball. Its interior quality has jumped, right when some class leaders have foolishly allowed their interiors and feature sets to decay. By upping the mileage, Subaru has addressed one of the shortcomings of having standard all-wheel drive, but the Impreza doesn't improve much on the pricing. Say what you will of the dumbed-down Volkswagen Jetta; at least it came with a price decrease.
To truly excel in the compact-car market, the Impreza needs to convince buyers that the all-wheel drive for which they'll pay a premium has advantages beyond foul-weather traction. While all-wheel drive can provide this advantage in sporty cars, I fear the 2012's body roll and modest power keep it from doing so.
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