No doubt, Subaru has had some very good years of late. Annual sales that had been burbling along at around 200,000 started swelling in 2008, after an overhaul of the company’s product line. Subaru steamrollered right through the recession, and in 2012–2013, when another product makeover gelled with the recovering economy to loft the brand even higher, up to the circa-600,000 mark it currently enjoys. And Subaru hasn’t squandered the profits drinking booze and rolling dice. Instead, it has plowed a significant pile of that enhanced revenue into an all-new, soon to be ubiquitous architecture given the sexy name of Subaru Global Platform. It makes its debut inside the 2017 Impreza, which now comes exclusively from Subaru’s U.S. plant in Indiana.
We’re told that 95 percent of the Impreza is new, from the curved skeletal members baked into the floor and designed to better manage impact pulses, to the super-stiff firewall that laughs at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s narrow-offset crash test, to the stouter yet no heavier suspension subframes, to the flowing exterior lines. Those looking to Subaru for design leadership, like those looking to the San Diego Padres for a World Series victory, will be disappointed yet again. But the new Impreza, unlike the bug-eyed monsters of the past, is handsome and sleek in a conventional way and drives like a worthy sequel from the company that brought you the BRZ (and the Toyota 86).
Subaru has wanted to push the Impreza up the social scale ever since it stopped offering gold wheels on the STi. The past is the past, and Subaru wants the all-wheel-drive-only Impreza to be thought of not as a hooligan’s proto-rally car but as a cut-price Audi, with dynamic sophistication to match. All the pieces haven’t really fallen into place until now, bedeviled as the Impreza was by chintzy no-brand electronics and a bargain-basement feel.
Now, with sedan and hatchback bodies available on a stiff new platform, a stick shift offered in the base and upper Sport trims, options such as a Harman/Kardon stereo and an 8.0-inch full-color high-res touchscreen with a host of apps including Apple CarPlay, and a price escalator that starts with the base $19,715 2.0i manual and ends with the $24,915 Limited automatic, the Impreza is gunning up to be a serious challenger to the Honda Civic and the Mazda 3, two compacts we consider as good alternatives for those who can’t or won’t pay for an Audi A3.
Starting in the Padres’ backyard, we headed to the beautifully undulating hinterlands just north of the Mexican border to sample the Impreza sedan. Sadly, although the new Impreza is on sale now, manual-transmission cars won’t be available until this coming January or February. So it was the updated 2.0-liter direct-injection FB20 boxer four, parked in front of the CVT and electromechanical all-wheel drive, that we jockeyed (manuals still use a viscous coupling for the AWD).
Rated at 152 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 145 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm, the peaky, normally aspirated 2.0 is not exactly ate up with power despite its lofty 12.5:1 compression ratio. The power ratings are about on par with the other base compact-class engines in compact-class competitors. Unlike Honda or Mazda, however, Subaru does not (yet) offer an upgrade engine as you climb the Impreza’s trim levels. This lone 2.0-liter is what you get, although the revised FB20 does seem a smidge more refined and smoother than boxers of yore. Perhaps it’s just the new Impreza’s additional sound insulation. But after it chugga-chugga-chuggas to life in that particular loping Subaru way, the four-pot sounds good and healthy and has a taste for revs, which you’ll need if you wish to ascend hills with any sort of alacrity. In Honda fashion, the Subaru CVT mimics a step-gear automatic at higher throttle inputs, revving up and then “shifting” to a new, taller ratio. Most owners will never know it’s a CVT, and it does an excellent job of keeping the engine in the fattest part of its somewhat lean torque band.
Where the Impreza really starts to feel like an Audi is in the corners. Heavily rethought electrically assisted power steering takes the ratio down from 16.0:1 in the old car to 13.0:1, the same as in the BRZ. The quicker steering—combined with sophisticated damping that clips the body motion but also soaks up the impacts with a tolerant compliance—proves again that, as with the BRZ, Subaru’s people know how to tune a suspension. Steering response and on-center certainty were heavily focused on in the platform’s development, and Subaru trotted out several charts to proudly prove that it has achieved success. As it turns out, the Impreza is not just a paper tiger; the steering wheel feels good in your hands, and the car scribes neat, clean lines to the apexes. Torque vectoring on the Sport trim only heightens the car’s eagerness to turn and undoubtedly reduces the understeer inherent in all-wheel-drivers pushed to the limit.
Much of the Impreza’s incremental dimensional growth goes toward making the cabin larger. It’s 1.1 inches wider at the front seats, which move further apart, and 1.3 inches wider at the rear seat, with the wheelbase growing an inch to increase legroom in back. The rear shock towers have been pushed farther apart to open up more room in the trunk, and the rear doors have larger apertures.
The cockpit layout is Subaru conventional, with a couple of large dials for the speedo and tach and bifurcated display screens in the center as well as a third display in the cluster. It’s a thoroughly modern if not a particularly adventurous design, but then, we’re talking Subaru. The product planner on hand couldn’t resist mentioning that the new Impreza features the first new interior door handles Subaru has offered in 17 years. So there’s that. If you move up to the Sport and Limited trim levels, the upholstery gets noticeably fancier, with French stitching on the seats (leather is an option) and dashes of carbon-fiber-like trim on the Sport.
Oddly for a company with such a great sporting history, Subaru says it wants to be thought of first and foremost as the safety choice, which is why EyeSight, its own suite of automated safety systems including adaptive cruise control and pre-collision braking, is featured prominently. Apparently, Subaru’s growing legions of followers say safety is a big reason they buy the all-wheel-driven cars, plus reliability and good resale value. Whatever the reasons, it seems to be working.