If you’re a fussbudget about all the left-brain stuff – crash test scores, resale values, durability and reliability – you’d be nuts not to shop at a Subaru store.
I’m not necessarily telling you to buy one. But look, everything Subaru has sold for years has been rated a Top Safety Pick by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. ALG says Subarus have the best residual values among mainstream brands and, unlike some Japanese auto makers, Subaru hasn’t been busy recalling hundreds of thousands of vehicles over the last few years. Did I mention all-wheel-drive? Standard on all Subarus.
But lord, the cars themselves have long looked like the automotive equivalent of Clarks. The shoes. The casual ones that your brother-in-law, the high school physics teacher, wears. The Paul Giamatti of footwear. Subarus are the Paul Giamatti of cars.
I like Giamatti. He made a dandy John Adams and he killed in the drinking movie, Sideways. His latest, something called Win Win, is worth a look, even though it’s a stretch to imagine the paunchy actor as a wrestling coach. Sexy, Giamatti is not.
Subarus have never been considered sexy, either. Critics have also taken issue with undersized cabins and interior designs laden with cheap-looking and noisy hard plastics. The barbs have not fallen on deaf Subaru ears and that’s why we’re seeing the early arrival of a new, fourth-generation Impreza, the 2012 edition.
This one comes with the usual “new-from-the-ground-up” marketing spin and the truth is, a lot is very new and good. The cabin is bigger and much nicer, the exterior design looks a little less Giamatti and a bit more Thomas Hayden Church. Fuel economy, we’re told, could be better by as much as 30 per cent in the real world, and prices have gone down. Case in point: this year’s base Impreza four-door hatchback 2.0i at $20,895 is a solid grand less pricey than last year’s 2.5i base hatch.
The drive is good, too. Subaru has played with the chassis and suspension and it shows. All Subarus have a very low centre of gravity, thanks to that boxer or flat engine, and that helps flatten out cornering and give the car a planted, balanced feel all around. The base five-speed manual is functional enough, and the optional continuously variable automatic ($1,300) is just fine for shiftlessly running errands in town.
Okay, if you know your specs you’ve noticed that this year’s base Impreza comes with a smaller engine, a 2.0-litre four-banger at 148 hp versus the old 2.5-litre four at 170 hp. I doubt most would notice the difference, other than at the fuel pump: the 2012 is rated at 8.3 litres/100 km city and 5.9 highway, versus 10.8 city/7.4 highway for the 2011.
Subaru is giving you lots of pricing options, too. The Impreza comes as a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback and there are four trim levels, too. Even the cheapest one has power windows, door locks and mirrors, cruise control, keyless entry and air conditioning as standard equipment. Leaving aside the WRX performance models, the Impreza lineup tops out at $26,795, not including options.
If you want a fancy audio system, Bluetooth connectivity, heated front seats and 16-inch alloy wheels and so on, you can get all of it and not bust past $30,000.
However you load up your Subaru, you’ll get an Impreza that looks like an Impreza. There is that hexagonal grille, now a Subaru signature, the hawk-eye headlights first seen on the 2010 Legacy. The windscreen is more sharply angled and the A-pillars have been reengineered, made thinner and less intrusive. I like the big wheel arches and shorter overhangs, as well as the longer wheelbase. The car sits well with a solid stance.
You left-brainers will care more to learn the extended wheelbase (2,645 mm versus the old 2,620) translates into more cabin and cargo room. Those in back will especially like having more space to spread out and the 60/40-split rear seatback makes cargo room more flexible. Rear door openings are much bigger and the redesigned front doors swing wide open by another 125 mm.
Climb in and you’ll find richer materials in the cabin, including softer-touch plastics in places where your hands and elbows meet the car – the door, the centre console, the instrument panel and so on. Subaru is slowly and steadily moving away from interiors that look like the design work of nerdy engineers.
Subaru’s engineers have instead been busy switching to electric power steering (for a fuel economy bump of 2.0 per cent), putting the Impreza on a 50-kg diet and stiffening the car by 25 per cent. All that and the new 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine seem to have kept the engineers away from the design department.
That’s all good. Too much left brain can be too much of a good thing. With this latest Impreza, Subaru seems to have learned that a little brain power from the right side is one road to better sex appeal and potentially higher sales.
2012 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Limited hatchback
Type: Compact four-door hatchback
Price: $26,795 ($1,595 freight)
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, DOHC
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: Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Chevrolet Cruze, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra