New look catches fire

What? An all-wheel-drive vehicle that’s easy on gas?

Quite right. Subaru’s least-expensive model has been treated to a major makeover and will emerge this fall as a genuine fuel-sipping compact.

Through good economic times and bad, the Japan-based automaker’s sales chart consistently points upward as more buyers become convinced that all-wheel-drive is the way to go. For Subaru, this method of propulsion is quite literally the only way to go since it’s standard on every vehicle the company sells.

But there’s no time for laurel-resting here. Sure, the sales figures don’t lie, but the fact is that while Subaru’s Legacy sedan and its Outback and Forester wagons have been flying off the shelves, the Impreza’s popularity has at best been lukewarm. The problems are two-fold: the car’s underwhelming styling combined with a powerplant that burns through more gasoline than most compact car shoppers are prepared to accept.

All that is about to change once the 2012 Impreza hits the streets. To be clear, the brand-new sheetmetal that has been sculpted for both sedan and wagon models does not extend to the Impreza-based (and rally-inspired) WRX/STI lineup, which were updated separately for the 2011 model year. That being said, base Imprezas now feature the kind of bolder, broad-shouldered flared-fender styling that’s similar to that of the WRX. As well, the front and rear clip and sedan roofline are reminiscent of the larger Legacy. Meanwhile, the wagon’s nose has much in common with the Outback, but the rest of the sheetmetal has more in common with the WRX.

Other changes include a more steeply raked windshield and a front roof pillar that has been moved forward by nearly 8 inches, allowing for a much wider front- door opening.

The distance between the front and rear wheels has also been extended by about an inch, while the Impreza’s overall length and width remains unchanged.

On the inside, the redesigned instrument panel is now flatter for improved forward visibility. Both it and the door panels and floor console have been coated in richer looking soft-touch materials, and the wagon’s rear seat now folds to create a completely (not partially) flat load floor.

The Impreza’s new look and features should prove more attention-grabbing, but what is likely to move buyers is the new standard powerplant that’s part of Subaru’s new family of four-cylinder engines.

Already installed in the 2011 Forester, the engine displaces 2.0 liters and generates 148 horsepower. Compare that with the previous model’s 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder. Despite the engine’s obvious drop in power, Subaru claims that the 2.0 will still provide lively performance due to reduced vehicle weight, but there’s no word yet as to how much heft has been shed.

The biggest improvement, though, is the anticipated 30 percent improvement in overall fuel economy, estimated to be 27 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. This is competitive with the class leaders, despite the fact that the Impreza is all-wheel-drive. The best the 2011 Impreza can muster is 20/27. Gains are partly derived from a continuously variable transmission that will be optional. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard. In up-level Imprezas, the CVT will come with a six-speed manual mode that employs steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Subaru will introduce no fewer than five distinct trim levels and will bulk up the base version with air conditioning, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, remote keyless entry plus the usual power-operated controls. From there the sky’s the limit, topping out with the Limited and Sport Limited wagon models that arrive with leather seats, unique 17-inch alloy wheels and a premium audio package, to name just a few of the highlights.

With the rejuvenated Impreza at a best-guess price in the $18,500 to $19,000 range, Subaru appears bent on carving out a larger slice of the burgeoning compact-car market currently controlled by the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze plus others.

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