Mention the Subaru Impreza to your average car buff, and he or she will probably assume you mean the high-performance WRX or STi versions. That's something Subaru wants to change with the newly-redesigned 2008 Impreza -- they want the work-a-day version, the Impreza 2.5i, to have its time in the sun. Does the 2008 Impreza 2.5i have what it takes to challenge compact-sedan powerhouses like the Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla? I spent a week with an Impreza 2.5i sedan to find out. $17,640 base, $20,140 as tested, EPA fuel economy 20 MPG city, 27 highway.
First Glance: An extraordinary car in a way-too-ordinary wrapper
At first glance, the Impreza is a pretty ordinary-looking car. In fact, it's a bit too ordinary looking -- it's nowhere near as unique and stylish as my two favorite compacts, the Honda Civic and the Nissan Sentra.
No, the Subaru's real beauty is under the skin: It's the only car in its class to come standard with all-wheel-drive (AWD). AWD is probably one of the most underrated safety features available. Though it's best known for its ability to keep a car moving in bad weather, the truth is that even when the roads are bone-dry, as they were during my week with the Impreza, AWD can save your life: if you have to swerve suddenly to avoid trouble, AWD grips the pavement better than front- or rear-wheel-drive. That means the driver is less likely to lose control and more likely to be able to avoid an accident.
Here's the problem: Most people don't think about accidents while car-shopping. They think about what a car will say about them -- and the Impreza says "I'm a bit dull." Though the Impreza has some nice details, such as the grille and headlights (link goes to photo), it's wrapped in anonymous sheet-metal. Now, I'm not much for appearances, as anyone who's seen my wardrobe will attest -- but who doesn't like to have a cool-looking car in the driveway? The old Impreza fit that bill; its boxy shape stood out from the crowd, as if to say that the driver didn't mind looking a little unconventional if it meant having the best possible hardware under the skin. The new Impreza doesn't say that -- in fact, it doesn't say much of anything at all.
In the Driver's Seat: Things that make you go "But..."
The Impreza's interior is a mixed bag of good and bad -- so much so that I fear I may wear out my computer's B, U and T keys typing up this next section. I like the color; most Imprezas, like my tester, get a bright, airy, off-white interior. (Silver and grey cars get black cloth.) But the materials are the pits: The carpets are thin, the headliner looks like cardboard that's trying to grow a beard, and the material on the seats appears to be a cross-breed of terrycloth and felt.
At least the plastics are of good quality, but must there be so much of them? The three-tone finish on the dash is nice, but the hard plastic covering the door panels screams bargain-bin. (Surely that terry-felt stuff was cheap enough that Subaru could have put a little bit of it on the doors.)
The back seat is better than the old Impreza's, but it still can't match the stretch-out room of the Civic. The trunk lid is wonderful; it opens up a gaping maw that makes loading bulky cargo easy. But the trunk is a little smaller than the Civc's and a lot smaller than the Sentra's and Elantra's. Furthermore, the sloping floor gets in the way, and the old-fashioned metal hinges will squash anything in their path when you close the lid. The back seat splits and folds down, but the center seatbelt doesn't detach; it's always in the way.
On the Road: Where Impreza will really impress ya
So we've established that the new Impreza is boring to look at and has interior bits that would give a Yugo engineer a superiority complex. And yet I'd still recommend this car -- very highly, I might add. Why? Because of the way it drives -- or more specifically, the way it drives when something goes terribly wrong right in your path.
The Impreza has a soft, comfortable, compliant ride, and yet should you find yourself with an immediate need to twist the wheel, its all-wheel-drive system hangs on to the pavement for dear life. The steering is light and it's easy to fine-tune the car's path in the middle of a swerve. If Madame Zelda looked into her crystal ball and told me a 5-car pileup was going to occur just ahead of me on the freeway, I'd grab the keys to an Impreza. I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- all-wheel-drive cars like the Impreza save lives.
But even when the excrement isn't about to hit fan, the Impreza is still nice to drive. Its four-cylinder engine boasts big numbers for a compact sedan -- 2.5 liters, 170 horsepower, and 170 lb-ft of torque. Even with a 4-speed automatic -- not exactly cutting-edge transmission technology -- my test car accelerated with authority and shrugged off the hills surrounding Los Angeles as if they were the flatlands of Nebraska.
But -- there's that word again -- the trade-off is reduced fuel economy. I averaged 24.6 MPG, rather unimpressive compared to the low 30s that the About.com Cars test drivers and I have seen in the Civic and the Sentra. I'd gladly give up 30 horsepower for an extra 3-5 MPG.
Journey's End: Lack of style aside, Impreza is the sensible choice
Let's talk money. All-wheel-drive generally adds $1500 to $2000 to the price of a car. But get this -- the Subaru Impreza 2.5i lists for $17,640, just over $1000 more than a comparably-equipped Nissan Sentra 2.0S -- impressive, considering what a good deal the Sentra is. But -- and here's the really good but -- it's only about $50 more than a similarly-equipped Honda Civic LX. That's fifty, five-oh. And when I say similarly-equipped, I'm talking about power windows, locks and mirrors, keyless entry, air conditioning, CD player, six airbags and antilock brakes.
Furthermore, the Impreza offers optional electronic stability control, which makes its safe all-wheel-drive handling even safer. (ESC is only available top-of-the-line Civics; Sentra doesn't offer it at all. 2009 Imprezas will get ESC as standard.) My tesr car had a $1500 Premium Package with alloy wheels and other goodies; there's also a navigation system which comes bundled with Sirius satellite radio for a reasonable $1000.
So when you get down to it, the Subaru Impreza is a great deal on a safe and well-equipped car. Would I want my wife to drive an Impreza? Definitely. Would I want my kids to drive an Impreza? Well, they're 8 and 11, so no, not yet -- but eventually, yes. But would I buy an Impreza 2.5i for myself? Probably. Maybe. I'd definitely consider it. At least I think I would. Because the bottom line is that the Subaru Impreza 2.5i has almost everything it needs to take on the Civic and Sentra -- all it's lacking is style. -- Aaron Gold