MORE M.P.G.’S With its jump in fuel economy, the 2012 Subaru Impreza is now the most fuel-efficient all-wheel-drive vehicle sold in the United States. More Photos »
THERE are so many Subarus here in northern New Hampshire that people joke about it being the official state car. But the owners don’t joke about their fuel economy, which pretty much stinks.
This consumer displeasure has not escaped the attention of Subaru, which concedes that lackluster gas mileage has cost it sales. The company finally addressed the issue when it redesigned the midsize Legacy and Outback for 2010, and it has followed up by greatly improving the mileage of the redesigned 2012 Impreza compact.
The new Impreza sedan with an automatic transmission is rated at 36 miles per gallon on the highway, a whopping 38 percent increase from last year’s figure of 26 m.p.g. The city mileage estimate has jumped to 27 m.p.g., from 20 m.p.g., a leap of 35 percent.
The gains also make the Impreza the most fuel-efficient all-wheel-drive vehicle sold in the United States. Its closest competitor is the 2012 Mini Cooper Countryman S All4 with a 6-speed manual transmission. That Mini is rated at 25 m.p.g. city and 31 m.p.g. highway and, in contrast with the easy-to-please Impreza, has a gas snob’s taste for premium fuel.
In addition to the Impreza sedan, there is a four-door hatchback (which Subaru persists in calling a five-door). Each has a 5-speed manual transmission as standard equipment.
The sedan with the stick shift is rated at 25/34 m.p.g., a gain from last year of 5 m.p.g. in town and 7 on the highway. The new hatchback with the manual is rated at 25 m.p.g. in the city (a gain of 5) and 33 on the highway (up 6).
Happily for consumers, and for Subaru, the new Impreza offers more than an improved ability to shun gas stations. It blends practicality — particularly with the hatchback — with more entertaining handling.
The sedan starts at $18,245 and the hatchback at $18,745. Some states require a cleaner PZEV-rated version (for Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle), which adds $300 to the price.
The continuously variable automatic transmission, a fuel-saving design without discrete gears, adds $1,000.
I spent a week in a sedan with the C.V.T. and Premium trim. The price, with a $3,000 option package that included alloy wheels, sunroof, navigation system and heated seats was $23,545.
An automaker seeking to coax some small gains in fuel economy can typically come up with a few tweaks here and there. But to manage improvements of this magnitude it is necessary to spend some serious money for a new engine and transmission.
The variable transmission, which replaces a quaint and uncompetitive 4-speed automatic, is a smaller version of the C.V.T. in the Legacy and Outback. The unit responds promptly to the gas pedal, but during cruising it also lets the engine speed drop, improving fuel economy.
The other big change is a new 2-liter 4-cylinder engine, an offspring of Subaru’s first all-new engine family in two decades. It is a smaller version of a 2.5-liter power plant introduced in the Forester last year, and like other Subaru engines it is a horizontally opposed, or Boxer, design.
Subaru says the engine is more efficient and includes some lighter components because it was not designed to be turbocharged: some parts of a turbo engine have to be stronger to withstand additional pressure created by the turbocharger.
The new engine is rated at 148 horsepower at 6,200 revolutions per minute and 145 pound feet of torque at 4,200 r.p.m. That’s a big drop from the 170-horse engine of last year, but Subaru says the new transmission’s quicker response helps to make up for the loss of power. Also, the new Impreza weighs less — in the case of my test car, about 130 pounds.
In about 400 miles of travel on Interstate highways and hilly roads through the White Mountains, I never felt the Impreza was seriously underpowered. But neither would I say that its acceleration was brisk.
Once up to speed, the Impreza is a fine companion for the driver in a hurry. The electric power steering’s consistent weight and feel are quite good — indeed, far superior to the steering in other recently redesigned Subarus like the Outback. With a reworked suspension and stronger body, the car responds quickly when the driver wants to change direction. Rumpled roads don’t upset either the Impreza’s handling or the comfort of its occupants.
I also briefly drove a hatchback and found the handling was similar. Subaru says it tried to make all the Imprezas ride and handle the same.
The new Impreza line does not, however, include new versions of the high-performance WRX and WRX STI models. Those cars got a makeover last year, though they continue to use the Impreza platform, and Subaru says it will be several years before new versions arrive.
The interior of the sedan and hatch are nice-looking, though hardly benchmarks for econo-elegance. There is adequate storage, and the basic climate controls are logical and include refreshingly simple knobs.
The driver’s seat has a height adjustment, and it is possible to easily adjust the closeness of the front head restraints to the back of one’s head.
While the overall lengths of the sedan and hatchback have not changed, the wheelbase is one inch longer. Clever packaging increased the rear legroom by almost two inches. But the seat cushion is close to the floor, and 6-footers will find the accommodations tight.
Standard equipment includes all the important safety equipment, including electronic stability control. After a series of crash tests, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has listed the Impreza as a Top Safety Pick.
The sedan’s trunk is rated at 12 cubic feet, an increase of almost one cubic foot. The hatchback has 22.5 cubic feet behind its second row, a gain of 3.5 cubic feet. If you plop down that second row, you create a cargo hold of 52.4 cubic feet, making the hatchback the far more versatile choice.
Like all current Subarus, the Impreza has an all-wheel-drive system admired in snowy areas for its ever-ready competence. But the new sedan and hatchback are somewhat vulnerable in deep snow because of their carlike ground clearance of just 5.7 inches. (The Sport version has 5.9 inches.)
Subaru will remedy that deficiency in the fall of 2012 with an Impreza variant to be called the Subaru XV, which is to have 8.7 inches of ground clearance.
While an economy rating of 36 m.p.g. is impressive for an all-wheel drive car, an even more fuel-efficient hybrid version may be coming. At the Detroit auto show in 2010, Masatsugu Nagato, who was then the director of Subaru’s parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, said the automaker’s first hybrid would be introduced in 2012, based on a new model — a bit of timing that coincides with the Impreza’s debut.
Subaru officials recently declined to comment on whether a hybrid Impreza was on the way, but they said repercussions from the Japanese earthquake last March made it likely the hybrid would not arrive until 2013.
For most people, all-wheel drive isn’t a necessity, so it is easy to see why potential customers were scared away by the previously uncompetitive mileage. But stunning changes to the Impreza have suddenly made its fuel economy a strength and its all-wheel drive a no-fault bonus.
INSIDE TRACK: Not just for bad weather anymore.