I recently had the good fortune to spend several days in San Diego on vacation with my family. My trusty ride was a Lightning Red 2008 Subaru Impreza, and it was the perfect car for the job.
It's easy to overlook the Impreza next to its more famous competitors, cars like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. But Imprezas, like all Subarus, come with standard all-wheel drive.
Subarus are famous for their ruggedness. Early on they became favorites of skiers and campers for their ability to get to where the action is in comfort and with economical and reliable service.
Our test vehicle, despite its compact proportions, swallowed up our luggage with ease. It shuttled us quickly and quietly out of town and over the Coronado Bridge to our hotel. Although I prefer manual transmissions in smaller cars, the optional four-speed automatic was well up to the task, although I heard more volume out of the engine during downshifts than I'd like to.
The new car has borrowed from the BMW stylebook, a common industry practice. The head and taillight units have sharply sliced shapes and a prominent ridge runs down each side, mimicking BMW's flame treatment of convex and concave surfaces. While not a stunningly attractive car, the Impreza does look fresh and contemporary, something not every Subaru has been able to claim over the years.
The new model not only looks different, but it has a 3.7-inch longer wheelbase than its predecessor, so my son, who is approaching 6 feet tall, had no problem riding in back. The new Impreza's interior is not only more spacious, but it feels airier with tan cloth on the seats and doors and silvery accents. The materials look and feel more substantial than they did in the previous model. The twin-cockpit dash is much more interesting and dramatic than last year's version.
My tester was a four-door 2.5i model. A five-door hatchback model debuts this year, taking the place of the previous compact wagon. One big change is the arrival of fully-framed side windows. This keeps the car quieter and helps improve body rigidity. The doors that contain these framed windows are larger now for easier access.
The Impreza 2.5i uses a normally aspirated 2.5-liter, four-cylinder Boxer engine. This means that the cylinders are horizontally opposed, not inline or in a vee shape. This creates a lower center of gravity and a sound that is just slightly reminiscent of a VW Beetle. And yes, the Porsche 911 uses a Boxer engine, too.
The engine puts out 170 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and a matching 170 lb.-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. These numbers compare well against the competition. The engine has received tweaks for 2008 for better economy, performance and drivability. The Impreza's famous WRX version, beloved of youthful rally racing enthusiasts, adds turbocharging for 224 horsepower and 226 lb.-ft. of torque.
The EPA awards the Impreza 2.5i equipped with automatic transmission 20 mpg City and 27 mpg Highway. I averaged 21.9 mpg during our Southern California sojourn. The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide rates the Impreza 2.5i a 6 out of 10 for both Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gas scores, just above average.
The new Impreza is not only bigger, but is on a new platform with a new double-wishbone rear suspension. That improves ride quality and adds space to the trunk area. The new chassis is stronger but lighter, an important goal in helping achieve better fuel economy. The automatic-equipped Impreza weighs 3,131 pounds.
The Impreza took us along the road by the beach, into Balboa Park and out to Old Town. It parked easily at the Zoo and museums as well as on the crowded streets of downtown. Without drama or undue excitement, it quietly did the job.
Impreza 2.5i four-door models begin at just $17,640 with a five-speed manual transmission. The five-door costs a nominal $500 more. My tester also had the Premium Package, which adds the safety and handling benefits with rear disc brakes and stability and traction control. If you have the manual transmission, it provides the Incline Start Assist, the successor to Subaru's Hill Holder. This feature keeps you from rolling backwards on a San Francisco-style hill when you start from a stop. The Premium Package adds 16-inch 12-spoke alloy wheels as well. Inside, leather on the steering wheel and shifter gives a little upscale boost.
My tester, with the automatic transmission ($1,000), autodimming mirror with compass, Sport Trim (body side molding and red grille) and XM Radio ($453) came to a reasonable $21,278, including shipping.
If you are seeking reliable, even amusing, transportation with the safety of four-wheel drive, why settle for an ordinary car?