2012 Subaru Impreza: AWD, 36 MPG Highway, First Drive Report

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2012 Subaru Impreza hatchback, Connecticut, Sept 2011

2012 Subaru Impreza hatchback, Connecticut, Sept 2011

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Subaru is known for its no-nonsense, durable, all-wheel drive Forester and Outback crossover utility vehicles. What U.S. buyers don't seem to know is that the company also makes compact sedans and hatchbacks.

For 2012, Subaru has restyled its Impreza compact, increasing interior space while keeping overall length and width the same, lightened it, and fitted it with an all-new engine and the Impreza’s first continuously variable transmission (CVT).

The new engine and transmission combine with a weight reduction of 110 pounds to improve gas mileage considerably over the previous model. While the 2012 Impreza's 30-mpg combined rating is hardly the highest among compacts, it’s the highest figure for any all-wheel drive gasoline car sold in the States.

The company hopes the all-new 2012 Subaru Impreza will make it more of a player in the world of compact cars that get good gas mileage--with the added Subaru twist of standard all-wheel drive. The new model will compete most directly against the Mazda Mazda3 and the Volkswagen Jetta, on the sportier end of the compact spectrum.

Cleaner lines, recognizable face

The 2012 Subaru Impreza was designed from the outset to have more appealing lines than the previous model, which launched a number of new styling cues, not all of them successfully.

Subaru says outright that styling was one of two reasons shoppers turned their backs on the last-generation Impreza (the other was its gas mileage). And the company redesigned every panel of the new car to improve it.

At the front, the new Impreza returns to the traditional and recognizable trapezoidal Subaru grille and "hawkeye" headlamps. The 2012 model is no longer than its predecessor, but the wheelbase has been lengthened by 1 inch, shortening the overhangs. The windshield is more steeply raked, and the hood is shorter.

2012 Subaru Impreza - interior

2012 Subaru Impreza - interior

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The window "shoulder line" has also been lowered by more than 2 inches, increasing light in the cabin and making the 2012 Impreza less slab-sided. We think the overall effect is positive, though we kept seeing echoes of other cars in aspects of the Impreza: a Chevy Cruze cut-line for the hood, a bit of Dodge Caliber in the rear quarters.

Inside, Subaru has kept its simple cockpit design, but improved the materials quality.

New engine, new trans, better MPGs

The 2012 Subaru Impreza gets an all-new 148-horsepower, 2.0-liter flat-four engine, smaller than the last model's 2.5-liter but making roughly the same power. The new engine is only the third in Subaru's history, and it produces about the same power from 20 percent less displacement than the 2.5-liter engine it replaces.

With gas mileage being the other reason shoppers passed over the last Impreza, the boost in anticipated EPA figures will be welcome news for shoppers.

The company expects EPA ratings of 27 mpg city, 36 mpg highway for the 2012 Impreza when fitted with the Lineartronic CVT, which gives a combined 30-mpg number. Buyers who opt for the five-speed manual suffer slightly, with the combined number falling to 28 mpg.

That's a 30-percent improvement on last year's figures, which were 22 mpg combined for both the old four-speed automatic and the five-speed manual versions. Cherry-picking its data slightly, Subaru points out that the combined figure is better than both the subcompact Mazda2 and the Fiat 500 minicar fitted with an automatic.

(Combined ratings for the STI hot-rod model, which retains the old body and engine, remain at 21 and 19 mpg depending on transmission.)

2012 Subaru Impreza four-door sedan, Connecticut, Sept 2011

2012 Subaru Impreza four-door sedan, Connecticut, Sept 2011

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The 2012 Subaru Impreza is clean enough to qualify as a Partial Zero-Emission Vehicle, or P-ZEV, for the first time. Some carmakers offer PZEV vehicles only in states that follow California’s stricter emissions standards, but Subaru offers it in all 50 states—complete with a “PZEV” badge, which includes a green leaf, on the trunk lid or hatch.

Not a rocketship, but entertaining

The 2012 Impreza is hardly a rocketship (that's the STI's role), with 0-to-60-mph acceleration of 9.6 seconds, but it moves away from stoplights smartly enough after a slight transmission lag. Subaru says it's faster from a standing start to 20 mph, and also in the crucial 50-to-70-mph passing range.

We didn’t drive a five-speed Impreza, but the CVT is less obtrusive than similar transmissions from other makers. There’s an optional “six-speed manual mode” available that provides paddle shifters for drivers to “downshift” to increase engine speed ahead of passing maneuvers.

2012 Subaru Impreza - interior

2012 Subaru Impreza - interior

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Only under hard sustained acceleration up to the 6500-rpm red line does the Impreza strain, with the engine whine increasing in volume and not all that much to show for it. There's not a lot of spare power, and using the shift paddles that simulate "downshifts" is the way to hustle it around.

One quirk: CVT-equipped Imprezas are programmed to provide simulated engine braking when the car is heading downhill. It's a good feature, keeping the car at a steady speed rather than allowing it to gain 10 mph or more without the driver noticing. But it comes on abruptly and noticeably, to the point where it almost feels like a mechanical problem.

Handling: neutral, drama-free

The all-wheel drive 2012 Impreza's handling is laudably drama-free, with utterly neutral cornering behavior. it neither understeers like a front-wheel drive car nor kicks the rear end out as rear-wheel drive cars sometimes do.

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