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New Cars Review: Subaru Impreza proves being safe can be fun

Neil Vorano/The Globe and Mail

Remember Elmer the Safety Elephant? That friendly cartoon beast that touted safety to children when you were in school? He's still around, helping this generation get better acquainted with smoke alarms and traffic signals. See kids, it's fun to be safe!

Why am I talking about this childish pachyderm? Because Subaru is taking a similar tack – albeit a little less cartoonish – with its refreshed Impreza compact sedans and hatchbacks. Sure, they have been rated top safety picks by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for five consecutive years, they've got a host of new active and passive safety features this year and, of course, there's that all-wheel drive Subaru is famous for.

But it's easier to digest those serious things when the cars are just so fun to drive.

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To be fair, safety is important; we get it. Especially in a smaller car, you want it to be as sturdy and secure as anything else on the road. And it's certainly a focus for Subaru; every model gets a "reinforcement ring frame" around the passenger compartment, a front crumple zone that will send the engine below the passengers in the event of a crash, seven air bags (including a driver's knee air bag), a rear-view camera and brake assist and brake override.

And that's not even talking about the all-wheel drive with stability and traction control. It's ability was made apparent on a recent snow-cross test in Kelowna, B.C., where no matter how hard the front end was made to understeer, the rear kicked itself out until the car was pointing the right way.

That makes it safe, of course. But what a hoot to push around!

Among other active safety features available on the higher models is Subaru's Eyesight, which uses two cameras as part of an advanced collision prevention system. Only, this doesn't just warn the driver, like other systems; it will actually stop the car on its own if it senses an impending frontal crash. It's a system that's filtered down from Subaru's larger models and, like those, should make the Impreza equipped with Eyesight eligible for the coveted IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating.

While all of that is impressive, a little time spent behind the wheel and you'll be thinking more of picking corners than winning safety awards. The steering is light and responsive, the chassis is firm and extremely sure-footed, and the boxer engine gives just enough grunt to make things interesting. On the twisty hill roads around the Okanagan Valley, both the sedan and hatch were a delight.

No, it's not perfect; the interior, while improved, could still use more imagination, and the seat bottoms could be longer for leg support. But these are quibbles; thanks to Subaru, you don't have to be a kid to know that safety can still be fun.

You'll like this car if ... You actually like when it snows.

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TECH SPECS

  • Base price: $19,999
  • Engine: 2.0-litre boxer four-cylinder
  • Transmission: five-speed manual, optional CVT
  • Fuel Economy (litres/100 km; new five-cycle ratings): 9.5 city/7.0 highway
  • Alternatives: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cruze, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Ford Focus, Dodge Dart, Volkswagen Jetta and Golf

RATINGS

  • Looks: A slight refresh makes it look just a bit more expensive than it really is.
  • Interior: It’s lacklustre inside with various hard plastics and fake aluminum.
  • Performance: You have to thrash the engine to get it going, but the AWD handling and the crisp, responsive steering are superb.
  • Technology: The infotainment system (with standard 6.2-inch and optional 7-inch screen) is easy to use while a demonstration of the Eyesight safety feature proved it really works.
  • Cargo: Both sedan and hatch have gaping trunk openings; the sedan’s trunk is cavernous.

The Verdict

8.5

The Impreza is a blast to drive and offers safety and convenience features found in more expensive cars.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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