The mild winter the Northeast is experiencing this year has been wreaking havoc on the natural order of things.
Flowers are blooming, hibernating bears are stirring and the mosquito population is expected to go through the roof come spring.
Perhaps worst of all, Subaru owners are forced to drive on blacktop, in traffic, instead of the snow-covered roads they usually have to themselves.
Oh the humanity!
I was lucky, then, that my test drive of the 2012 Subaru Impreza dovetailed with the only snowstorm to hit New York this year, even if it only lasted a day.
The redesigned Impreza marks an evolutionary step in the compact’s development. Standing on the same footprint as the vehicle it replaces, it somehow manages to provide more passenger and cargo room despite having a one-inch lower roofline.
Available as a sedan or hatchback/wagon, the exterior retains its familiar form but adds chunkier bodywork that gives it more of a family resemblance to its big sister, the Legacy. Most important, you can still get it with contrast-color fenders.
The interior breaks no new ground, but is a vast improvement over its predecessor’s, with soft-touch plastics and higher quality upholstery throughout. Its simple, easy to use layout is almost quaint compared to some of the baroque designs popping up in compacts today, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s only let down by a couple of cheap switches and a stereo system that looks and sounds a several generations out of date.
The doors are larger, the roof pillars thinner and the base of the windshield further away from the driver, all enhancing the airy feel provided by the out-of-vogue tall windows that prove their worth from the driver’s seat. If there’s one car that doesn’t need a blind spot warning system, this is it.
The biggest change for 2012 is the all-new engine for the Impreza’s all-wheel-drive system. Don’t get your thermals in a bunch, it’s still a flat-4-cylinder, just smaller than last year’s and less powerful. Sound’s great, right?
Well, the payoff is a dramatic increase in fuel economy, long the Impreza’s Achilles Heel. When equipped with a CVT automatic, the 148 hp 2.0-liter is good for 36 mpg highway, 27 mpg city. The latter was the best the old car could do on the highway. Do the math, professor (this is a Subaru, after all) that’s a 33 percent jump in efficiency, and it’s not a hybrid…yet. In any event, the Impreza is currently the most-fuel efficient all-wheel-drive vehicle sold in America.
Starting price is $18,280 for the base sedan and $23,380 for the well-equipped top of the line Sport Limited 5-door tested here, but it doesn’t really matter. Aside from the Suzuki Kisashi, there are no other affordable all-wheel-drive compact cars on the market and, as good as the Suzi is, there is surely not enough cross-shopping going on between the two that the folks at Subaru are losing any sleep over it. The five-door is in a class by itself.
Getting in, the first thing you notice is how low the Impreza is, putting it in sharp contrast to the small crossovers it competes against, including Subaru’s own Forester. The door is also light, as is the tailgate, each an example of the weight loss program the car was put on, now tipping the scales 100 pounds less than the previous edition.
Start it up, and you are greeted with the familiar, industrial whirr of the boxer engine. The relative lack of sound deadening material indicates that Subaru’s engineers are proud of their unique little motor. With the CVT, the effect is enhanced under acceleration.
But even if you don’t revel in the noise, the engine is smooth as the silk it sounds like it’s sewing all the way to redline. Unfortunately, you’ll go there often because this is still not a quick car. Merging into fast-moving traffic requires much deliberation.
Less thought is needed to enjoy the Impreza’s other dynamic attributes. The suspension handles potholes as well as smooth pavement, and the electrically-assisted steering has the kind of feel that makes you think those engineers put a little effort into making it interesting for you.
The Impreza may not be the plushest ride on the block, but it definitely falls into the “driver’s car” category, which is refreshing. While the all-wheel-drive system holds its greatest appeal for poor weather conditions and the dirt access roads to your favorite outdoor concert venue, its other benefits can be discovered by putting the throttle pedal very close to the carpet.
Nevertheless, at the sight of the first flakes I was off to the garage like a kid racing for his Flexible Flyer. The opportunity to experience the Impreza in its natural environment being too good to pass up, despite the alternative being a long winter’s nap.
Unflappable isn’t a word I use often to describe cars – mostly because I’m still not sure what it means – but the Impreza was exactly that. Even with all-season tires it negotiated mushy off ramps and roundabouts the way Demosthenes could handle a room full of Corinthians (professors, are you still out there?)
Try to push it too hard and a team of supernannies goes to work actuating the brakes to keep you from unintentionally venturing off road, despite your best efforts. As fine as the Impreza is in the dry, it’s truly in its element when there’s snow on the ground.
On my way home I was presented with one last gift from Mother Nature: a pristine white parking lot.
I immediately went about drifting circle after circle around a minivan inexplicably parked in the middle of it with someone dozing in the driver’s seat and no tire tracks leading to the car. At least I think he was dozing. I probably should’ve checked, but time flies when you’re having fun. In any event, the Impreza went about this minor hooliganism with Boitano-esque skill.
Granted, we only got about four inches that day, and the ground clearance of the Impreza is 5.7 inches. As a crossover alternative, it does have its limits.
Of course, this one of the reasons you choose it over one of them and perhaps the one reason you wouldn’t. But here, too, whoever is responsible for the unseasonable niceness of late may have had Subaru it its best interests.
While the current Impreza has been more than up to the task this season, a jacked-up version of it in the spirit of the currently extinct Impreza Outback called the XV Crosstrek will be arriving just in time for next winter, restoring the natural order to its proper balance.
Assuming the snow comes with it.
2012 Subaru Impreza Sport Limited 5-Door
Base Price: $23,380
As Tested: $24,345
Type: 5-passenger, 5-door hatchback
Engine: 2.0L flat-4-cylinder
Power: 148 hp, 145 lb-ft torque
Transmission: CVT automatic
MPG: 27 city, 36 hwy
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.