First Drive

FIRST DRIVE: 2015 Subaru Impreza

Never mind the price, the traction is the attraction

2015 Subaru Impreza

KELOWNA, BC – Back in the early '90s, Subaru almost self-destructed in North America. The niche brand synonymous with all-wheel drive tried to go mainstream, selling front-wheel-drive cars to compete with the likes of Toyota and Honda. While AWD remained available, it came at an added price.

That endeavour ended badly.  Subaru loyalists felt betrayed, mainstream buyers remained unaware that Subaru even existed, and sales in 1994 hit a 15-year low.

Nothing better illustrates the wrongness of that strategy than the recovery in Subaru’s fortunes since it returned to its roots. In 1995 all Subarus reverted to all-wheel drive.

Now the automaker’s 2014 sales in Canada are on track to finish 10 times higher than those of 20 years ago.

It doesn’t hurt that the overall market is converging with Subaru’s speciality. Whether you’re talking luxury sedans or the explosive growth in sales of SUVs and personal-use pickups, some form of all- or four-wheel drive now equips almost half the cars and light trucks sold in Canada.

That said, driving four wheels instead of two has its downsides. The additional hardware costs money while adding weight and friction that penalize fuel economy. Those burdens are easily absorbed on a $50,000 truck or a $70,000 luxury sedan, but can be a deal-breaker for price-sensitive shoppers of small cars.

$3K below its only direct competitor

Among its compact-car peers the 2015 Impreza is even more of an outlier now than when we last visited it three years ago. The withdrawal from Canada of Suzuki and its SX4 models leaves the Mitsubishi Lancer as the only other small mass-market car to offer all-wheel drive (though it’s not standard). The lowest-priced Lancer AWC lists for $3,000 more than the base Impreza, but does include automatic transmission and a multi-mode all-wheel-drive system.

This is a mid-cycle refresh for the Impreza 2.0i, which had its last full model change for 2012. Unlike its hot-shot WRX and STI siblings (which had their own redesign last summer), the 2.0i remains available in five-door hatchback as well as sedan configurations. Each body shape is available in four trim grades – base 2.0i, Touring, Sport and Limited – with prices still starting at $19,995 for the 2.0i with the standard five-speed manual gearbox.

The obvious revisions fall into four categories: cosmetic; environment; safety; and connectivity. In order of appearance, the visuals comprise a new face incorporating a chrome grille surround, WRX-style side mirrors and, on sedans, a reshaped rear bumper and standard deck-lid spoiler.

Environmentally, all Imprezas now qualify for a PZEV emissions rating (basically, ultra-low tailpipe emissions and zero emissions from on-board evaporation of gasoline) and fuel economy benefits slightly from reduced friction in the engine and the available continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT).

Thus equipped, combined fuel consumption is reduced by 3.0% (the 2015 numbers of 8.5 L/100 km city and 6.4 highway look higher than last year’s, but that’s because of the tougher 5-cycle test procedure introduced for 2015.)

Available EyeSight proves trickle-down theory

The big safety news is the new availability on Impreza of Subaru’s much-praised EyeSight active-safety package encompassing adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and pre-collision braking. EyeSight is part of a $1,200 Technology Package that can be added to the upper two trim levels, but only in conjunction with the CVT ($1,300). As well, a rear-view camera is standard on all four trims.

Arguably (and sadly) the biggie for most customers will be Impreza`s updated inventory of driver-distraction ... er, infotainment technologies. Even the base 2.0i includes a 6.2-inch touch-screen audio with Sirius/XM, steering-wheel controls, STARLINK smart-phone integration with Aha radio, Bluetooth streaming, voice activation, USB port and iPod control.

The Touring trim boosts the speaker count from four to six, while leap-frogging to the Limited trim adds navigation (on a 7-inch screen), a second USB port, and text messaging capability. The instrument panel is reconfigured on all models to accommodate the new screens while a revised gauge cluster on Sport and Limited now includes a 3.5-inch colour multi information display.

More out-of-sight upgrades

Although not spelled out in a spec sheet, the 2015 do-over also includes extensive finessing of the hidden hardware. Besides the powertrain efficiency tweaks, there are numerous measures to reduce noise and vibration, plus suspension and steering revisions to enhance the handling and ride.

There wasn’t much wrong with the road manners before, but the 2015 ups its game to deliver a truly sweet blend of sharp yet fluent steering, planted yet balanced handling and a supple yet controlled ride. Admittedly the steering doesn’t relay much road feel, but I like its consistently low effort – unlike so many modern cars, it doesn’t fake “feel” by adding artificial resistance at higher speeds.

Add the steady dividend of full-time AWD, and the Impreza has a blue-chip dynamic portfolio.

Despite a life-long preference for stick-shifting, I like the Impreza better with the CVT.  As manual ‘boxes go, the Impreza’s isn’t especially satisfying to use. And while the engine is now sweet as a nut when it’s paired with the CVT, it remains relatively less refined with the stick.

The issue isn’t apparent so much when it’s working hard but at more routine engine speeds. It's manifested as a laboured vibration when lugging from low engine speeds and a bothersome resonance at 2,500 rpm (a speed that coincides with 100-km/h in fifth).

Automatically better

The CVT is much more refined. Longer-legged gearing (as low as 2,400 rpm at 120 km/h vs. 3,100 in the manual) is one reason. And the CVT’s torque converter seems to absorb the sundry bad vibes that blemish the manual.

Subaru has also massaged the CVT to largely eliminate the “slipping clutch” feel that typifies the breed. In moderate acceleration it still operates steplessly but keeps the engine speed low enough not to be bothersome; and when you’re gunning it, the CVT mimics the stepped shifts of a conventional six-speed automatic.

In short, Impreza keeps what’s best about a CVT – efficiency and smoothness – while eliminating that constant high-rpm wail under heavy acceleration.

Although the Impreza has porked up by about 40 kg for 2015, Subaru claims the transmission tweaks have trimmed the flat-out 0-100-km/h time from 10.4 to 10.1 seconds. That’s still not especially sprightly by class standards, but a perky initial launch promotes a lively feel around town.

Cabin is the same, but with feeling

Ergonomically, the shift to more touch-screen-based switchgear is not progress, in my opinion, but in-car infotainment is the new frontier these days and Subaru had to be there.

Other at-the-wheel factors are mostly satisfactory – excellent visibility, readable instruments, logically placed switchgear – but the driver gets no more than a six-way manual seat adjustment even in the highest trims. Ideally, I’d like an eight-way seat along with more steering-column reach and rake adjustability.

Despite newer rivals that push the compact-car envelope, the Impreza’s cabin roominess still ranks well above average among its peers. The sedan’s trunk volume is below average, but it’s a practical shape with a useable pass-through; and the five-door is competitive with its own rivals.

Although it was never on the radar of those who shop solely on price, the 2012-2014 Impreza was already a compelling alternative to mainstream compact conformity.  Now the 2015 make-over has fettled its weaknesses, built on its strengths, and added more features for the same price.  

The Impreza still can’t match the affordability of compact-car rivals that start around $16,000, but maybe it’s time to stop thinking of the Impreza as an expensive small car. Think of it instead as a sophisticated and surprisingly affordable all-wheel drive car.

SPECIFICATIONS:

Model: 2015 Subaru Impreza 2.0i

Price Range: $19,995 - $30,295

Vehicle Type: AWD compact sedan or hatchback

Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, H4; 148 horsepower,145 lb-ft of torque

Transmission: Five-speed manual or CVT automatic

Acceleration – 0-100 km/h: 10.1 seconds (CVT, manufacturer's figure)

Fuel consumption (city/hwy):    

9.5/7.0 L/100 km (5MT)

8.5/6.4 L/100 km (CVT)

Competitors:  Acura ILX,  Buick Verano, Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda3, Mitsubishi Lancer, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Jetta

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