During the economic meltdown and following automotive sales collapse of 2009, every major car company with cars for sale in the US saw losses. Even the mighty Toyota was hit hard, but one auto company stood high atop the pile and actually increased sales.

The quirky Japanese automaker, Subaru.

Thanks to its unique blend of price, functionality and safety, Subaru had a record year in the midst of an automotive implosion. Year after year Subaru has continued to increase sales, and is showing no signs of stopping. To make sure the market share continues to climb, Subaru has released new or updated versions of nearly every model it sells, hoping to appeal to more and more of mainstream America. The only hurdle in this plan is Subaru’s passionate and committed owner base. While Subaru vehicles have always had a certain, often unrefined, feel they have found favor with many outdoor enthusiasts and active lifestyle owners. In its pursuit to make a more refined and “normal” vehicle has Subaru lost sight of its core values? We took the keys of an all-new 2012 Impreza to find out.

The first thing you will notice about the all-new Impreza is the exterior. Gone are the smooth shapes of the last generation model, instead replaced with a more angular and flat sculpted appearance. The new sheet metal lends a visual relationship to the Outback and Legacy models, helping to consolidate brand styling. The front end has been given a sharp trapezoidal shape, with aggressive treatments to the head lamps and grille. The sharp and aggressive looks starts to disappear as you move around the vehicle, however. The sides are covered in busy shapes and sculpting, while the rear becomes generic. To our eyes, the previous model was the better looking vehicle. Many passers did comment on their approval of the new shape, however, with one commenting that the Sky Blue Metallic paint on our tester was a nice choice, giving the Impreza a “happy feeling” that was nice to look at.

The interior of the Impreza has also seen much upgrading, and it has all been for the better. While the previous model featured many cheap and easily scratched plastics, the new interior is packed with higher quality materials. The center stack is large and easily operated with most buttons and switches in an easy to locate and use position. The two-tone black and creme on our tester gives the cabin a modern and sophisticated look that is a nice change to the monotone look common in this class. Space has also been improved in the new car. Subaru has managed to perform a small magic trick and has increased the total interior volume of the car, while keeping the external dimensions of the car identical to the last model.

While it may look nice, our cabin was sparsely equipped. Missing many main stream features such as satellite radio. The car was equipped with a cold weather package so we did at least receive heated seats. Our Impreza also came equipped with Subaru’s new CVT, our second and last option. Besides these two features, our Impreza was a bone stock 2.0i Premium. This did have its advantages however, as our car came with an MSRP of $21,345 including destination.

All new-generation Impreza’s come powered by Subaru’s new 2.0-Liter H4 engine with 148 horsepower on tap, down from last years 170-horsepower 2.5-liter unit. Despite this drop in power, Subaru claim that the new Impreza is faster to 60 mph than the previous generation model, thanks to a weight drop of over 150 pounds. We are slightly suspicious of the claim that this model is quicker as we fail to see any discernible difference. We have only been in manual equipped models of the last Impreza, so we are giving the benefit of the doubt to the smooth CVT transmission for skewing our perception.

For all of our concerns over Subaru’s new engine choice and body work, there are some very noticeable advantages to the choices Fuji Heavy Inc. has made. The biggest of which is fuel economy. The CVT equipped Impreza receives an EPA rating of 27 mpg city and 36 mpg on the highway with a combined rating of 30 mpg, making it the most fuel-efficient AWD car in America. For comparison, the 2011 model only received a rating of 27, a big difference indeed. During our time with the we averaged 31.8 above the EPA expected, all while performing some overtly aggressive driving.

If you find yourself doing some aggressive driving as well, you can feel safe knowing that beyond Subaru’s impressive AWD system, the new Impreza has been bestowed with a Five-star crash test rating from the NHTSA, and a Top-Safety Pick from the IIHS as well. This is Subaru’s third year as the only manufacturer with Top-Safety Picks for all models it sells.

This aggressive driving brings us to our next point of contention about the newest generation Impreza; it doesn’t drive like a Subaru. This is not to say it is a bad driving car, quite the opposite actually. It is very comfortable, quiet and composed on the road. Therein lies the problem. Subarus have always had a certain feel about them. They had a tendency to ride on the rough side, possessed relatively torquey engines, and generally felt indestructible; “rough around the edges” is a good descriptor. This newest Impreza feels much more civil and grown up, making it a greatly improved car, but also making it a slightly worse Subaru.

Subaru has found itself walking a fine line. It has managed to improve its portfolio in nearly every way imaginable, but in doing so it may be pushing away the strong fan base that has kept the small automaker afloat for over a decade. While it may make financial sense to create vehicles that appeal to a wider audience, we hope that Subaru can manage to hold on to the that small bit of quirkiness that always made the company a “go to” for unique and adventurous individuals.

The all-new 2012 Subaru Impreza is a great car. It is perfect for anyone who needs a small, practical, spacious and affordable car with all the safety and confidence of all-wheel drive. Just make sure they aren’t a Subaru owner already, or they might be a little disappointed in all their new-found refinement.

Photos Copyright © 2012 Christian Moe

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