Despite its increased style, civility and efficiency, you can still think of the 2012 Subaru Impreza 2.0i hatch as a more family-friendly and planetary-PC version of the company’s rally-racer-bred WRX, the car most Subie fans will walk past in the showroom with a wistful lingering over-the-shoulder look.
If you drove off in an Impreza 2.0i, you could still select Walter Mitty mode from your imagination’s video game menu and chase Canadian factory shoe Pat Richard or Subie-driving Crazy Leo Urlichich through the twisty bits in the recent Rocky Mountain Rally in Alberta, in which they finished second and third. It would be harder to mentally picture yourself actually matching their stage times though.
This new Subie has a lot of good things going for it, including its more attractive exterior, a higher overall level of mechanical sophistication, handling, braking and improved fuel economy but in gaining these, some of its, let’s call it, charisma has been polished off along with some of the previous generation’s rough edges.
It’s downsized to 2.0-litres and all-new twin-cam engine still growls (albeit a little less deeply in its throat) in typical Subaru flat-four fashion but its bite has been curtailed by 32 hp and 35 lb-ft of torque from the previous generation’s gutsy-grumbly 2.5-litre unit. And with still only a five-speed manual gearbox – a continuously variable type automatic is optional – to deliver it to the wheels through the full-time all-wheel-drive system, it just doesn’t feel as quick or as willing to haul you out of a corner, or through traffic for that matter.
That’s not to say its 148 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque don’t provide competitive levels of performance in the compact category – a 0-100 km/h number comparison puts it roughly mid-pack – and this new motor is willing and overall drivability is good.
But as this latest Impreza is up to 75 kg lighter, a six-speed manual would likely have further redressed the performance balance and also improved its much reduced fuel economy numbers. Its ratings of 8.3 litres/100 km city and 5.9 highway are significantly better than the 10.8 city/7.4 highway of the previous generation. And in reality, that will probably count more with most potential buyers than fantasy rally ruminations. Although that blue halo generated by the rally-racers is obviously still very much a part of the Subaru mystique.
What will also appeal is the little bit of extra room inside, due to an increase in wheelbase (overall length and width remain the same), although the cabin design itself isn’t as appealing as the new look it wears outside.
Subaru doesn’t sell a cheap entry version of the all-wheel-drive Impreza, so a sedan will set you back $19,995 and the five-door $20,895. The test five-door’s sticker price was $24,795.
The hatchback’s new suit of exterior sheet metal looks fine, particularly the new front-end treatment. And the Sport Package-equipped model we’re looking at here, which comes with 17-inch alloy wheels, aero “ground effect” body bits and a neat rear spoiler, looks the part.
The new stiffer structure pays dividends in overall feel, which is hard to define but you get the sense it’s more substantial despite the lower weight. And the redesigned suspension bolted to this platform delivers a ride that deals with bumps with enough muscle to provide plenty of control but an improved level of compliance that means rough pavement doesn’t result in suspension jitters and harshness isn’t an issue.
With steering that provides a tangible connection to the front wheels, the car follows the driver’s direction-changing inputs deliberately and body roll is minimal, making you feel confident pushing it hard through an on-ramp (in order to safely get up to highway merging speeds). And it will be nice to have all-wheel-drive working for you when winter arrives again, of course.
Bigger brakes also come with this new generation and work through a pedal that also provides a direct interface between driver and the mechanical stuff.
It’s a car that feels good, in fact better – that missing motor grunt aside – to drive in other words and is likely more competent overall than its predecessor.
Subaru has also done a decent-enough job updating the interior, although it remains pretty conventional in approach. Increased window area opens the cabin up and the addition of some soft-touch material, along with some nicely chosen trim, give it a pleasant look that’s also functional. New front seats have better thigh and rib area bolsters. Locating the heated seat switches awkwardly right at the back of the console – where, if you’ve got the armrest full forward, you can’t reach them – isn’t very clever though.
The little bit of extra room, while not particularly noticeable, will be subliminally appreciated by rear-seat passengers. Cargo space is also increased a little, 10 litres with the rear seats up, 15 litres with them folded. And, as is always the case, having a rear hatch in a car in this size category is handy.
The base Impreza comes with the usual climate control, audio and power assist features with the Sport Package adding sunroof, multi-info display, voice-activated Bluetooth with streaming audio and iPod/USB integration as part of an upgraded audio system, backlighted sport gauges, 60/40-split rear seatbacks, heated front seats and automatic climate control.
This new fourth-generation Impreza still retains its Subaru-uniqueness but it has just perhaps lost – to my straight-cut-gear-driven-mind anyway – a little of its gravel-rattling-in-the-wheel-wells imaginary magic. If that’s what you’re after, you’ll have to wait for the new WRX and STI versions that will be arriving in 2014.
Tech specs: 2012 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Sport Package
Type: Compact hatchback
Base Price: $19,995; as tested, $24,795
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 148 hp/145 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.3 city/5.9 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Mitsubishi Lancer, Kia Forte