Monday April 9, 2012

Editor's Note: Test Drive is an occasional series by Banner staff writer -- and auto enthusiast -- Zeke Wright.

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Given their longstanding ubiquity in the Northeast, it's hard to believe that not too long ago, Subarus were not that commonplace in other parts of the United States. And why would they be? Exclusively all-wheel-drive in the U.S. since 1997, powering all four wheels came at a penalty in fuel mileage and was not a selling point in warmer climes.

But the Japanese automaker was doing something right as it bucked trend during the depths of the recession and continued to post consecutively higher U.S. sales. A company executive at the end of 2010 chalked that success up to "strong brand fundamentals." Whatever the case, that momentum is set to continue with the fourth-generation 2012 Impreza delivering better efficiency and greater option-laden appeal.

Smaller engine, larger option list

The decision to downsize the powerplant in the redesigned Impreza received the most attention with its introduction late last year, and the change allows Subaru to tout its entry-level model as the most fuel efficient AWD vehicle sold in the U.S. today. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates highway mileage for the automatic Impreza at 36 miles per gallon -- bettering last year's by a full 10 MPG -- and new owners have been verifying mileage into the 30s according to Thomas "Tommy" Lyons II, sales manager at Bennington Subaru.


Advertisement

That improved economy is a big selling point, but the redesigned Impreza also offers a lot in the way of new available technology, Lyons said, and less ambient road noise.

My test vehicle came equipped as a mid-range Premium trim sedan, with an all-weather package (heated front seats and side mirrors, and windshield wiper de-icers) and an alloy wheel package with 17-inch alloys, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and power moonroof. With the available automatic, now a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), the loaner's total Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price less destination and delivery came to $22,255.

The base Impreza sedan starts at $17,495, and it's also available in hatchback. The sedan is about an inch longer, while the hatch has more interior room. Lyons said sales were split roughly 50/50.

While the vehicle lost horsepower moving from last year's 2.5-liter engine to this year's 2.0 (still a horizontally opposed four-cylinder design, common only to Subaru and Porsche), it also importantly lost weight. Paired with the CVT and a softer ride, you might fear the car has lost some verve. It hasn't.

A comfortable cruiser over choppy roads, the Impreza still proved an entertaining dance partner on my jaunt through the mountains following routes 30 and 100 in Windham County. Driven smartly, anticipating the next ascent, the car feels lively and does not want for power. (For those who do want, don't worry -- the turbocharged WRX gets redesigned this fall.)

A Continously Variable gearbox

The surprising takeaway here may be the CVT, which replaces a conventional four-speed automatic. While it takes getting used to, the CVT (a belt and pulley system with variable gear ratios) comes across as a better performer than the outgoing automatic, and there are steering wheel-mounted paddles to mimic a six-speed.

The workhorse five-speed manual is still available, mostly for customer's factory orders, reported Lyons, and remains the true sporting choice. But the CVT is a good option for efficiency, and it works well "faking" gears in manual mode, making gear "changes" as told and also holding the chosen engine speed around corners and while descending hills. The only immediate mark against it may be the whirring blender sound at slow speeds. Stop making mixed drinks, I'm trying to drive!

Fun fact: Subaru was the first automaker to offer a CVT in the U.S., in the three-cylinder 1989 Justy. That gearbox, antiquated today, was dogged by long-term reliability issues and Subaru probably doesn't want to invite comparisons. The new "Lineartronic" CVT is also available in today's Outback and Legacy.

Inside, the 2012 is ergonomic and well apportioned, with a dash familiar to any previous Impreza owner. While Subaru is offering all the acronyms and options du jour -- Bluetooth and hands-free calling, USB port and iPod connectivity, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, available navigation -- the cockpit remains decidedly spartan.

Flanking a digital readout for an instrument cluster are your basic tachometer and speedometer. Gone are mechanical gauges for remaining fuel and engine temperature. There's a real-time mileage gauge that swings wildly fore and aft for laughs, but otherwise it appears as if Subaru accomplishes the same functionality as other automakers with half the buttons, toggles, and switches.

Interior textures are varied and the cloth seats are strikingly plush. Taller drivers might want to forgo the moonroof in favor of more headroom.

A pleasing interior is important, but what about the outside? Here, the new Impreza might fall a little flat, but you be the judge. At certain angles, the front conjures a bug-eyed Boston terrier, while the side profile and rear could be easily mistaken for a Hyundai or Honda, yesterday's BMW, or, in the case of the hatchback, a Mazda.

Past Subaru designs have been judged at best quirky, at worst ugly. (See aforementioned Justy.) Is "generic" a step forward or back? Maybe it doesn't matter given new owners will be jumping out to fill up at the gas station far less often. And that's a draw no matter where you live.

But rest assured, if we do ever see snow again, the Impreza will eat it up.

@Zeke_Wright on Twitter or ewright@benningtonbanner.com