Driven – The 2012 Subaru Impreza Sport 2.0

Lately, the family car has been showing its age a bit.  Our beloved 2004 Nissan Murano SL AWD has just enough niggling issues that the wife and I have been considering getting something to replace it.  It’s never fun to start making car payments again, so we’re definitely slow-rolling the shopping process.  But this past weekend I had some business to conduct in El Paso, so I booked a test-drive of one of our prime candidates: the new Subie Impreza 5-door.

I first beheld the 2012 Impreza at the Detroit Auto Show this past January.  The numbers stand out on their own: 36 mpg highway, all-wheel-drive standard, starting at $17.5k for the sedan, $18k for the five-door.  What is NOT immediately apparent, however, is how much room there is inside this car.  In fact, while at the auto show I distinctly remember sitting inside it and thinking that we would have no problem fitting our boys and dog inside.  However, much more recently, I saw one parked out in the wild and second-guessed myself.  From the outside, there does not appear to be much room behind the second row at all, and I wondered if I’d somehow been deceived at the show.  Solution: I brought the dog, Memphis, along to the test drive in order to settle the matter once and for all.

Props to the sales staff at Garcia Automotive Group; without so much as a blink, my sales guy threw open the rear hatch and told me to bring on the seventy-plus-pound female yellow Labrador.  Memphis loves cars and was thrilled when I picked her up (didn’t want her claws scratching the bumper) and plunked her into the little Subie.

With the hatch closed, quarters were certainly cozier than in the Murano—while facing forward, Memphis’ head seemed somehow more able and apt to venture over the rear seatbacks into the rear passenger area than in the Nissan.  But she certainly had plenty of room to turn around, or sit and look out the rear window, or just lie down and nap.  In fact, she enjoyed the Subie so much that after I got her out, she tugged at the leash, wanting to jump back in.  So if you have a medium-sized dog and think you’re stuck with SUVs, I urge you to try the crop of small, fuel-efficient five-door hatchbacks (Impreza, Focus, Mazda3) coming out these days.

With the dog secured back in the Nissan, we struck out for the test drive.  First impression: the car feels planted and incredibly stable.  The center of gravity feels like it’s down around the driver’s hips.  Maybe it’s a result of stepping out of the Murano and into the Impreza, but I gotta agree with Ezra Dyer—handling-wise, the Subie is a winner.  Scratch that.  Handling-wise, the Subie is a champion.

Which is good, because the 148-horse, 145-lb-ft flat four is, well, not.  This car is not burdened with excessive power.  I was concerned enough about the limits of the engine’s capability that I made sure to get some freeway on-ramp experience during my time behind the wheel.  At one point I wanted to speed up and merge ahead of an oncoming minivan.  The Lineartronic CVT to grabbed a lower ratio for me as I stomped the go pedal, but even when operating at the top of its power curve, the Subie’s engine is hardly awe-inspiring.  Still, there was enough power beat the minivan and safely enter the flow of traffic.  Plan ahead if you need some speed.

Once established and cruising at highway pace, though, the Subie’s best qualities stand out.  You feel the low-CG/planted phenomenon at all times.  The visibility is excellent in all directions.  The CVT gives you a nice, high ratio that results in the tach needle hovering right around the big “2” and almost no powertrain noise.  The driver’s seat is perfectly formed, supportive, and comfortable.  All of these things—the stability, the visibility, the quiet, the comfort—combine to give the driver a great sense of security and serenity.  This car is downright refreshing to drive at a typical commuter’s level of intensity.

Another thing to enjoy about the Impreza is its simplicity.  The lack of touchscreens, menu paths, big red “start” buttons, and please-steal-my-car transmitter key fobs are blessings from above.  If you were wondering how Subaru can offer this car at such a good price, it’s because they’re not forcing all that useless nonsense down customers’ throats.  Oh, and the e-brake is a lever, not a button.  That was directed at you, Porsche 991.

So what’s not to like?  As long as you realize that this is a small and economical family car, I have trouble finding any faults.  Yeah, it’s got a CVT, and only 148hp…boo hoo.  No one, not even me, is taking their Impreza to a racetrack.  Some say they don’t like the noises the CVT makes, but I honestly didn’t notice a thing except how quiet it was at cruise.  Mazda marketers would have you believe that the Skyactiv Mazda3 5-door is faster or racier or more fun, and maybe it is, but the Impreza packs AWD, makes about the same power, and only weighs about a hundred extra ell-bees.  Same arguments apply to the Ford Focus 5-door, which despite being even lighter (2,907 versus 2,969) and a bit more powerful (160hp versus 155) than the Mazda, seems to get a bit of a yawn from the enthusiast camp.  As far as I’m concerned, the torque going to the rear axle in the Subie more than compensates for the extra poundage and the few missing horses.  The only downside I can see with the Subie is more a matter of personal choice.  In order to get the more upscale-looking, less hot-in-the-southwest-sun, light-colored leather interior, I have to step all the way up to the Limited model (which deletes the 5-speed manual option), and my exterior color becomes no longer a matter of choice, but a coin flip: black or white.

Overall, it is my opinion that Subaru hit it out of the park with this new Impreza and deserves to be rewarded for their efforts.  Good-looking, simple and comfortable, great gas mileage, tasteful and spacious inside, and all-weather capable.  I think I’ll probably find myself contributing to Fuji Heavy Industries’ coffers fairly soon.

A Stunning Value Proposition: the 981 Boxster

In 1997, Porsche gave the world the Boxster.  If you squint through the prism of the past just right, it was the first completely new car from the company in 19 years, dating back to the introduction of the 928 in 1978.  The Boxster reinvigorated the brand and launched the company into 15 years (and still counting) of absolutely astronomical success.

 

Price for the original Boxster was $39,950.  For that sum, the buyer got an all-new water-cooled 2.5-liter flat six making 201hp and 181 lb-ft, mated to a five-speed manual transmission.  The car weighed in at 2,822 pounds, svelte for a ragtop with the rigidity required to back up its sporting pretensions.  “Sexy” was the term almost universally utilized to describe its look.  It raked in awards almost immediately: one of C&D’s 10Best for 1997, Automobile Magazine’s Automobile of the Year, Motorweek’s Driver’s Choice for Best Sports Car, Autocar’s Best Roadster in the World—these were just a few.

The Boxster only got better with age, and many say that it was the strong sales numbers put up by the Boxster that kept Porsche financially strong enough to continue to operate independently and free from the threat of takeover, especially in the dot-com financial boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Lest we go on too long praising the Boxster, suffice it to say that the car is utterly brilliant, has by this point won over even its most strident detractors, and has firmly entrenched itself in the annals of Porsche history.

But let’s get back to the beginning.  Let’s get back to that $39,950.  For that sum, you got the sexy shape, the Porsche badge, the signature flat-six howl.  But you also got (thanks to Porsche taking tips from Toyota on parts sharing) the nose, headlights, and the doors from the forthcoming 911 Carrera (996).  Some might say this was a steal, but some might have preferred the metal from the outgoing 993.  You got a plastic rear window which tended to scratch easily.  You got an intake vent on each side, but actually the vent on the right was an exhaust.  The interior quality was less than stunning, and there was no glovebox.

I test-drove a used first-gen Boxster in fall/winter 2002, and while it was amazing to feel the car pivot around my hip bone as I dialed in steering lock, in the end I settled on a new Acura RSX Type S.  The cockpit ambiance and overall interior quality of the RSX absolutely crushed those of the Porsche.  Between that fact, the fear of high maintenance costs (we whisper here of the dreaded rear main seal failure), and the fact that the ’03 Type S made almost exactly the same peak horsepower number as the Boxster, I had to go with the Acura.  Clearly, astounding driving dynamics, great looks, and Porsche badge aside, the very first iteration of the Boxster left a few things to be desired.  Especially for $39,950.

Now, let us play a numbers game.  If we take our year-1997 $39,950 and convert it to 2012 dollars with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI Inflation Calculator, we get $57,097.88.  The base price here and now, today, for the brilliant new Boxster 981 is $49,500.   In 1997 dollars, that $49.5k amounts to a mere $34,633.95.  Put another way, if you were to carry your 2012 $49,500 back to 1997, its value would dwindle so much that the salesman at your Porsche dealer would have to steer you to the trade-ins.  But stay in 2012 with that money and you get an absolutely stunning new car.  Point: the new 981 is actually cheaper than the new 986 was.  And it is a vastly better product in every worthwhile measure.

The 981 is a truly special thing to look at, with regard to both the design and the spec sheet.  Motive force to the tune of 265hp/206lb-ft is provided by a 2.7L flat six.  Curb weight is a mere 2,888 pounds, a scant 66 more than that of its 15-year-old ancestor.  This all means you’ll scoot from 0-60 in 5.5 seconds and top out at 164mph.  The interior is a work of art, incorporating the rising center console that is the new standard across the Porsche range, and overall quite honestly putting the 20th-century slabs of plastic in the 986 completely and utterly to shame.  Both of the intake vents are now actually intake vents, and the doors are bespoke—no more hand-me-downs from big brother 911.  Finally, if you don’t think every single other automaker is scrambling to somehow copy and incorporate the “subtle mechanical rear decklid spoiler that slashes into the taillights” design touch, you just don’t know how this business works.

Trust me, this is gonna be like when Audi put LEDs on the R8.

 

This description already adds up to an extremely desirable car that doesn’t need to lean on its badge and heritage to warrant sales, and yet we have hardly scratched the surface.

With the extra dough left over from our CPI-adjusted $39.5k, we can make our new Boxster even more awesome.  Throw on the twin-clutch PDK automatic tranny and the Sport Chrono option, and you’ve got a launch mode that shaves three tenths off the 0-60 time.  But that’s not all PDK is good for—aside from spectacularly fast power-on upshifts and perfect throttle-blip downshifts, it’ll also shift itself into neutral during lazy off-brake decelerations, allowing fuel-miserly coasting.  Additionally, both the PDK and the standard six-speed manual include automatic stop-start functions that will certainly save a great deal of fuel expense, especially when the commute features heavy traffic and/or stoplights.

 

Only after tacking on the above-mentioned PDK & Sport Chrono, plus the ‘Convenience Package’ (wind deflector, 2-zone A/C, seat heaters), does the 981’s window sticker manage to draw even with the equivalent inflation-adjusted price of its ancestor, the 1997 Boxster 986.  Without doubt, this is an astounding car–an open-top, mid-engined, 2.7L flat-six twin-clutch beauty of a Porsche–that is within the reach of lots of working professionals.  In fact, I’m trying to figure out how I can own one and still bring the kids along.  I’m thinking a tow hitch and parasail with a dual harness.  Done and done.