"Is this the Legacy?" a friend asked after climbing into the roomy back seat of the Subaru.
My reply that it was an Impreza was greeted by suitable sounds of surprise, followed by a car guy discussion of how compact cars have grown over the years.
The development of the compact class has been an interesting progression. From cheap (and sometimes nasty), too-small, low-powered, Spartanly equipped and often not-very-substantial devices, they've evolved into vehicles many Canadian families now find more than suitable to their mobility needs.
And Subaru's 2010 base Impreza sedan, with its robust engine and all-wheel-drive system, is a good example of how grown up and sophisticated this class of vehicle has become.
Subaru's first Japanese compact-class front-driver - and its first car offered with the now traditional horizontally opposed or "flat" four engine, a 997-cc unit - was the Subaru 1000 of 1966, which was just 3,930 mm long.
Its second, the Leone, arrived in North America in 1972 powered by a 1.6-litre boxer engine and stretched to 3,995 mm. By the time it had been redesigned and become the 1.8-litre Loyalle at the start of the 1990s, it had actually grown to 4,435 mm, somewhat spoiling the neat progression of this chronology. But large externally mounted bumpers accounted for some of that.
The first generation Impreza of 1993, with a 1.8-litre/110-hp engine, was a trimmer 4,375 mm. But with the 4,404-mm second generation of 2000, it began to grow once more. And the third, and current, generation that arrived for 2008, has been lengthened yet again, to 4,580 mm. That's only about a palm's width shorter than the previous-generation mid-size Legacy. And the Impreza's wheelbase, width and height have also increased commensurately over succeeding generations.
All of which is to say the exterior physical presence of the Impreza and its interior room have expanded to the point it isn't what most of us once thought of as a compact.
Subaru's Impreza isn't the compact car to go shopping for if you're looking for cheap family transportation, as its all-wheel-drive system ups the entry ante to $20,995.
As this latest generation has only been around a couple of years, changes for 2010 were limited to a new grille and some minor equipment additions to a list that's already fairly complete; there are also few changes to the 2011 models.
My husband has a gas problem
The base 2.5i comes with a five-speed manual, air conditioning, stability and cruise control, basic CD audio system, tilt wheel, power windows, mirrors, etc., and steel wheels with covers. But spend an extra $1,000 for the convenience package and you add alloy rims, a leather-wrapped wheel and upgraded audio and electronics with Bluetooth hands-free and MediaHub streaming audio.
The power unit is Suburu's tried, and generally considered true, flat-four in 2.5-litre form, which generates 170 hp at 6,000 rpm and 170 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. As always, it gets a bit growly as you pass through 3,500 rpm, but not objectionably so. Subaru fans likely consider this character.
The manual gearbox is pleasant to use with an easy shift lever motion and a progressive clutch. But engine revs hang on between shifts, which takes a little while to get into a rhythm with. Plentiful torque at low revs, however, means you don't have to shift too often or rev it to the point it's becoming noticeably noisy. The optional automatic is just a four-speed unit.
Fuel economy is at the high end of the compact car scale with ratings of 10.8 litre/100 km city and 7.4 highway. The full-time all-wheel-drive system's power draw and weight are likely contributors. But the former is one of the reasons you'd buy the Subaru in the first place, as it adds a very real safety dimension in low-traction conditions. Suzuki's SX4 and Toyota's Matrix are the only others that offer AWD in this class.
The Impreza's independent suspension system, and 205/55 R16 all-season tires, pointed by a connected-feeling power steering system, give the car a well-planted yet responsive feel that makes it enjoyable to drive. It's no WRX rally-car-pretender but body roll is well enough controlled that it changes direction willingly and corners without undue roll. Opt for the alloy wheels and you get 50 series tires that likely sharpen things up a tad further. I can't see anybody finding fault with the well-damped ride.
The test car was black outside and in, brightened inside by some titanium trim, with cloth upholstery covering front seats with firm enough bolsters. Two will find the rear seat comfortable, with plenty of head and elbow room. The trunk capacity is reasonable for the class at 320 litres.
Window controls are under your left hand, controls for the good-sized outside mirrors on the dash by your left knee, a neat and simple instrument array is framed by the wheel's moulded rim, outside temp and fuel economy readouts are centred above the centre stack, with the radio up top and climate controls below. Simple, neat and tidy, comfortable and attractive.
A full set of airbags complements a structure that has won the Impreza top safety ratings.
Subaru makes some red hot Imprezas but this one decidedly fits into the family sedan category. There's nothing very exciting about it, but it has a substantial feel, is pleasant and practical inside, has enough equipment to keep you comfortable and entertained, and performance that will satisfy a demanding driver. Plus the added benefit of all-wheel-drive. However, I'd opt for the better-looking and practical hatchback, which is pricier at $21,895.
As 2011 Imprezas are already in showrooms and are little changed from the 2010s, it's a good time to shop for a 2010 model as dealers will be anxious to get them off their lots.
2011 Subaru Impreza 2.5i
Type: Compact sedan
Base Price: $20,995; as tested, $$22,620 (including freight)
Engine: 2.5-litre, DOHC, horizontally opposed four
Horsepower/torque: 170 hp/170 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.6 city/7.5 highway; regular fuel
Alternatives: Kia Forte, Honda Civic, Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra, Mitsubishi Lancer, Volkswagen Golf, Honda Civic, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, Dodge Caliber