Subaru has remade itself into a premium brand and nowhere is that more evident than in its expansive Impreza line of compact cars. Premium features come not in the form of fancy interiors but in the form of sophisticated all-wheel-drive systems, turbocharged engines and high-quality engineering designs. The days when the Impreza was an inexpensive subcompact, sold mainly on the strength of its low price, are long gone. The 2006 Impreza line offers more variants than ever, almost to the point of confusion.
There's a lot to like in the Impreza line, and a small car for nearly every taste. All models are good fun to drive and quite practical, with decent room in the back seat and good gas mileage. The standard fulltime all-wheel-drive system is legitimately a safety, performance and foul-weather advantage.
On one hand, the least expensive model costs substantially more than some other very good small cars. On the other, even the base Impreza has more horsepower than most cars in its class. For less than $18,500, the 2006 Impreza 2.5i Sedan and 2.5i Sport Wagon (as the base models are now called) come very well equipped. They're the least expensive all-wheel-drive sedan and wagon available in the United States. The Impreza Outback Sport offers a bit more ground clearance and a modicum of off-road capability. The WRX is a genuine high-performance car, but too refined now to be considered a boy racer. The crazy fast WRX STi is an ultra-high-performance machine that can run with big dogs like the BMW M3 for tens of thousands of dollars less.
Their silhouettes may look familiar, but the Impreza models benefit from some serious upgrades for 2006. All models have been restyled front and rear. More significant, in our view, are improvements less visible to the eye. Power has increased at least slightly across the board. The body structure has been improved and the suspension refined. There's more standard equipment, more safety equipment, more new technology.
The 2006 Impreza is more sophisticated, perhaps more serious, but it's still fun and sensible in any guise. It's still loaded with character compared to some of the sanitized appliances that populate this class of car. One of our favorite small cars is better than ever.
Subaru's Impreza line has grown to the point where you almost need a program to tell the players. For 2006 there are 10 models, both sedans and wagons. All are powered by a variant of Subaru's 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. All come standard with full-time all-wheel drive and a manual transmission. A four-speed automatic ($800) is optional on most.
The Impreza 2.5i Sedan ($18,295) and 2.5i Sport Wagon ($18,295) are the least expensive. Both are powered a 173-hp version of the 2.5-liter boxer engine (up eight horsepower for 2006, with variable valve timing and lift), and both come well equipped. Standard features include upscale bits like interior air filtration, auto-off headlights and an outside temperature indicator, as well as air conditioning, an 80-watt stereo with CD, cruise control and remote keyless locks. The 2.5i Sport Wagon comes with a split folding rear seat, rear cargo utility bars and cover, roof rails and a trailer harness connector.
The Outback Sport wagon ($19,195) is designed for rugged conditions. The Outback's suspension is raised and tuned for more wheel travel (or off-road capability). It adds a chrome grille and gray-metallic lower body cladding, roof-rail crossbars, and projector-beam foglights. The Outback Sport Special Edition wagon ($19,695) comes with a 240-watt stereo with six CD changer and auto-dim rearview mirror.
The WRX is the high-performance Impreza, now powered by 230-hp turbocharged version of 2.5-liter four, with sport-tuned suspension, 17-inch wheels and more potent brakes. The WRX was created as a limited-production specialty car, but it quickly became one of Subaru's best sellers, and there are now six variants.
The WRX TR sedan ($23,995), new for 2006, gets the high-performance mechanicals and standard features comparable to the 2.5i. TR stands for Tuner Ready, and this WRX is geared toward sport-compact enthusiasts who might choose to equip it with some of the hundreds of dealer-installed or aftermarket parts and accessories currently available.
The WRX sedan ($24,995) and WRX Sport Wagon ($24,495) add more features, including heavily bolstered sport seats, automatic climate control, a 140-watt stereo with CD changer, the fog lights and leather trimmed wheel and shifter.
The WRX Limited ($27,495) and WRX Limited Sport Wagon ($26,995), also new for 2006, are the peak of Impreza luxury. Their price includes leather seating with dual-mode heaters in front, a power moonroof, windshield wiper de-icers and heated outside mirrors. These are also the first WRX models offered with the four-speed automatic transmission.
The WRX STi ($32,995) sits atop the Impreza line. This is the one most coveted by hard-core driving enthusiasts, and it's distinguished by a huge two-step rear wing and even more aggressive bodywork. More important, it's powered by a crazy-fast 300-hp version of the boxer four, with even firmer suspension and track-style Brembo brakes.
Options include a CD changer ($355) and an engine block heater ($30).
Safety features on all models include dual front airbags, front side-impact airbags, and seatbelts with pre-tensioners and force limiters for the front seats. ABS comes standard and features four sensors and four channels (meaning all four wheels can brake independently). It comes with electronic brake-force distribution (meaning wheels with the best traction get the most brake force in a panic stop).
The purchase price includes 24-hour roadside assistance for the duration of the three-year, 36,000-mile warranty.
The 2006 Impreza models have been restyled to reflect what Subaru calls its new brand identity. The centerpiece is a prominent three-section black mesh grille, which is supposed to reflect Subaru's aircraft heritage (more accurately, the aircraft heritage of parent Fuji Heavy Industries). Some reviewers have described the new Subaru look in unflattering terms. We're indifferent, at least to the Impreza's grille. It certainly would not deter us from owning one of these cars.
The new grille is flanked by comma-shaped light clusters, encased in tinted lenses. The taillight clusters are shaped similarly to those in front, with the red, yellow and clear lenses of individual lights gathered under a smoked cover. All models now have aluminum hoods to trim weight and improve weight balance front to rear (not something you expect on the typical small car). The fenders on all Impreza models are flared more aggressively, and the wheel wells are filled nicely with standard 16-inch rims.
The Impreza Outback Sport has a bit more space between the tire and the fender lip. That's because the Outback's ride height is raised slightly to allow more upward wheel travel. The Outback is easy to distinguish from the other wagons, thanks to its chrome grille and two-tone paint. The side molding, bumpers and lower body are finished in steely gray metallic, and the rear bumper has a truck-style vinyl pad, or step.
The Impreza WRX now features the sculpted side sills previously reserved for the mighty STi. By appearances, this is our favorite Impreza, particularly in the soft gray metallic paint that adorned our test car. The 17-inch spoke wheels add purpose. The body-colored side mirrors, new smoked light lenses and softly shimmering paint (not to mention impressive overall panel fit) meld to create a jewel-like finish that would flatter cars costing twice as much.
The WRX STi has been stripped of what many considered its calling card: the big gaping scoop in its hood. Subaru says improved aerodynamics feed the STi engine and intercooler all the air they need through a narrower scoop identical to that on the standard WRX. Perhaps, but saving the cost of tooling a separate hood for the low-volume STi probably helped.
The STi was created as the homologation car, a required street-legal copy of Subaru's winning World Rally Championship cars. Those who care will notice the STi's slightly lower ride height, or the badges or the little spoiler at the trailing edge of the roof. And if none of those things are enough to announce the presence of the fastest Subaru ever, no worries. Absolutely no one will miss the giant, two-step rear wing. The STi's rear spoiler may be the most audacious in autodom. And if the wing doesn't shout "Look at me!'' loud enough, there are optional gold wheels, just like those on the WRC race cars. They may not be particularly attractive, but they're genuine.
The 2006 Subaru Impreza sports new fabrics and subtle new features inside, yet the effect of these and some hidden noise-suppression improvements add up to a sum greater than the parts.
The interior is one of the most obvious signs that the Impreza has grown up. The cabin is well designed, judged both by appearance and function, and it's also very well finished. The overall effect is that of a car selling in the $30,000 range, rather than an economy car priced in the low teens. The dash in the base Impreza 2.5i is trimmed with a dark gray metallic material. It's plastic, to be sure, but it looks good and doesn't come off as cheap. The new features enhance this upscale ambience: A sophisticated anti-theft system is now standard, as are cabin air filtration and an outside temperature gauge.
There's no change in the basic layout for 2006, and that's okay. The instruments and controls were revised for '05, and they work great. Everything is easy to find and operate, but the package doesn't seem Spartan or simplistic.
The wipers are located on a stalk to the right of the steering column, headlights to the left. Audio controls, particularly with the standard stereo, are on the small side, but the radio is placed prominently above the climate controls in the center stack, and closer to the driver's reach. The three climate control knobs are BIG. Even the standard mechanical/vacuum dials on the 2.5i work smoothly; the electronic switches for the automatic climate control in our WRX test car felt like the dials on some high-end home stereo systems. The front seats in the 2.5i, taken from the old Impreza RS, have as much bolster as the so-called sport seats in some cars.
The seats in the WRX have even more bolster, with a single-piece back that integrates the headrest. The gauge cluster hints that the WRX is a serious driver's car. It's tucked under a semi-circular hood, just as it is the 2.5i and Outback, but the tachometer sits square in the center, race-style, while the speedometer is secondary, to the right. The WRX dash trim is a lighter silver metallic, and this Impreza comes standard with leather on the steering wheel, shift knob and hand brake.
Front seats in the STi crank it up another notch. They're very firm, with bolster and shoulder wings on par with some aftermarket sport seats. The inserts are upholstered in loud blue Alcantara, with a heavy knit fabric (in black) on the bolsters. The big tach speaks volumes about the STi's intent with something you don't see every day: a 9,000-rpm redline. Despite the race-car design ambience, Subaru has finally accepted the reality of production cars sales and equipped the STi with a 140-watt stereo and CD changer.
The Impreza's rear seat is roomy for the class. The rear roof pillars are shaped such that getting in requires a steep head bob, but inside headroom and legroom are tolerable for people up to about six feet in height. Two such people. There are three three-point seatbelts in back, but the Impreza is too narrow for adults to use all of them at the same time, unless those three people are on very, very good terms.
With 11 cubic feet of storage space, the trunk is as roomy as it gets in this class. Think of the Impreza this way. Two people can carry all the luggage they'll conceivably need for a trip of any length, traveling comfortably throughout, with room to pick up a hitchhiker if they wish.
The Impreza wagons have a 60/40 split fold-down rear seatback, with cargo retaining bars, a grocery-bag hook and cargo cover in all models. The Outback Sport also has 12-volt power point in the cargo area.
With the rear seat in place, the Impreza wagon has more than twice the cargo space of the sedan (23.8 cubic feet). Fold the seat and it opens 61.6 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the front seats. How much is that? Almost as much as a full-size Cadillac Escalade SUV with its third seat removed (64 c
In any of its many guises, the Subaru Impreza is a solid performer. All but the ultra-high performance WRX STi are comfortable, easy to live with, and quite practical. Any Impreza is very stable and forgiving, thanks to its all-wheel-drive system, which improves both performance and all-road capability and in certain respects adds a margin of safety.
Imprezas have always been fun. What stands out in the 2006 models is how refined it has become. It's almost as if years of incremental improvement have somehow reached critical mass and moved Impreza up a level or two. Particularly with the WRX, the Impreza makes its case with sophistication as much as thrills for the buck, the way the best small European cars do.
No doubt Subaru's Ring Frame Reinforced body helps. That's what the company calls the underlying structure, which now uses hydroformed sections and components stamped from tailored blanks. Those techniques have one key advantage: more strength and rigidity without an undue increase in weight. You might think of RFR as a safety cell in roughly a cube shape around the passenger compartment, and Subaru's primary objective is better occupant protection. Yet the structural improvements pay dividends in many ways, like more responsive handling, better ride quality and improved smoothness in just about every aspect of the Impreza's operation.
For 2006, the base Impreza engine has been massaged with new technology, including an electronic (drive-by-wire) throttle and variable valve timing and lift. This 2.5-liter four cylinder retains Subaru's familiar horizontally opposed cylinder design. The boxer, as it's called, was the engine design used in the original Volkswagen Beetle, and it's still used in Porsche's sports cars. The improvements to the Impreza engine increase horsepower on 2006 models by eight to 173 hp. By that figure, the Impreza 2.5i leaves competitors like the Mazda 3 and most Honda Civics in the dust.
Those familiar with a boxer engine will recognize the faint, loping vibration that makes its way through the flywheel and down the center of the car at idle. It's comforting to anyone who's owned an original Beetle (or 911). The other thing about boxers, compared to some inline four-cylinder engines, is an abundance of acceleration-producing torque at low- to mid-range engine rpm. Here the Impreza 2.5i has it all over most of its competitors, generating an impressive 166 pound-feet. And there's an added benefit to this good low-end response. In the past we've found the Impreza better suited than many four-cylinder cars to an automatic transmission. Acceleration is brisk, and thanks to the new variable valve operation, the 2006 Impreza 2.5i is more flexible than its predecessor. The engine breathes a little better than before at high rpm, and it keeps pulling strong further up into the rev range.
The 2006 Impreza WRX gets even more extensive improvements than the 2.5i, and a new engine entirely. Until now, the WRX was equipped with a smaller, 2.0-liter version of the boxer, powered up with a high-boost turbocharger. Now it gets the 2.5, still with a turbo and intercooler. Horsepower has increased by 13 to 230 hp; at least as significantly, torque increases by 18 to 235 pound-feet.
Along with the engine, the WRX gets aluminum suspension arms front and rear (as do some very expensive cars). The steering ratio is even quicker than before. The brakes, already large for this class, now have four-piston calipers in front. It's serious stuff, and should dissuade anyone who might still think of Impreza as an economy car.
The best news: the WRX may be more fun than ever. Some may lament the passing of the higher strung 2.0-liter engine, but the 2.5 is more mature. It feels more substantial at all speeds. It still makes revs quickly, to the point that under hard acceleration you might bump the rev limiter before you realize it's time to shift up. B
The Subaru Impreza models are more refined and sophisticated than ever. While the Impreza 2.5i costs more than a lot of cars in its class, it comes standard with all-wheel drive, more power, and a fairly comprehensive standard equipment list. It's a great winter car in the Snow Belt, and unlike most competitors, it's available as a wagon. With its taller ride height and suspension design, the Outback Sport works well for gravel roads. The many WRX variations are true driving-enthusiast cars and fantastic daily drivers. The track-tuned WRX STi performs as well as some serious sport sedans that cost nearly twice as much. By virtually every measure, the Imprezas stack up well against the competition.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent J.P. Vettraino filed this report from Detroit.
|Model Line Overview |
|Base Price (MSRP) |
|Model lineup: |
|Impreza 2.5i sedan ($18,295); 2.5i wagon ($18,295); Outback Sport wagon ($19,195); Outback Sport Limited wagon ($19,695); WRX TR sedan ($23,995); WRX sedan ($24,995) WRX wagon ($23,495); WRX Limited sedan ($27,495); WRX Limited wagon ($26,995); WRX STi ($32,995) |
|173-hp sohc 16-valve 2.5-liter H4; 230-hp dohc 16-valve turbocharged H4, 300-hp dohc 16-valve turbocharged H4 |
|5-speed manual; 6-speed manual; 4-speed automatic |
|Safety equipment (Standard): |
|dual-stage front airbags, front seat side-impact airbags, ABS with electronic brake-force distribution |
|Safety equipment (Optional): |
|Basic warranty: |
|3 years/36,000 miles |
|Assembled in: |
|Specifications As Tested |
|Model tested (MSRP): |
|Subaru Impreza WRX ($24,995) |
|Standard equipment: |
|air conditioning with cabin filtration, 140-watt six-speaker stereo with six-CD changer, power locks with remote operation, power windows, cruise control, intermittent wipers, rear defroster, sport-design seats with height adjustment for driver, leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel, leather-wrapped shift knob and parking brake handle, tinted glass, remote trunk and fuel door release, outside temperature indicator, dual overhead map lights, dual vanity mirrors, center sun visor, carpeted floor mats, projector beam foglamps, 17-inch alloy wheels |
|Options as tested: |
|Destination charge: |
|Gas Guzzler Tax: |
|Price as tested (MSRP) |
|all-wheel drive |
|2.5-liter dohc 16-valve horizontally opposed four with turbocharger and intercooler |
|Horsepower (hp @ rpm): |
|230 @ 5600 |
|Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): |
|235 @ 3600 |
|5-speed manual |
|EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: |
|20/26 mpg. |
|99.4 in. |
|175.8/68.5/56.7 in. |
|Track, f/r: |
|58.5/58.3 in. |
|Turning circle: |
|35.4 ft. |
|Seating capacity: |
|Head/hip/leg room, f: |
|38.6/53.3/42.9 in. |
|Head/hip/leg room, m: |
|Head/hip/leg room, r: |
|38.7/51.9/33.0 in. |
|Cargo volume: |
|11.0 cu. ft. |
|Towing capacity: |
|2000 lbs. |
|Suspension F: |
|independent with MacPherson struts and stabilizer bar |
|Suspension R: |
|independent with MacPherson struts and stabilizer bar |
|Ground clearance: |
|6.1 in. |
|Curb weight: |
|3192 lbs. |
|215/45R17 Bridgestone all-season |
|Brakes, f/r: |
|vented disc/vented disc with ABS and EBD in. |
|Fuel capacity: |
|15.9 gal. gal. |