Pros: Great fuel economy; standard all-wheel drive; comfortable interior; versatile five-door wagon; IIHS Top Safety Pick

Cons: Not terribly powerful; somewhat noisy drivetrain; lack of high tech audio and infotainment features

For 2012, Subaru has completely redesigned the Impreza sedan and hatchback, making them slightly larger inside and out, with a more expressive exterior and a huge improvement in fuel economy. Although the overall length of the 2012 Impreza remains on par with last year's model, there is an additional inch added to the wheelbase allowing the rear seat to gain more head and legroom. There is also a new dash molded in the image of the Impreza's big brother, the Legacy.

Horsepower is down, but so is weight, resulting in a monumental leap forward in fuel economy, so much so that the new Impreza's city fuel economy number now matches the previous model's highway figure of 27 mpg. Of course, the standard Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system so many Subaru owners rely on each winter is still part of the mix, as are its excellent crash test scores.

Comfort & Utility

The Impreza offers the same interior dimensions as most of its small car competitors, save for the Hyundai Elantra that has a Camry-sized backseat. Overall the Impreza's interior is a nice place to spend time, with firm and supportive seating, a number of standard features and a few upgrades such as leather seating, heated front seats, and a navigation radio. Unfortunately, most of the good stuff is reserved for the Limited trim, but the base, Premium and Sport models have enough to keep most people happy. Fair warning though, if you're looking for cutting edge high-powered audio or an infotainment system to stream apps and voice control your iPod, you'd be better off shopping something like the Ford Focus or Kia Rio.

As for utility, the five-door hatchback has it over the sedan in spades, with flat folding rear seats that drop to create a rather roomy cargo hold. The driver and passenger enjoy generous legroom, with the driver also enjoying the added benefit of a height adjustable seat and a tilt/telescopic steering wheel. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, power operation of the windows, locks and mirrors, an AM/FM/CD stereo, and a rear window defroster. The Premium trim brings cruise control, 16-inch alloy wheels, , plus steering wheel controls for the cruise, audio and Bluetooth. The Limited has all this plus leather seating, 17-inch wheels, upgraded audio with six speakers, automatic climate control, Bluetooth and iPod capability, and auto on/off headlamps.

Optional on the Premium is a power moonroof and the All-Weather Package that adds heated front seats, mirrors and windshield wiper de-icers (standard on Limited). The Limited and Premium models with the automatic transmission offer a power moonroof and a navigation radio. Subaru also offers a dizzying number of dealer installed options including remote start, a 100-watt subwoofer and premium speaker upgrade, 110-volt outlet and about three dozen different roof rack attachments to carry everything from luggage to kayaks.

Technology

The Impreza is big on capability but fairly modest when it comes to high-tech gadgetry. The Premium model features an AM/FM stereo with a MP3/WMA compatible CD player, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and iPod integration accessible via the head unit or the steering wheel audio controls. The system also includes both USB and 3.5mm auxiliary input jacks.

The Limited trim features HD radio and 4.3-inch LCD screen as standard. A navigation radio that includes a 6.1-inch touchscreen, voice activation and Bluetooth music streaming, SMS text messaging capabilities and XM satellite radio with NavTraffic updates is optional.

Performance & Fuel Economy

For 2012, Subaru has jettisoned the old 2.5-liter boxer engine in favor of an all-new 2.0-liter unit. Rated at 148 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque, this new engine is less powerful than the old 2.5-liter engine. But what it lacks in muscle it more than makes up in fuel economy. With the standard 5-speed manual, the Impreza earns an EPA estimated 25-mpg city and 34-mpg highway (33-mpg for the five-door). Toss in the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) automatic transmission, and those figures climb to 27-mpg city and 36-mpg highway.

Although its not fast, the Impreza with the CVT can run from zero to 60 in about 9seconds, which is more than acceptable for a four-cylinder economy car.

Safety

Safety is a cornerstone of Subaru's commitment to its customers, which is why it should come as no surprise that, in addition to such requirements as anti-lock brakes, electronic traction and stability control and standard AWD, the Impreza also features front, front side-impact, front and rear side curtain and a driver's knee airbags. It should also not come as a surprise that the Impreza scores excellent marks in its crash tests, earning a Top Safety Pick from the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, gives the 2012 Impreza four out of five stars in its front and side impact crash tests, and five stars for its performance in the rollover roof strength test.

Driving Impressions

Ok, we will tell you right off the bat that the Impreza isn't a pocket rocket, nor does it take turns like a rollercoaster on rails. But, that's not its mission. As a daily driver, the Impreza is really quite appealing and when equipped with the CVT automatic, the Impreza is pretty spritely off the line. Once you get up to speeds over 40 mph, however, there isn't a lot of reserve power for passing slower traffic. There's also a rather harsh sound at full throttle, but that's pretty standard with most CVT transmissions as the engine revs to its maximum rpm and holds there until the throttle is let up. You can save about $1,000 and go with the standard manual transmission, but we found the shifter feels rubbery and disconnected; plus, it actually delivers worse fuel economy than the automatic. For this reason we'd go with the 6-speed CVT that not only maximizes fuel economy, but includes paddle shifters that allow you to step through pre-programmed gears. Actually, a CVT has no gears, but Subaru has designed theirs to imitate the way a standard geared transmission normally operates, which we think is pretty slick.

On the road, the Impreza is surprisingly responsive, with good feedback from its electric assist power steering and a predictable, controlled feel when rounding sharp corners. But, the Impreza's real trump card is its permanently engage Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. Although the system adds an added measure of traction on both wet and dry pavement, its real advantage can be found when snow and ice replace asphalt and painted yellow lines.

Other Cars to Consider

Suzuki SX4 - The SX4 costs less than the Impreza and its AWD can be switched off when not required. But, the SX4 doesn't hold its value as well as the Impreza, nor does it score as well in its safety tests. Suzuki dealers are also not as plentiful as Subaru.

Ford Focus - If you're the kind of person who has to be first in line at every new iPhone launch, the Ford Focus is probably the car for you. Its loaded with high-tech features such as SYNC infotainment, Sony audio and it can even parallel park itself. But, the Focus doesn't offer an AWD model and its price tag can venture close to $30,000 fully loaded.

VW Golf TDI - The diesel version of VW's Golf offers better fuel economy and a sportier ride, plus a nicer interior and better audio options. But, like the Focus, the Golf doesn't offer AWD and it costs significantly more than the Impreza.

AutoTrader Recommends

The best bang for the buck is the Impreza 2.0i Premium model, which starts around $20,000 and with all the bells and whistles tops out around $25,500. Granted, the Premium's base price isn't far from the entry-level Legacy sedan's starting figure, but you get more goodies and better fuel economy with the Impreza, plus the added advantage of the five-door model, our personal favorite.

Read more about the Subaru Impreza in our Long-Term Review.

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Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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