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2017 Subaru Impreza: First Drive Review

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author photo by Aaron Gold December 2016

Some car geeks liken Subaru to Saab: Similar to the now-defunct Swedish automaker, Subaru has traditionally designed their cars with little regard for what the rest of the industry is doing. But that's changed over the last few years. Despite having some of the most loyal buyers in the industry -- Subaru owners often drive their cars into triple-digit territory and then trade in for another Subaru -- the brand has been trying to make their cars less quirky and more mainstream. So far, the strategy is working like crazy: Brand sales have nearly tripled since 2008. So instead of giving the compact Impreza the typical fourth-year makeover -- the previous version was only just introduced in 2012, and we had one here at Autotrader for a year -- Subaru has replaced it with an all-new model, which will be built in the States at the automaker's Indiana plant.

A Tough Act to Follow

For the record, we liked the outgoing Subaru Impreza. By far, its best selling point was the standard-fit all-wheel-drive system, especially because the Impreza was priced to compete with front-wheel-drive rivals. It was as if Subaru was throwing in all-wheel drive for free. We liked the interior space and the fuel economy from its 2.0-liter engine, though foot-to-the-floor acceleration was tepid.

For the new Impreza, Subaru has focused on improving style, safety and driver involvement. The style changes are easy to see: Subaru has gone with more sculpted sheet metal, and in profile, the new Impreza bears a striking (and almost plagiaristic) resemblance to the Mazda3. Viewed from the corners, it's a distinctive and handsome shape, even if the rear turn signals look like they were tacked on as an afterthought. ("Gosh, I can't help but think we forgot something... Oh, wait! The turn signals!")

The 2017 Subaru Impreza is slightly longer, lower and wider than the old one, and that translates to more spacious accommodations. The rear-door opening is larger, as is the trunk lid, and both the sedan and the hatchback offer plenty of cargo room. The interior is far more stylish than any Impreza we've seen before -- from the multipanel seats to the stitching that adorns the dash and doors, the Impreza's cockpit is a lovely place. The design is modern, but it hasn't crossed the line into abstract, as is the case in some of the Impreza's rivals. Material quality is very good, despite a few cheap plastic-trim bits scattered here and there. And yet Subaru hasn't lost their devotion to simple, easy-to-use controls: Most everything in the Impreza can be operated without distracting the driver from the road.

Emphasis on Safety

Safety improvements stem primarily from a new underlying platform, a modular structure that will be enlarged to underpin all future Subaru models. Subaru says the new platform does a better job of managing energy in a crash, which improves occupant safety. The brand is also justifiably proud of the Impreza's optional EyeSight system, a safety suite that includes collision detection with automatic braking and adaptive cruise control. The system works well, though the adaptive cruise beeps every time it senses a vehicle ahead and again when that vehicle goes out of range. The beeping can get incessant on busy urban freeways, and we found it incredibly annoying.

Passive safety comes courtesy of seven airbags: two in front, two front-seat-mounted torso airbags, a pair of 2-row side-curtain airbags and one for the driver's knees. Many cars feature seat-belt tensioners, which cinch belts tight in a crash -- but the new Impreza goes a step further, with separate tensioners for front lap and shoulder belts as well as for the outer rear seat belts. Buyers with babies will appreciate the large and well-marked LATCH tether points that make it easy to securely mount a child seat.

Better Chassis, but the Engine Is Still Pokey

We'd argue that the Impreza's best safety feature is all-wheel drive. Although it's often perceived as being most useful in snow and rain -- which, no question, it is -- all-wheel drive improves traction on dry pavement, too. Combined with standard electronic stability control, all-wheel drive makes the Impreza more likely than most cars to go in the direction you point it.

And that brings us to the fun-to-drive factor. The new Impreza is an improvement over the old car, though not necessarily in terms of acceleration. The engine is an extensively reworked version of the 2.0-liter horizontally opposed 4-cylinder in the outgoing Impreza, and 80 percent of the parts are new, including a direct fuel-injection system that allows the engine to operate more efficiently and cleanly. But the power gains are slight: The new engine produces 152 horsepower, just 4 hp more than the outgoing engine, and torque is unchanged at 145 lb-ft.

As a result, the Impreza's acceleration remains lukewarm. It's quick enough in traffic, but foot-to-the-floor acceleration (merging onto freeways and passing on 2-lane roads) isn't as urgent as we'd like. Part of the blame goes to the Impreza's continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), but this is largely a matter of perception. CVTs allow engine speed to rise and fall smoothly, without the "steps" of a conventional automatic -- though the Impreza does imitate a 7-speed stepped transmission under heavy throttle, a nod to tradition that actually slows acceleration. When your foot goes to the floor, the CVT adjusts engine speed for optimum acceleration, and it doesn't make the same noises as a car with a conventional transmission. This effect can make it seem as if the Impreza isn't accelerating as quickly as it ought to. But perceptions aside, at the end of the day, the Impreza is slower than many of its rivals.

The CVT does have its upsides: It delivers smooth, shift-free acceleration and great gas mileage. EPA fuel-economy estimates are 28 miles per gallon in the city and 38 mpg on the highway for the 4-door, 28 mpg city/37 mpg hwy for the 5-door and 27 mpg city/36 mpg hwy for the Sport version. These numbers are comparable to the Impreza's front-wheel-drive competition -- all the more remarkable when you consider that it all-wheel drive has a negative impact on fuel economy. Subaru does plan to add a manual transmission later this year, though it will only have five forward speeds.

Along with the stiffened structure, Subaru has redesigned the suspension to improve the Impreza's agility without sacrificing ride comfort. We drove both the volume-selling Impreza Premium model and the Impreza Sport -- the latter gets 19-inch wheels and a torque-vectoring system that gently brakes the inboard front wheel as you steer into a corner, helping the car to turn in more sharply. Both cars handled very well, gripping the road like a sports car would (thanks, all-wheel drive) and doing a better job of quelling body roll than the old Impreza.

Ride quality was good in both models, though we thought the Premium model -- which has 16-in wheels and hence a taller and more flexible tire sidewall -- was a bit more comfortable. The new Impreza has a quicker steering ratio, meaning that it takes less movement of the steering wheel to change direction. Though the new steering system makes the Impreza feel more agile, it darts to and fro on the freeway, and one must be careful to make only small corrections. We were happy with the old car's slightly lazier steering response. Overall, the Impreza is a good handler, but it lacks the fun factor of the Mazda3: It goes through the motions, but doesn't seem to enjoy the ride as much as the Mazda.

All-Wheel Drive for Free?

Pricing for the 2017 Subaru Impreza sedan starts at $19,215 (including destination charge), with hatchbacks priced $500 higher; an automatic transmission adds $1,000. Those numbers undercut the entry-level models of the Honda Civic, the Mazda3 and the Toyota Corolla, though the Chevrolet Cruze and the Hyundai Elantra start out around $1,200 cheaper. A Limited hatchback with all the trimmings top out at $29,260, but Subaru believes most buyers will opt for the Premium model, which lists for $22,015. The Impreza's price range is competitive with all of its front-wheel-drive rivals -- once again, it's as if Subaru is throwing in all-wheel drive for free.

Overall, we're impressed with the new Impreza. Subaru has managed to improve the car without taking away any of its core strengths. Sure, we'd like it if the Impreza were a bit quicker and a bit more fun to drive, but in terms of space, safety, design, value and all-weather traction, we think Subaru got the Impreza just right.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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2017 Subaru Impreza: First Drive Review - Autotrader