The impressive Impreza

A well-optioned Impreza can be an impressive compact car and in high-performance WRX/STi guise it can be both fast and expensive.

September 14, 2011
by Tony Whitney

Fleet Management: July-August 2011 Print edition

Four-place 5-door hatchback or 4-door sedan.
ENGINE: 2.5-litre horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder
Available 5-speed manual and 4-speed auto
Zero to 100 km/h in approx 8.5-secs.
10.4-litres/100 km city; 7.4-litres/100 km hwy. (manual transmission)
PRICE: Base prices start at $20,995

The Impreza is Subaru’s entry level product, but this is really a misnomer as the Japanese automaker doesn’t have an inexpensive subcompact in Canada as it did years ago with the little Justy.

The Impreza first appeared in 1993 and the current car has been around since 2007. A revised 2012 car took its bow at the New York auto show in April. The Impreza competes in a packed market slot that includes products like the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze, Chrysler 200, Nissan Sentra, Mazda3, Ford Focus, Mitsubishi Lancer, Hyundai Elantra and several others. The Impreza is unique in that it’s the only car in its class that has always offered all-wheel drive. Since 1997, it’s been standard in North America.

Subaru has been very successful in Canada and recently announced that June was the sixth month in a row that it had seen a sales increase. The automaker is not a mega-player in the Canadian auto market, but it earns its share of business through the simple expedient of offering straightforward, innovative, durable products at fair prices.

One great advantage of owning a Subaru is the fact that these cars don’t seem to date as quickly as some rivals. Even when an all-new model comes along, it usually follows its predecessor’s looks fairly closely with no attempt at gimmickry or sensationalism. The current Impreza did go through some significant changes compared to the earlier car, however.

Subaru added a little glamour to its nameplate a few years back by entering a team in the World Rally Championship (WRC). The Impreza won the prestigious WRC title three times and this helped change the image buyers had of Subarus generally. Performance versions of the Impreza followed and continue to this day, though like several other manufacturers, Subaru dropped out of the WRC in 2008 in an effort to reduce costs. Imprezas can still be seen in the Canadian Rally Championship and other national events around the world.

The 2011 Impreza builds on an impressive history of engineering and manufacturing innovation, understated and refined styling, safety features and competition success.

Right now, the Impreza range marketed in Canada includes five-door hatchback and four-door sedan models in three trim levels: Base, Touring and Limited. High-performance WRX and WRX STI variants are available, but these will likely not be of too much interest to fleet managers. From an enthusiast standpoint though, they rank among the most desirable cars in their class—which includes some very expensive European sports sedans.

The 2011 Impreza range benefits from some very crisp styling cues. The hatchback in particular is a much more satisfying design job than the model it replaced and looks better-balanced and sportier. The old hatchback was judged by many to look a little too much like a compact wagon and from some angles, styling was not that well co-ordinated.

Boxer engine
Subaru has always gone its own way with engine design and is the only company in the world that builds both horizontally-opposed six and four cylinder powerplants (Porsche builds only sixes).
While most rivals abandoned this configuration years ago, Subaru stuck to its guns and stayed faithful to the “boxer” layout. We’ve checked out these engines at the plant where they’re built and they are marvels of all-aluminum precision. They are so light compared to conventional designs it’s possible for a (strong!) mechanic to disconnect all the pipes and lift the 4-cylinder unit out by hand—we’ve seen it done.

Because of their low situation in the engine compartment, there are weight distribution benefits and also, the hood can be lower, providing better aerodynamics and fuel economy bonuses. Would-be buyers who can only think of boxer engines in terms of rattly old VW power units should test drive one of these Imprezas. The refinement is surprising and it’s almost puzzling that more automakers don’t use this configuration.

The Impreza uses Subaru’s 2.5-litre four-cylinder 16-valve engine developing 170-horsepower and this can be mated to two transmissions, a five-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic with manual mode. The engine runs happily on regular grade fuel, which should keep costs down a little. It endows the Impreza with more than adequate power for its role in life, though it’s understandably nothing like as exciting as the WRX, which runs to 305-horsepower in one version. Both the transmission options function well. The manual is slick and smooth and the automatic shifts exactly when it needs to.

All-wheel drive pioneer
As with all Subarus now, the company’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive is standard and it’s one of the most respected in the industry. Subaru was offering all-wheel drive long before most rivals had considered the idea; only Audi has a record that comes close in this respect. Subaru’s AWD is fairly simple and uses fewer components than most rivals. It helps add control through what Subaru calls “uniform stability” with power being distributed to the wheels that have grip. We’ve driven Subarus with this system in all kinds of weather and in off-road conditions and they’ve all been very confidence-inspiring. For fleet managers, AWD means season-round, all-weather performance and reliability, not to mention driver safety benefits.

The Impreza has disc brakes all round with ABS and they do a good job of stopping the car smoothly, even with a full passenger load. The suspension endows the car with very good handling and there’s little body roll on winding roads and a minimum of “dive” under braking. The ride is better than most cars in this size class; a little firm perhaps, but there’s no doubting its poise over road imperfections.

The interior is very well executed with high-quality materials and a quality ambiance for occupants. Earlier Imprezas were a bit “plasticky” as far as the interior went, but model by model they’ve been greatly improved. The seats are comfortable and about as supportive as most drivers could wish. The seats in the Impreza WRX are outstanding, but that’s where a lot of the extra cash goes.

More space for 2012
The eagerly-awaited 2012 Impreza, due later this year, is almost identical in size to the existing model. It doesn’t look dramatically different, but the wheelbase is slightly extended to achieve better space utilization. It has a larger trunk area and more cargo space under the hatchback and there’s better legroom for rear passengers, which should appeal to business users who often carry adults in
the back.

The new car is lighter than the earlier Impreza and the engine will be an all-new 2.0-litre boxer unit with 148 horsepower. In spite of the lower power, the car is said to be quicker than the 2011 model and fuel economy is claimed to be 30 percent better, which is quite an achievement.
A continuously-variable transmission will be available with the new Subaru and the manual has been upgraded to a six-speed—something that would have been desirable in the current model. A knee air bag will be featured, but most of the equipment will follow on from the 2011 model.

The Subaru Impreza is fun to drive, nicely built and reasonably priced considering the standard all-wheel drive. Fleet operators will probably be looking at the lower end of the range, but it’s worth noting that even the most basic Impreza is a very appealing compact automobile with most of the engineering, safety and comfort attributes of the costliest model in the lineup.