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.

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