The road was wet and the 2012 Subaru Impreza was headed into a turn. And this wasn't a predictable, flat turn, but a sinewy bit of blacktop wrapping around part of a mountain. It was a road where the engineers realized they couldn't blast through, so had to give in to nature.
With a variable radius, the turn also dropped some number of feet through its length. Given the rain-slick surface and the near non-Euclidean geometry, the Impreza's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system made a big difference. I could feel brief moments of slippage, where a tire or two decided it had had enough and couldn't hang on anymore.
But with the Impreza's continuously variable transmission (CVT) locked in a virtual second gear and the tachometer needle pointing north, all four wheels had power, compensating for traction loss as necessary. The car pulled through neatly and the moment served as a reminder that all-wheel drive makes a difference in a variety of conditions.
The 2012 Impreza has been completely updated from the previous generation of the car, but some constants remain. Subaru's all-wheel-drive system is still standard. The car is still available as a hatchback or sedan. And Subaru's cabin tech remains behind the cutting edge, although it has advanced far beyond the offerings of even a couple of years ago.
The Impreza's all-wheel-drive system makes it a master of the gravel road.
CNET's review car came in Sport Premium trim, and as such was at the upper end of the Impreza range. That fact helps explain the smoked alloy wheels, which happened to go very nicely with the Camelia Red Pearl paint job. The hatchback body added a note of sportiness and utility.
Navigation, with XM Satellite-sourced navigation data, is available in the Sport Premium trim, but was not optioned on this car. Too bad, as I am eager to test this new system from Subaru. Its maps are stored in flash memory, so the response time should be fast.
Another recent addition for Subaru is the standard Bluetooth phone system. Voice command-operated, it features a phone book, but it can't automatically download all of a paired phone's contacts. When I set up my phone with the system, it gave me the option of pushing contacts one at a time from the phone or entering them manually.
These days, a Bluetooth phone system usually also means Bluetooth audio streaming through the stereo. The Impreza continues this trend, and its Bluetooth streaming was better than most. The existing Bluetooth streaming protocol is rather limited, at most letting you skip or pause tracks. The system in the Impreza I tested was just as limited, but unlike many systems, it showed complete track information on its radio display.
Not many Bluetooth audio-streaming systems show the song title, not to mention album and artist name.
The Impreza also sports a USB port in the console, which understands iPod talk. But using the stereo interface to browse the music library requires an advanced degree. Most of the time, pushing the right-hand tuning dial ran me through a selection of tone controls, but when I pushed the big button marked Menu, that right-hand dial suddenly let me choose library categories such as album and artist.
Subaru makes a Harman Kardon audio system an option in some of its other models, but not so with the lowly Impreza. Even at the top trim levels, all you get is a non-branded six-speaker system. This system's music reproduction shows acceptable quality--it actually makes some tracks very enjoyable. But it lacks the depth and clarity of higher-end systems.
But the thing Subaru is known for is its standard all-wheel-drive system. With the new CVT, the Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system uses a high-tech electronically controlled transfer clutch that lets the system adjust torque depending on conditions. Unlike in the STI version of the Impreza, there are no options for the driver to adjust the all-wheel-drive system for different road surfaces.
And while the all-wheel-drive system helps keep traction, the suspension, designed for comfort rather than cornering, allows significant body movement. This suspension is not screwed down tight to make the car rotate neatly in the turns; it's set softer to handle the everyday bumps in the road.
The CVT doesn't have fixed gears, and constantly adjusts the drive ratio for optimum efficiency.
The combination of the CVT and engine, a 2-liter flat four-cylinder, proved adequate for the hatchback Impreza. Producing 145 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, the engine was designed for fuel efficiency rather than tire-chewing acceleration.
Stomping on the gas from a stop leads to a leisurely 60 mph run, the CVT giving it sure and steady acceleration with the tachometer needle holding above 5,000rpm. When the engine winds out like that, the sound is a little strained. Using the paddle shifters did not make the car feel much faster, besides giving it the shift bumps of a fixed-gear car.
When I hit the gas while under way, looking for passing power, the CVT was as willing as any fixed-gear automatic to run up the engine speed. At freeway speeds, tooling along at 65 mph, I was surprised to see the engine running at about 2,500rpm, as many cars drop down under 2,000rpm to hold these speeds, improving fuel economy.
Beyond the power train, Subaru's measures to improve the Impreza's fuel economy include lightening the car--it comes in at about 3,000 pounds--and giving it an electrically powered steering system, which is tuned well for driving feel. As such, the EPA numbers for the new Impreza are 27 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. Through a number of different driving conditions, CNET's car showed an average of just over 27 mpg, so it might take some babying to get it over the 30 mpg mark.
My first thought when I considered the 2012 Subaru Impreza's standard all-wheel drive and this model's $23K price tag was, why wouldn't you buy one? At least, for someone shopping in this segment, the new Impreza should be a serious contender, especially with the utility of a hatchback and the EPA fuel economy. Take the base model, for only $17K, and you get a manual transmission.
But the cabin tech is not the most advanced, feeling like a slapdash set of different systems. The Bluetooth phone system is primitive, although the Bluetooth audio streaming is among the best I've seen. The iPod integration works well, but the interface is terrible. Looking at the perfect double-DIN-sized stereo, I would be more inclined to eschew the options and go aftermarket with the electronics.
|Model||2012 Subaru Impreza|
|Trim||2.0i Sport Premium|
|Power train||2-liter flat 4-cylinder, continuously variable transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||27 mpg city/36 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||27.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash memory-based with traffic data|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, Bluetooth streaming, satellite radio|
|Audio system||6-speaker system|
|Price as tested||$23,645|