3rd Place – Subaru Impreza 2.0i Touring Sedan

When we assembled this group of vehicles we never figured that the Impreza would end up being the most polarizing vehicle in the test (or that it would finish so high). Some testers absolutely loved the vehicle while others were utterly disappointed in it. For the most part though, the Impreza, um, impressed us (get it?? Impreza – impressed… ha ha) by checking off all the right boxes for compact car shoppers. Although Subaru won’t admit it outright, when they restyled the Impreza for 2012 their goal was to be more mainstream and attack the compact leaders head-on. Mission accomplished. The Impreza now competes head to head with the likes of the Civic, Corolla, Mazda3, and Elantra. No longer is it relegated to the fringes trying to carve out a niche for itself as a specialty AWD vehicle, which is good news for general consumers, bad news for enthusiasts.

Compact car comparo
Compact car comparo
Click image to enlarge

The new Impreza is easy to drive. Everyone who got behind the wheel noticed the hair-trigger throttle response, which was appreciated by some, loathed by others. Power delivery from the 148-hp 2.0L horizontally opposed four-cylinder felt strong and the continuously variable transmission was quick to adjust ratios. That CVT was also a point of debate. Some found the unit in the Sentra better while others favoured the Impreza’s. All agreed that transmission and engine noise was more apparent in the Impreza than many other vehicles in this comparison. Steering feel was highly praised as were the tap-shift/paddle shifters. Combined with nimble handling, the Impreza stood out as one of the more fun-to-drive vehicles; maybe it isn’t all bad news for enthusiasts after all?

Keeping with tradition, the Impreza comes standard with all-wheel drive; an exclusive in this test. Historically the Impreza has paid the price for having full-time all-wheel drive with poor fuel economy. With the 2012 Impreza, Subaru wanted to offer equivalent fuel consumption to the class-leading compacts while still retaining all-wheel drive. At an average of 8.2 L/100 km over the course of our test, the Impreza succeeded in doing so by finishing mid-pack.

Inside the Impreza, Subaru has improved by leaps and bounds over the previous generation. The majority of interior materials are now soft-touch and very good quality, but still look boring and dated. The stereo looks out of place and sound quality is adequate at best. Rear seat space is ample for two people, but not great for 3 as the seat bottom of middle position is rock hard pokes into your back. Cargo space is second smallest at 340 L due to the all-wheel drive hardware eating up space.

The Impreza exterior is a bit of a contradiction. Up front it features an attractive fascia that many considered one of the best in the test. Out back, however, the rear end approaches Jon Doe levels of anonymity. All in all the Impreza is a simple, well thought out vehicle. Associated Editor Chris Chase summed it up best as “A modern take on the winning Corolla formula… with the bonus of all-wheel drive” and at $24,690, it won’t break the bank either.

Pricing: 2012 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Touring 4-Door
Base price: $22,995
Options: None
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,695
Price as tested: $24,790

2nd Place: 2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky

The 2012 Mazda3 was the first of the company’s vehicles to feature SkyActiv technology, in the form of a thrifty 2.0L engine and six-speed automatic and manual transmissions, all exclusive to the GS-Sky model. Chassis changes aimed at reducing weight will come to this compact car for 2013; the first Mazda model to get the full deal is the recently introduced CX-5 compact crossover.

Compact car comparo
Compact car comparo
Click image to enlarge

Part of this Mazda’s fuel-saving bag of tricks is a combination of a new direct-injected, high-compression 2.0L four-cylinder engine (as compared to the “old” 2.0L used in the base GX model) and new six-speed transmissions.

Our test drivers loved this transmission, not because it does anything particularly zoom-zoomy, but for its virtually transparent — and yet intuitive — operation. In spite of the engine’s extra power — 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, bumps of 7 and 13 over the base 2.0L — many found this car felt sluggish.

“A lot more ‘Sky’ than ‘Activ’ to this this drivetrain,” wrote one tester; “150 hp? Really? Underwhelming engine,” was another’s comment. My own observation was a noticeably uneven idle. Even still, this power team proved more responsive than the Focus’.

The Ford was better in a couple of specific areas: it felt more stable and planted at highway speeds, and offered better brake pedal feel.

The Mazda3 GS-Sky may make miserly operation its mission, but it still aims to entertain. Its handling satisfied many, but the harsh ride and surfeit of road noise did not. Mazda’s interior treatment was universally praised for high-quality materials and seats that were firm but comfortable, and the only ones to offer any meaningful lateral support.

The lack of a proper trip computer is a weird omission considering how heavily Mazda is promoting this car’s impressive fuel consumption ratings. We had to fill the tank at the end of two days and do math [Mazda’s lucky we did not deduct points for making us do math. -Ed.] to find out that this was the most efficient car in the group at 7.2 L/100 km.

There’s no rocket science behind the reasons for this car’s popularity. While the car doesn’t push everyone’s buttons, this new drivetrain’s impressive efficiency certainly will draw even more shoppers into Mazda showrooms.

Pricing: 2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky Automatic
Base price: $20,395
Options: $2,195 (GS Leather Package, $1,300; Sunroof, $895)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,595
Price as tested: $24,185

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