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car review

2012 Subaru Impreza

With seven of the 10 best-selling cars in this country this year slotting into the compact class – and that's before the final few weeks are tallied, which could push another one or two on the list – it's easy to see that Canadians love their small cars.

Subaru would dearly like to be on this list with its compact Impreza, but as it stands now, it is nowhere near it. The Japanese company saw three main impediments to this goal: bland styling, relatively low fuel economy and a high purchase price for its class.

The all-new 2012 Impreza has addressed all three issues, if not quite overcome the latter two. Lining up the previous-generation version with the one that is trickling into dealers now before a nation-wide January launch, the 2011 looks positively fuddy-duddy by comparison.

The new Impreza's angrier face, chiselled fenders and squatter body make it look meaner, even though we sampled relatively tame Sport and Touring models. The five-door Sport in particular looked sharpest, its chunky rear spoiler setting off those rear fenders that jutted out noticeably from the car's greenhouse.

Inside, the Impreza is much improved in material quality, my driving partner's hands wistfully running over the padded dash (on the driver's side armrest in his outgoing model). But it's still a utilitarian design, with straight edges and minimal styling flair, compared to the organic shapes and smartphone-inspired motifs of the Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus.

Subaru focused on more functional qualities, such as improving visibility all around, the flat-four engine allowing the cowl to be lowered nicely, while thin pillars front and back also aid all-around visibility and safety, as well as providing a nice airy feel inside. Add in the optional sunroof, and this is a great car for those who crave sunny Vitamin D in the winter.

Subaru has focused quite a bit on its safety record lately, being one of the only brands to have every one of its 2011 vehicles rated a Top Safety Pick by the IIHS, save the WRX versions of the Impreza. The 2012 Impreza also won that rating, thanks to standard ABS, stability and traction control, side bags and curtains, a new driver's knee bag and anti-whiplash head restraints. Combine this considerable safety gear with the collision-preventing abilities of that extra visibility and the increased traction available in adverse conditions by one of the few full-time all-wheel drive systems, and the Impreza makes a good argument for itself on the safety front.

The new Impreza actually offers two all-wheel-drive systems: its classic symmetrical AWD uses a viscous coupling to split power 50/50 to the front and rear wheels on five-speed manual models. The majority of buyers will opt for the CVT automatic, which uses a new electronic AWD system that normally splits the power 60/40 front/rear, though it can send more to the rear wheels upon sensing slip up front.

We appreciated the CVT's optional shift paddles that provided simulated gears, but the AWD grip that helps acceleration and cornering is not so good for fuel economy. And fuel efficiency is a key consideration in this class.

To that end, Subaru has downsized this horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, from 2.5 litre to 2.0 litres, which makes less power as well. It's still competitive within the class, at 148 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque, compared to 170 counts for each in the last Impreza. But Subaru argues that the 2012 is also lighter by 50 kg, with a more efficient transmission that allows it to accelerate to 100 km/h faster, in 9.8 seconds versus 10.1. Both of these figures are on the tame side of leisurely, not painfully so, but basically indistinguishable from the driver's seat. Subaru is reserving all the acceleration fun for the turbo WRX and STi, which for now remain on the old platform.

Subaru says the Impreza is now the most fuel-efficient all-wheel-drive vehicle in North America, and it is, beating out vehicles such as the Dodge Caliber, Mitsubishi Lancer and Suzuki SX4. But even though fuel consumption has decreased 30 per cent, the Subaru still falls well behind efficiency front-runners such as the Civic and Elantra, the front-wheel-drive sales powerhouses in the class this year.

Knowing the importance of both fuel economy and price to buyers in this class, Ted Lalka, Subaru Canada vice-president of product planning, admitted that there was a lot of debate about whether to make all-wheel-drive optional on the Impreza. With the debut of the rear-wheel drive BRZ at the Tokyo Motor Show, Subaru proclaimed all-wheel-drive was no longer sacrosanct for Subarus headed to North America any more.

So the idea was not as far-fetched as it may seem, especially since Subaru Canada had done it before. "But we rejected it," said Lalka. "In 1990, we did drop prices and all-wheel-drive, and we found, at that point in the early 1990s, that our sales decreased when we dropped AWD as standard."

With the base Impreza sedan starting at just less than 20 large, and the five-door in each trim level costing a very reasonable $900 more, the Subaru starts at about five grand more than a base Civic, the best-selling car in Canada for more than a decade. Lalka admits that there's quite a discrepancy in base prices, but says that when the two are comparably equipped, there is not nearly as much price difference.

That may be the case, but the question is whether the rest of the 2012 Subaru Impreza will impress consumers enough to dive that deeply into comparing it with the heavy hitters in this class.

Considering its hotter looks, stellar safety and reliability reputation, improved refinement as well as its increased fuel efficiency, it certainly warrants a closer look.

2012 Subaru Impreza

Type: Compact sedan and hatchback

Base price: Five-door, $21,295; as tested: $26,095

Engine: 2.0-litre, horizontally opposed (boxer), DOHC, four

Horsepower/torque: 148 hp/145 lb-ft

Transmission: CVT

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.5 city/5.5 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Dodge Caliber, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Lancer, Suzuki SX4, Toyota Corolla/Matrix