Subaru Impreza puts all wheels into action

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Do cars need all-wheel drive? Depends on who you talk to. On the downside, it adds to the vehicle sticker price, decreases fuel economy, and increases maintenance and repair costs. You could also argue that nine times out of 10, you just don’t need to have all four wheels churning away, delivering traction, and that for the vast majority of drivers, two-wheel drive does the job nicely, especially if it’s front-wheel drive.

The Lowdown

Engine: 2-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder

Transmission: Five-speed manual/CVT automatic

Drive: All-wheel drive

Horsepower: 148 horsepower at 6,200 rpm

Torque: 145 foot-pounds at 4,200 rpm

Price Range: $19,995 to $28,490

Fuel Economy: 8.3 litres per 100 kilometres city, 5.9 litres per 100 kilometres highway (manual transmission), regular gas

Alternatives: Hyundai Veloster, Hyundai Accent, Scion tC, Nissan Versa, Kia Forte, Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze, Fiat 500, Honda Civic

Positives: All-wheel drive a nice feature, pleasantly styled, good record with Consumer Reports

Negatives: CVT of questionable merit, fuel economy still a little high in town

On the other hand, it’s nice to have that extra bit of dig when you need it—especially if you live somewhere snowy. And if you’re an enthusiast, AWD, under some circumstances, will improve handling.

Subaru thinks AWD is the way to go, and all of its models have it, including the Impreza, which, for 2012, gets a host of upgrades and changes.

“The Impreza is not a mainstream car,” explained Subaru Canada’s manager of product planning Anton Pawczuk at the recent launch in Vancouver. “We don’t want to compete directly against Honda or Toyota. We want to create an impression of style with the Impreza, rather than an image of off-road ruggedness. We also want to attract younger buyers.”

Available as either a four-door sedan or four-door hatchback, the 2012 Impreza is powered as always by a horizontally opposed Boxer four-cylinder engine that, this time around, displaces two litres and develops 148 horsepower. This engine was formerly found in the Subaru Forester, albeit in a slightly smaller size. It’s mated to either a five-speed manual transmission or a continuously variable unit (CVT). Subaru calls this latter unit its Lineartronic CVT, and it’s now in its second generation. More and more carmakers are switching to CVTs these days, chiefly because the technology seems to have been perfected, but also because it reduces manufacturing costs—although they’ll never admit that up front. Either way, some CVTs are better than others, and in this application, with the Boxer engine, it seems to work well enough. I’d still prefer a conventional planetary gear arrangement, but there you go. The CVT also adds some $1,300 to the vehicle’s price tag, which is worth keeping in mind.

One small note here: if you choose the manual gearbox, you also get a Hill Holder feature, which stops the vehicle from rolling backward when you’re stopped at a light, for example. This is a nice little extra and holds the vehicle for a couple of seconds while you get under way. The CVT does not have this feature.

And a word about Subaru’s Boxer engine. Maybe it’s because all the power is being generated outward, as opposed to upward, but the drive train in this car may be one of the smoothest and best-behaved in this segment of the market, and that’s saying something. The Impreza is a surprisingly refined automobile, and over the years the Boxer engine has proven to be rugged, durable, and driver-friendly. Don’t let it run low on coolant or oil, though—these all-aluminum engines are notorious for frying head gaskets and cracking cylinder heads when they overheat. But that’s another story. And anyway, Consumer Reports recently named Subaru (along with Honda and Toyota) as the leading manufacturer when it comes to reliability and build quality.

In terms of fuel economy, the new Impreza is posting better numbers than its predecessor. A thirstier-than-average drive train has always been one of the biggest criticisms of this company’s models, but the combined fuel economy for the new Impreza equipped with the five-speed manual is 7.1 litres per 100 kilometres, which means theoretically you can travel almost 1,000 kilometres on a single tank of fuel.

Both the hatchback and the sedan will be offered in four packages: base, touring, sport, and limited. Equipment level is high, with things like air conditioning, cruise control, tilt/telescoping steering, 60/40 folding rear seat, and dash-mounted Eco gauge coming standard. This latter item basically lets drivers know when they are driving the vehicle at optimum fuel consumption. It’s a good idea on paper, but kind of impractical. If you drove this—or any other—car strictly by the Eco gauge, you’d hold up traffic.

Other available features include full leather interior, sport gauges, a climate-control system, heated seats, steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles, and, of course, a range of electronic doodads, including hands-free Bluetooth with streaming audio, iPod/USB integration, a backup camera, and Sirius satellite radio. If you want to attract those younger buyers, you’d better give them all the electronics you can, and the Impreza has them all.

It’s also one of the most visually appealing models in this segment of the market. While manufacturers like Hyundai and Nissan trot out stylistic nightmares like the Veloster and the Juke, Subaru produces a sleek, subtly designed, and very European-looking masterpiece that wouldn’t look out of place whistling along a German autobahn. Interestingly, the hatchback carries a base price of $900 more than the sedan.

Both models are available right about now.

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