As luck would have it, the only big winter storm to strike Southern California with anything resembling a punch arrived during the week that I had the keys to a 2015 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Limited Sedan. Redesigned for 2015, the Impreza is lighter and more fuel-efficient than the car it replaces, and it possesses upscale style inside and out. But more important, it retains its standard Subaru Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, which is perfect for when big rains bubble all the grease to the surface of Los Angeles freeways, and when the San Bernardino Mountains get frosted with fresh snow.
Advancement Comes at a Price
To achieve significant gains in fuel economy, Subaru sliced as much weight out of the Impreza as possible, installed a smaller-displacement 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with less horsepower and torque, and paired it with a five-speed manual gearbox or a Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT). The result is a roomier, lighter car that is rated to get 27 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway with what is sure to prove the most popular transmission selection, the CVT.
Yes, you clearly agree, this represents advancement. But at what price?
First, I averaged 28.2 mpg and spent all kinds of time droning along freeways to places like Santa Barbara and Wrightwood. Not really sure what I was doing wrong, but that’s not in the same neighborhood as 36 mpg, let alone the combined fuel economy rating of 30 mpg.
But that’s not the problem here. The problem is that the CVT sucks all the Subaru character out of the Impreza.
Subie fans know what I’m talking about. The horizontally opposed engines used by Subaru emit a characteristic grumble and vibration that endear the cars to their owners. This 2.0-liter might be grumbling or even vibrating a little bit, but you can’t hear or feel it thanks to CVT whine and numb electric steering. So instead of feeling or sounding like a Subaru when accelerating, the new Impreza feels and sounds like a Toyota Corolla with a bad power steering pump.
Of course, people who are drawn to the Impreza from other brands for its dashing good looks aren’t going to notice this. But Subaru loyalists will.
Subaru CVT Slips and Clunks
Here’s a fun piece of automotive trivia. Twenty years ago, Subaru employed a CVT on the tiny little Justy. It was neither refined nor, if you believe everything you read on Wikipedia, reliable.
The CVT in our Impreza test car, which arrived with little more than 1,000 miles on the clock, behaved in a decidedly odd manner. When shifting from Reverse to Drive, the Impreza’s CVT took its sweet time, typically engaging only after we had released the brake pedal and depressed the accelerator, producing a lurch as it clunked into gear.
This was even more of a problem on hills. My driveway climbs a small slope to the house, and when shifting into drive on this very slight incline, the car rolled backwards at least five feet before the CVT decided it was time to engage.
On descending grades, the Impreza’s CVT is designed to provide engine braking. Unfortunately, it seemed to shift between different ratios while doing so, giving the impression that it was slipping while coasting down hills.
If you can operate a clutch pedal and you can do without the extras that come on the Limited model, we recommend sticking with the stick.
Skip the Navigation System
Here’s another piece of advice. Don’t get the optional navigation system. Seemingly designed for people with fingers sized like a child’s, the screen is angled to reflect as much natural light as possible, rendering information on the screen nearly illegible. Save yourself a bunch of cash and just use your smartphone for navigation. Then you’ll get a conventional knobs and buttons to use for stereo functions.
While we’re complaining, the white-faced gauges with orange nighttime illumination offer very poor contrast at sunrise and sunset, the Impreza’s rear seat is mounted a bit too low and the backrest is a bit too reclined to allow anyone to be comfortable, and the electric steering relates nothing at all about what’s happening at the road surface on windy days. When the Impreza is buffeted by cross winds, the steering wheel has no idea what’s going on. As a result, the driver is forced to rely on seat-of-the-pants data and his or her internal gyroscope.
The Subaru Impreza Isn’t Much Fun to Drive
Between the whining CVT and the lifeless electric steering, the Impreza wasn’t much fun to toss down my favorite twisty road.
Surprisingly, the Impreza rarely feels underpowered, despite relying on 148 horsepower to motivate a minimum of 2,910 pounds. The CVT is geared to deliver lively throttle response, even at more than 6,000 feet in altitude. It also has no trouble cruising down the freeway at velocities that would definitely result in a traffic ticket. The car offers hints of traditional Subaru athleticism in its handling, and the brakes work beautifully.
Still, the Impreza’s dynamic tuning rendered energetic back road horseplay to be more work than pleasure, marking another departure from traditional Subaru character. Even my wife, occasional Vehix contributor and automotive copywriter intimately familiar with the Subaru brand, called this car “functional.” Usually, she refers to Subarus as “fun.”
Standard AWD is a Good Reason to Buy the Impreza
Switching gears, the new Impreza is clearly better than the old Impreza. In fact, this car is better than most compact cars on the market. Foremost among the reasons to buy a 2015 Impreza over a competitor is the standard all-wheel-drive system. On rain-slicked L.A. freeways and city streets, the Impreza never lacked traction, and it seemed to shrug while blasting through heavy, wet, melting snow in a ski resort parking lot after a heavy winter storm dropped more than a foot of the white stuff on local mountains.
The Impreza is Easy, Enjoyable and Green to Drive
When driven for commutes, running errands, and on longer highway trips, the Impreza’s driving dynamics are exactly what most people want most of the time. Thanks to the CVT’s gearing, the Impreza feels quicker than expected unless you’re punching the accelerator to pass while already traveling more than 50 mph. Around town, the electric steering doesn’t feel light or loose, providing good on-center heft if not clear communication. The suspension delivers a good blend of ride comfort and road feel, and the brakes are responsive and easy to modulate. This is an easy, and enjoyable, car to drive when you’re not placing heavy demands on it.
Plus, if you’re looking for a green set of wheels, the new Impreza is rated as a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle in California, New England, and certain other states. Not that we recommend it, but you could probably breathe this car’s exhaust.
Stylish Design Inside and Out
How often have you looked at a Subaru and thought to yourself: “Now that’s a good looking car.” The Impreza might elicit such a response, especially when you see it up close and personal. Free of Subaru styling quirks, the Impreza passed the ultimate badge-less image test as I was loading the kids into our Sky Blue Metallic test car after an afternoon at the Santa Barbara Zoo. With our Limited model’s doors open and the trunk lid raised, a family walking by was admiring the Subaru and I overheard the wife ask the husband what it was. Then I closed the trunk, and the husband sounded surprised: “That’s a Subaru?” Yep.
And the interior looks just as upscale as the exterior, dressed in a two-tone treatment rendered in subdued textures and low-gloss tones. The dashboard and upper door panels are constructed using soft-touch materials, and everything looks good and operates with a sense of quality. The only change we would make is to replace the fuzzy headliner with a woven cloth material.
Roomy Cabin and Useful Trunk
If you’re riding in the Subaru Impreza’s front seats, you’ll be comfortable even if they lack anything resembling side bolsters. The center console armrest slides forward for additional comfort, and the driver grips a thick-rimmed steering wheel. Outward visibility is exceptionally good; thank those small front quarter windows, which allow for a slimmer A-pillar.
As mentioned previously, the back seat isn’t very comfortable for adults. The bottom cushion sits too low to provide good thigh support, and the backrest is reclined too much. There is plenty of legroom and foot space, though, and kids have no complaints about riding in the back seat.
The Impreza Sedan’s trunk measures 12 cubic-feet, but it seems bigger than that. The space is usefully shaped, but the trunk hinges are exposed, so you’ll want to be sure to avoid crushing delicate objects with them when closing the lid.
The 2015 Subaru Impreza is Safe and Reliable
If you’re still not convinced that the new Subaru Impreza is worth investigation, consider that it is called a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and that Consumer Reports expects reliability to be better than average.