First drive: 2017 Subaru Impreza

The all-wheel-drive staple is all-new.

If you've ever given car-buying advice to a friend or family member who wants something practical and affordable, it's likely you've said something like this:

"If you need all-wheel-drive, you should look at Subaru. You may not like the gas mileage, though."

Ring a bell? If so, you're not alone. All-wheel-drive has been Subaru's party piece for decades, differentiating products that were otherwise maybe a bit less refined and flashy (let's be honest: some of them were butt-ugly.). That all-weather versatility traditionally came at the expense of fuel economy. It was a trade-off many have been willing to make.

But we live in a different world than we did just a decade ago. Increasingly stringent CAFE regulations have made this a hostile place for small, practical vehicles that are not also fuel-efficient. How well has Subaru evolved its compact to cope with this new environment? Read on to see.

By the numbersSubaru's engineers decided that the best way to make a car better in the real world is to start by making it better on paper. It was a successful strategy. You wouldn't know by looking at it, but the new Impreza has a lot more where it counts.

Let's start with the lowlights. Thanks to direct injection, the new two-liter engine makes more power than it did in the previous model, but not so much that you'd notice. Total output is now 152 horsepower at 6,000 RPM (up just 7 horsepower) and torque peaks at 145lb-ft (no change). You can pair this engine with either a six-speed manual or a CVT. All models are available exclusively with all-wheel-drive, of course.

What does that all mean for fuel economy? Well, even on the 2017 cycle, the new Impreza is rated at 38 mpg highway and 28 mpg city for CVT/sedan models. Five-doors max out at 37 mpg on the highway with the CVT. Sport-model sedans with manual transmissions see an additional dip to 36 highway and 27 city; five-doors see a further highway drop to 35 mpg.

Now, for some good news. The Impreza's all-new chassis is safer, more rigid, and offers increased noise isolation thanks to a more closed-off firewall and the increased use of NVH-mitigating materials. There's also more passenger space and a significantly larger cargo opening on both sedan and five-door models. The latter improvement is thanks to redesigned taillights which are now split between the body and the trunk/hatch panel. This allowed for a five-inch wider trunk opening on the sedan and a four-inch wider opening on the hatch. What good is cargo volume if you can't finagle a large item into the back, right?

Subaru was also kind enough to offer the manual on both the base and Sport models, meaning you can get a stick in a car that is fairly loaded up. Keep in mind, however, that opting for the manual transmission will lock you out of Subaru's robust Eyesight safety package. We'll touch more on that later.

The suspension also got some love. The rear anti-roll bar now mounts directly to the chassis, decreasing compliance in roll motions. Sport models get a further re-tuned suspension for improved handling.

Subtle SubieThe non-enthusiast may find it tricky to spot a 2017 Subaru Impreza sedan in the wild. While the concept that debuted in New York last year seemed a bit of a departure from the last-generation Impreza, the production version is a lot more loyal to its roots.

That said, there are differences. The sides especially are more sculpted and the character lines more pronounced. A careful look at the front-end also reveals new fog light surrounds, a more aggressive chin spoiler and a more intricate look to the bumper areas flanking the grille.

What we were most impressed with perhaps is the design of the rear end of the new five-door. There's no mistaking the hatch for an older model. It has a more robust look that reminds us a bit of the Ford Focus. There's no mistaking it for a 2016 Impreza (or for the pumped-up Crosstrek based on the same). It's even (dare we say it?) somewhat attractive.

First-class cabinOne of Subaru's traditional weaknesses has been interior luxury. While loaded-up models were rarely short on must-have features, they often felt poorly integrated. Take a look at the audio interface in a top-trim 2016 model for further evidence of this shortfall.

For 2017, things are looking up. Not only are features such as Android Auto and Apple CarPlay standard from the base model on up, they're packaged in significantly more attractive and well-integrated hardware. Even base model cars get a 6.5", full-color multimedia interface. Go up to a Sport or Premium model with the Harman Kardon audio system and you get a slick-looking 8" touchscreen. Limited models get navigation thrown in too.

The upgrades aren't limited to just the center stack, however. There are nicer materials all around even in the lower-trim vehicles. It's still no match for a Mazda3 or Volkswagen Golf, but it's certainly an improvement.

UnderwaySo, how is the 2017 Subaru Impreza on the road? Better than we expected, for sure.

Before you get too excited, let's go over a few things. This is a 3,000lb-plus compact car with all-wheel drive and (as we tested it) a CVT. Between the weight and the inherent parasitism of that drivetrain, the little two-liter engine has quite an uphill battle ahead of it.

Translation? It's not quick. Rarely does it even feel quick. In fact, the words "dog slow" were used more than once. We frequently found ourselves pleading out loud for just a little bit more thrust as we exited uphill corners in the lowest possible fixed ratios available from the CVT (Sport models get paddle shifters, allowing you to hold "gears" as long as you like.).

And that's a shame, because this is a spectacular chassis in search of more robust motivation. The 2017 Impreza is an absolute joy to sling through corners. It turns in without drama, corners as flat as you could possibly ask, and allows for minute correction as necessary to set up the perfect exit. This is true of both the torque-vectoring-equipped sport model and the more comfortably appointed Limited. They're all simply a joy to pilot down a twisty road.

We'll say it right now. The next WRX is going to be spectacular to drive.

Issues? There were few. We mentioned previously that we'd return to Subaru's Eyesight safety package, so let's cover that. Part of it is due to the (lack of) power from the engine. Even in its most aggressive setting, it simply couldn't catch up to traffic all that quickly on the freeway, frequently prompting us to intervene with a shove of the gas pedal.

On top of that, the various systems are somewhat obnoxiously intrusive. Any time something happens that the adaptive cruise or lane keeping systems deem noteworthy, there's a beep. "Beep, I see a car!" "Beep, I see a lane marking!" These beeps can't be turned off. The volume can be decreased, but they can't be eliminated entirely unless you simply disable the system in question.

And, as we mentioned before, you can't have the full Eyesight package on a car equipped with a manual transmission. This makes sense, of course. For starters, automated emergency braking would require a mechanism that would put the car in neutral without human intervention--no trivial requirement when you're talking about a manual. From there, you should be able to come up with other complications. The faults really end there.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe 2017 Subaru Impreza is an excellent car in search of a bigger engine. For those who simply want practicality and all-weather capability without making the jump to a crossover or SUV, it's darn-near perfect.

2017 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Sport sedan base price, $21,995; as-tested, $26,560Lineartronic CVT, $800; Harman Kardon Premium Audio + Moonroof + Eyesight package, $2,945; Destination, $820

2017 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Limited 5-door base price, $24,595; as-tested, $29,260Harman Kardon Premium Audio + Moonroof + Eyesight + Highbeam Assist + Reverse Automatic Braking + Rear Cross-traffic assist, $3,845; Destination, $820

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Subaru.

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