First Drive: 2012 Subaru Impreza   a second look subaru reviews first drives
2012 Subaru Impreza. Click image to enlarge

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By Grant Yoxon; photos by Greg Wilson

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2012 Subaru Impreza

Mississauga, Ontario – Play a game of word association – as Subaru did with the extensive focus groups the company conducted over the past few years – and Subaru’s strengths and its weaknesses are readily apparent.

What are the first thoughts that come to mind when given the word “Subaru”? Winter? Outdoors? All wheel drive? Rugged? Outback? Forester? If you said either Impreza or compact car, you would be in a small minority.

Subaru is closely associated with its devotion to all-wheel drive and its Legacy-based wagon, the Outback, as well as its compact SUV, the Forester. These are good things, a Subaru strength. Not a bad position to be in considering that compact SUVs accounted for 15.2 per cent of Canadian light vehicle sales in 2010, up 11.7 per cent over 2009 and continuing a growth trend since the early part of the decade (source: DesRosiers Automotive Consultants Inc.).

First Drive: 2012 Subaru Impreza   a second look subaru reviews first drives
2012 Subaru Impreza. Click image to enlarge

But the largest vehicle segment in Canada is compact cars, a segment that accounted for 23.3 per cent of all sales in 2010. Although sales of compact cars declined 4.6 per cent in 2010, the segment has retained a large market share, in the 25 per cent range, for well over a decade.

And this is a problem for Subaru. Buyers don’t associate Subaru with compact cars. The Impreza is overshadowed by the Subaru brand itself.

The hottest selling compact in Canada in 2010 was the Honda Civic. The top three reasons people gave for buying the Civic were fuel economy, value for money and reliability/dependability. With respect to the Impreza, the top three reasons for buying were all wheel drive, reliability/dependability and handling capabilities. To be sure, these are great selling points for the all-wheel drive Impreza, but value for money was the fifth reason given for buying an Impreza and fuel economy didn’t even make the list.

First Drive: 2012 Subaru Impreza   a second look subaru reviews first drives
First Drive: 2012 Subaru Impreza   a second look subaru reviews first drives
2012 Subaru Impreza. Click image to enlarge

To be successful in Canada an auto manufacturer must have a competitive compact car in its line-up and the all-wheel drive Impreza just wasn’t doing the job. Viewed as a premium compact with poor fuel economy, shoppers looking for a fuel-efficient car at a good (read rock-bottom) price didn’t even give the Impreza the time of day.

So there had to be change and change is what Subaru has done for the 2012 model year. Autos.ca editor, Greg Wilson, attended the 2012 Subaru Impreza long lead press introduction in October and you can read his excellent and detailed report here. So, I won’t cover all the details, just the essentials.

The essential changes that Subaru has introduced are a smaller, more fuel-efficient engine and a lower starting price that brings the Impreza more in line with the fuel efficiency and pricing of its major competitors without sacrificing its strongest selling point – all-wheel drive.

The new 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine remains a flat four “boxer” style powerplant and is derived from the 2.5-litre engine that debuted in the 2011 Forester. With dual overhead camshafts (instead of the current Impreza’s single overhead cam), a longer stroke and variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust valves, the new engine is designed to optimize performance, low-end torque and fuel efficiency.

The new engine is not as powerful as the outgoing 2.5-litre engine, with 148 horsepower and 145 lb.-ft. of torque compared to 170 hp and 170 lb.-ft. for the 2011 Impreza. But performance does not appear to have suffered, as was evident in our day behind the wheel of sedans and five-door hatchbacks equipped with Subaru’s new continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).