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2017 Subaru Impreza: Our first drive

Subaru's Impreza still does AWD cheap, but that's not the only reason to love it

When it comes to building an all-wheel-drive economy car, no other automaker can touch Subaru. On the rare occasions when a competing automaker offers an AWD version of a basic bread & butter commuter and grocery-getter, it’s always at the top of the price walk, but since 1993, Subaru has been building the Impreza with AWD at a price comparable to every other compact economy model on the road. Now the next generation of the Impreza has been revealed, and the future is as bright as ever for Subaru’s everyman car.

Don’t mess with success

The basic formula of the Impreza has never changed. It’s a compact economy car available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchwagon, powered by Subaru’s quirky but solid horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine, with AWD. Subaru fanatics will be jumping to the comments about now to point out that some early 1.8-liter Imprezas were FWD-only, and there were some really sweet two-door coupes made as late as 2001. That’s all true, but the appeal of the Impreza has always been the solid economy car value proposition with AWD as the sweetener.

An Impreza will go anywhere on any day of the year, and you don’t have to drive a ponderous SUV or brutal 4WD pickup truck to do it.

That combination has made Subaru the strong player it is today. The Impreza won’t ever touch the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla on sales volume, but active people who live in areas that get serious winter weather swear by these cars because an Impreza will go anywhere on any day of the year, and you don’t have to drive a ponderous SUV or brutal 4WD pickup truck to do it. Because Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD system is designed to work all the time, you just get in and go whether it’s New Year’s Day or the 4th of July.

The new generation of the Impreza platform begins with the 2017 model, and this vehicle maintains the Subaru commitment to economy, capability, and value. Even better, it shows the way for the next generation of truly legendary Subaru sport compacts.

A whole new platform

The foundation of the next-generation Impreza is the new Subaru Global Platform. This is a completely redesigned unibody that uses more high-strength steel, new welding techniques, and upgraded cross-sectional and joint designs to improve overall structural rigidity by 70 percent over the outgoing model. Additionally, the new platform allowed Subaru to redesign the suspension and sway bar mountings to deliver more control and a delightfully steady ride. Body roll has been reduced by 50 percent over the prior generation, and Subaru even lowered the center of gravity a bit to make the new chassis the best-riding Impreza to date.

You can feel that the chassis is rigid through all driving conditions. The Impreza stays flat through any kind of cornering or transition, while maintaining traction and stability. Some of that overall handling improvement is due to the new Stablex dampers used in the Impreza struts. Stablex dampers are standard on all the trims except for the base model, which we didn’t drive. Additionally, the Sport trim gives you a stiffer suspension tuning than the Premium or Limited trims, along with the Stablex dampers.

The result of all that invisible work is dramatic when you’re driving. The new Impreza is steady and confident on the road, with precise steering not usually found in the economy car class. The inherent stability of the chassis is enhanced by the addition of Active Torque Vectoring on the Sport trim, which applies a little bit of brake to the inside front wheel to reduce understeer as you accelerate out of a corner.

More: If it ain’t broke: Subaru’s WRX and STI continue into 2017 with minor changes

The net effect is that on a tightly curved road, the Impreza cuts into corners easily and soaks up bumps without any drama or bump steer at all, then goes where you point it as you leave the corner. We ran into some sharp holes and lumps right at the apex of various corners and no shock at all comes back through the steering wheel. You hear the bump, but you can barely feel it, and the car just keeps going as though nothing happened.

Proven engine and driveline

The chassis and suspension are the big news on the 2017 Impreza, but fans of the Subaru engine will be glad to hear that the reliable 2.0-liter plant is essentially unchanged except for a shift to direct injection. Horsepower is up to 152 (up from 148) and torque is raised to 148 foot-pounds (up from 145). Fuel economy is also up by a couple mpg to 28 city, 38 highway, but that’s about it for engine changes. You won’t really notice any difference in engine behavior compared to the last generation.

This is a completely redesigned unibody that uses more high-strength steel, new welding techniques, and upgraded cross-sectional and joint designs.

You can get the 2017 Impreza with a five-speed manual transmission in base trim or in Sport trim, but if you want Premium or Limited trims, you’ll get the continuously variable transmission standard. The CVT costs $800 extra in base or Sport trims. The notable thing about the Subaru CVT is that it uses programming to simulate a seven-speed automatic. That’s one simulated gear more than the outgoing Impreza had.

Let’s not screw around. I’ll cut straight to the heart of the CVT issue. As CVTs go, the Subaru is about as good as it gets, but you’ll still notice the tendency of a CVT to go right to the engine’s preferred RPM and then let the transmission accelerate the car. That acceleration is pretty leisurely in the Impreza, mostly owing to a curb weight ranging from 3,034 to 3,177 pounds, depending on how you configure the car. If the CVT driving experience bothers you (and yeah, it bothers me) then you should just choose the Sport trim and pull your own gears, which sounds like a barrel full of winning to me.

The only thing to say about the AWD in the 2017 transmission and engine package is that it’s invisible, but it’s working for you all the time. Mated with Subaru’s advanced safety features, the AWD system remains the Impreza’s biggest selling point.

All the safeties

Modern safety equipment is an alphabet soup of three-letter acronyms. Let’s establish that the Impreza has all the usual stuff – stability and traction control, brake distribution and anti-lock, and a whole basket of airbags. All cars have that stuff, so let’s focus on what the Impreza offers that is not typical for cars in this class.

The difference is all in Subaru’s Eyesight system. This is an optional camera-based look-ahead package that enables a bunch of good features. Eyesight first enables adaptive cruise control, which will let your Impreza modulate speed on the highway to maintain distance to the car ahead of you. But you also get automatic pre-collision braking, which will bring the Impreza to a stop if you’re about to hit something at low speed, and significantly mitigate the impact if you’re going faster. Finally, Eyesight gives you lane departure and sway warning, which will alert you if you’re wandering within your lane or leaving your lane without the turn signal on.

Additional available safety features include blind spot monitoring with lane keeping assist and rear cross-traffic alerts. These are all good things to have – especially the rear cross-traffic alert, which looks to the sides as you back out of parking space. If you’ve ever been parked between a couple of giant SUVs, you know that you have to back out blind, and that’s never any fun.

More: New tech makes Subaru’s 2017 Forester safer and more dynamic to drive

I think the best optional safety item on the list is Reverse Automatic Braking. This works with the standard backup camera to stop the car if you’re about to back into something, or someone. Backup cameras are great, but it’s still easy to miss something small and ding your rear bumper.

All the good safety gear comes in the Eyesight Driver Assist Technology package, and it’s well worth your consideration if you can afford it. But even if you don’t choose the Eyesight package, the new platform has already increased the Impreza’s crash absorption ability by 40 percent, so you’re still getting a safe car.

No-nonsense interior

As far as the cabin goes, what you get is a no-nonsense interior with cloth or leather upholstery. The front seats are wonderfully firm, though maybe firmer than some will like. Heated front seats are standard on all trims above base. The rear seats offer plenty of room for adults and are comfortable as well.

The Impreza interior will compete with any car in its class on features, design, and comfort.

If you buy the sedan version of the Impreza, you get a good-size trunk. But for my money, the five-door is the one to buy. You’ll get all the utility of an SUV with the handling of a passenger car. When you flip the rear seats down, you get a truly cavernous cargo area.

The cabin controls are well-designed and nicely laid out. You get a couple of USB ports in the console storage area. Base and Premium trims offer a 6.5-inch touchscreen interface, while the Sport and Limited trim levels offer an 8-inch touchscreen. All trims offer Subaru’s STARLINK smartphone integration system. There’s an optional navigation system too, but if you use Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, it’s not strictly necessary. The Limited trim level includes automatic climate control, while the other trims use a basic climate system that allows you to direct air and heat where you want it using traditional controls.

The bottom line on the Impreza interior is that it will compete with any car in its class on features, design, and comfort. All the features are there, and they work well.

Trims and pricing

The new Impreza comes in four trim levels. There’s the base Impreza 2.0i, the Premium, Sport, and Limited. You can get the basic Impreza four-door sedan for $19,215 with all fees included. The base car comes pretty well-equipped with a manual transmission and a 6.5-inch touchscreen display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, plus the usual comforts like AC and power everything. Changing to the CVT adds $800, and choosing the five-door body adds $500.

The Premium sedan comes in at $22,015, and adds the CVT, Stablex dampers, the heated seats and all-weather package, a rear sway bar, and roof rails on the five-door version. The Sport trim starts at $22,815 with a manual transmission, and adds the sport-tuned suspension, 18-inch wheels, active torque vectoring, the 8-inch touchscreen, and a bunch of visual cues in the cabin with red top-stitching. Finally, the Limited trim gives you a power driver’s seat, 17-inch wheels, automatic high beams and steering-responsive LED headlights, better gauges, leather upholstery, and keyless access for $24,915.

The basic Eyesight safety package cost varies by trim level, and there’s also a Harmon Kardon stereo option on the Sport and Limited trim levels. Other options include a moonroof and steering-responsive fog lights.

Made in America

There’s one more thing to mention about the Impreza – it’s going to be made in America. Subaru has expanded its plant in Lafayette, Indiana to add Impreza production to its lines.

“We have about 5,100 employees at the plant,” says Buddy Penquite, Subaru’s Assistant Senior Manager for Production Control at the Indiana factory. “Close to 1,400 new positions were added to bring the Impreza into the mix.”

Those new employees are tasked to produce every Impreza to be offered for sale in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.

“The current plan is that the Impreza four-door and five-door will be built exclusively in Indiana for distribution in North America,” Penquite says.

Conclusion

The 2017 Subaru Impreza maintains everything you’ve loved about the Impreza for the last 24 years, and all things considered, it is the best basic Impreza ever made. If I was building a 2017 Impreza for myself, I’d buy the five-door in Sport trim with the Harman Kardon package, which includes the blind spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring and the moonroof. I’d get all that, plus the Stablex suspension with sport tuning and 18-inch wheels and still drive off the lot for a cool $25,465.

But what has me really excited is the potential for the next generation of Subaru hot rods. The new chassis and suspension design is a dramatic improvement over prior generations, and that improvement will allow Subaru’s engineers to deliver truly breathtaking WRX and STI models on this platform. Subaru officials were tight-lipped about when we might see those new models, but there was a gleam in their eyes as they politely refused to speculate. I suspect the new hot rods will be worth waiting for.

Highs

  • New chassis is spectacular
  • Crisp handling and steering
  • Available manual transmission
  • Advanced safety features available
  • Supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto

Lows

  • CVT detrimentally impacts acceleration