Like a well-wound Japanese watch, the Subaru Impreza refuses to call it quits, a testament to its tenacity as a financial pillar for the automaker (unlike the Brat, Justy, or XT). For those of you who are unfamiliar with that last automobile, be sure to check out the best bad car commercials from the 1980s and ’90s, and find No. 9 on the list. Those were some strange and exciting times for Subaru, and this TV spot pretty much sums up what the XT was all about, what with its Han Solo blaster-shaped steering wheel, sensational digital driver graphics, and questionable marketing.
But before we slide too far down that slippery slope, let’s return to the modern Impreza. To date, nothing has been more influential than this latest generation, as it is slated to serve double-duty as both a moneymaker and an inexpensive test mule. With its latest global structure sitting atop both sedan and five-door hatch platforms, the pint-size pinch-hitter rolls out on the scene looking to entice millennial buyers.
It’s a car that’s constructed to cut across snowy landscapes with torque vectoring rear-end working in overtime, as you haul your 4-year-old and all of their friends to kung fu class. It’s a vehicle that has been engineered and marketed as a jump-shot at 54% of the “safety-focused” millennial demographic, which doesn’t surprise us, as most of the local AARP club would more than likely despise driving one of the sport tuned models.
It’s an overhauled all-wheel drive commuter car that has been hand-chosen to lead a fresh attack beneath a Subaru coat of arms. So with sales spiking like never before, and an illustrious award for being Japan Car of the Year spurning a fresh media blitz, only one question remains: Exactly how good are these cars?
We begin our journey deep within the dusty San Diego hills in a Premium-trimmed sedan, bland 16-inch wheels and dreaded CVT transmission lying in wait. But the moment we took our first turn, things suddenly seemed different as the all-wheel drive system and 70% stiffer chassis immediately caused us to raise an eyebrow at how crisp cornering felt. Braking suddenly, we marveled at how sharply the re-calibrated brakes responded on the little sedan, which also benefits from being 1.5 inches wider, with a 1 inch longer wheelbase, and a slightly lower ride height.
Outside the city, we opened the revised 2.0-liter up and began popping the paddle shifters, as we got a feel for all seven synthesized gears tucked within the CVT gearbox. With its direct fuel-injection, higher compression ratio (12.5:1 versus 10.5:1), and new weight loss plan in full effect, the latest FB boxer engine generates 152 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, which makes it slightly stronger than the outgoing model. Clicking through gears, you get the notion that the new Impreza’s powertrain has been retooled to focus on efficiency and reliability, and not power gains, as you find yourself dropping gears and hovering around redline in order to stay up to speed on steeper ascents.
But where the engine and CVT combo felt little more than mildly meatier, the driving dynamics of this new global chassis returned outstanding results. For being such a basic $21,000 commuter sedan, the Stablex damper-equipped Impreza really sticks to its guns. By offering a unique rear sway bar layout that involves attaching the bar to the chassis itself, Subaru has been able to firm things up by 50% over the older design, which boosts both smiles and safety at the same time. Of the budget-focused commuter four-doors we’ve driven recently, this one easily takes the crown for most agile, all while retaining enough give to keep the ride from feeling jarring or overly twitchy.
Inside the cabin, it’s Subaru business as usual, but this time with a twist as even simpler trim lines get things like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and a 6.5-inch media touchscreen that houses things like Pandora, Aha, and Bluetooth connectivity. Buyers also get features like keyless entry, V-rated Continental tires wrapped around 16-by-6.5-inch alloy wheels, the latest multi-function driver display, and a one-year complimentary subscription to a STARLINK Safety Plus package. Our Carbide Grey compact also came with an all-weather package, which included dual-stage heated front seats, mirrors, and a wiper de-icer.
Backseat space proved to be spot-on, hard cabin materials look and feel good (save for a few fake carbon touches), visibility is excellent, and synthetic seat materials are not abrasive or under-padded. It also has a competitively proportioned trunk, and noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) are minimal. Turnoffs included the base-feeling steering wheel and shifter, smaller center storage, and economy-grade overhead lighting and trim, which did not holster a spot for storing sunglasses. While we also wished that the center armrest had the same level of squishy padding as the door armrests, and the center stack looked bland without additional contrasting trim pieces, we were left quite impressed by the interior of the lower-end Impreza sedan.
After reaching our lunch destination, we swapped cars and jumped into a Sport hatch model, which had been upgraded with almost every option Subaru produces, and hit the open road again. Right away, we were rewarded with a drive feel that was noticeably more direct than the already crisp Premium sedan we had just gotten out of, and while we cannot suggest that this kind of ride is for everyone, it certainly put a smile on our faces more than once that afternoon.
With its re-tuned sport suspension, 18-by-7.5-inch alloy wheels, low-profile performance rubber, and active torque vectoring capabilities, both slow and sharp turns were tightly drawn and incredibly flat-feeling in the hatchback. While it still came powered by the same powertrain combo as the sedan, which did take some fun out of the afternoon, we felt that the agility advantages the Sport hatch harbors will more than likely leave the average commuter quite content.
Inside we were left impressed by small accents like the metal siding on the shift knob, stitching highlights, leather trim touches, sporty floor mats and aluminum pedals, and restyled seats, which feature a stylish cloth insert pattern. Move to the gauge cluster and you’ll find Sport exclusive red lighting, metallic bezels, and a driver display that is responsive, detail oriented, and easy to read. The center stack also flaunts Subaru’s latest and largest infotainment touchscreen, which is 8 inches across, and comes filled with everything found in the Premium model’s smaller unit, but with a fresh crop of add-ons. By upgrading to this model buyers can also get things like voice activated controls, SiriusXM All Access Radio and Travel Link, weather, and much more.
Our little hatch also came equipped with the latest version of Subaru’s EyeSight semi-autonomous driver assistance, which included adaptive cruise, automatic emergency braking, lane departure and sway warnings, lane keep assist, blind spot detection, and rear cross-traffic alerts. All of these features were easy to engage and disengage, and while we wouldn’t mind some smoother variable cruise adjustments both in braking and accelerating, we couldn’t find any major flaws with Subaru’s latest safety suite. Oh, and speaking of hitting the brakes, Sport models get over half an inch larger front rotors, which feel crisp and complement the firmness found within the steering and suspension quite nicely.
Final cabin notes on the Sport hatch are all favorable, as its upper display screen comes loaded with all kinds of cool graphic read-outs for tracking safety notifications, suspension geometry, vehicle diagnostics, and terrain navigation. It also has a stepped rear headliner that allows extra cargo volume, and while the center console still pales in comparison to what Honda offers us, there are plenty of little cubbies and secret stow spots for road trip snacks and such.
Despite not rocking a sharp two-tone wing like its sedan sibling, stylistically, the Sport hatch has a fair share of curb appeal thanks to having the lines hatchback fans look for nowadays. This is all spearheaded by that fresh design language and a set of LED lights out front that follow steering inputs. It may not be the WRX hatch we have pined for, but as a family-focused “compromise car” the new Impreza is well-made and accommodating in almost every way. Personally, we look forward to seeing what the STI short-throw shifter will do to firm-up the notoriously sluggish five-speed manual gearbox going into this platform.