On a sunny day last week I took delivery of a 2012 Subaru Impreza, a car that was scheduled a few weeks back. Inevitably the rain came, hardly surprising in our soggy corner of the world. But then the Northwest got hit by Snowmageddon. How lucky can a guy get.

I m not sure who benefits most from this situation, me or Subaru. I get to use their car, which is doing pretty well in the ice and snow, and they get the kind of exposure they can only dream of. I believe this is where Charlie Sheen would say winning .

Until the sporty rear-drive BRZ hits showrooms every Subaru comes standard with their symmetrical all-wheel drive system (which is different depending on model and transmission). Good traction and a reasonable price is what makes them so popular with practical Northwesterners and Northeasterners.

I m sloshing through the slush in a 5-door Premium model, and at $20,500 as tested it s an affordable tool to tackle sloppy stuff.

Know Thy Customer

Subaru has never been known for elegant design (can you see Charlie Sheen driving a Forester?) but their owners are among the most loyal in the biz. Impreza is no different. It makes no kind of fashion statement, recalling the Dodge Caliber from some angles. It s useful though, fun to drive and gets people to work when the weather goes south. Is that north in this case? Whatever, consider Impreza the sensible shoes of the automotive world.

About the only thing owners have consistently griped about over the years is fuel economy. True, Impreza has had a bit of a drinking problem. That changes for 2012. Subaru crows that Impreza s fuel economy is over 35 percent better, making it the most fuel-efficient all-wheel drive vehicle sold in the US. The EPA rates the automatic transmission version at 27 city 36 highway. Last year s model scored a pathetic 20/26, pretty thirsty considering an AWD Chevy Equinox gets 20/29.

A New Boxer Enters the Ring

Impreza s unique 2.0-liter Boxer engine is new, replacing a 2.5-liter unit that made 170 horsepower. The new smaller engine makes only 148 horsepower but has some 160 pounds less to drag around. A refresher, the pistons of a Boxer engine don t pump up and down like most engines, they move horizontally in and out. This creates a flat powerplant that sits low in the bay, more on that shortly.

It s teamed up with two gearboxes- a new second-generation continuously variable automatic and a manual five-speed transmission with good action. 0-60 happens in around 9.5 seconds. Feels faster though and that counts for something.

Out In the Real World

Power might be modest but all-wheel drive and traction control mean Impreza is very sure-footed. You don t need snow to feel it. On wet streets Impreza accelerates from a stop confidently with much less wheel spin. That s very reassuring at busy intersections.

Impreza isn t made for severe off-roading, it s not stout enough and it has the ground clearance of a normal car. On snow, this Subie does just fine but remember, all-wheel drive gets you going but does little to stop the car. The belief that it makes a car invincible in icy conditions is why many of the vehicles shown in the ditch on the nightly news are all-wheel drive rigs. Also tires can make a huge difference. I watched an Audi A5 with quattro slide all over the place near my house, its summer performance treads akin to wearing dress shoes on a sledding hill.

Handle It

Impreza s fully independent suspension has been softened and there s a little more body roll but it s still compelling in the curves. This car is great fun to chuck into corners and I often catch myself driving faster than the speed limit. FYI, the performance oriented STI and WRX models are based on last year s car.

Part of the handling fun is due to all-wheel drive, but it helps that the low-profile Boxer engine sits low and deep in the engine bay, offering a lower center of gravity. This is easily felt in the corners.

I haven t driven the CVT but in general I ve found their rubbery dynamics to be less than desirable. Subaru says this one is better, pay close attention on your test drive. I enjoy the manual, it has a hill holder feature for easy starts on steep grades.

Impreza is generally quiet and comfortable on the road. The engine makes itself known when the go pedal is pushed down. Could be a positive, might be a negative depending on what kind of driver you are. I like the sporty sound.

More Room, Better Materials

The new cabin is a skosh roomier this time around and the materials have been upgraded. Impreza s windshield is raked back a bit more making the cabin feel bigger too. In black it s a bit dark and monochromatic though, not much pizzazz. Check out the two-tone interior which may look more inviting. The instrument panel gets soft touch materials, the overall design is very conservative especially when compared to Civics two-tiered Star Trek dashboard.

Comfortable, supportive seats get heat, the high setting will roast your behind (in a good way). The sound system is impressive considering Imprezas low price and it gets iPod integration and Bluetooth streaming.

White-faced gauges are very easy to read, the driver gets a knee airbag. Subaru has put an emphasis on safe cars and the new Impreza gets a healthy dose of high strength steel in the structure. Knobs have an average feel to them, the headliner looks like an old blanket.

In back there s a good amount of room for two full sized adults. As expected in this class, three will be a bit tight. There s no folding armrest so passengers will have to stash drinks in the door cupholders. There s no power port in the back and just one seat pocket.

Modest Power, But it Hauls

Impreza is available as a sedan, the 5-door I m driving is much more versatile (though it does cost $500 extra). The hatch is handy on those weekly big box store shopping sprees when you load up on mass bundles of bath tissue. What? I m the only one who does that?

All-wheel drive vehicles can go where roadside service may take a long time to get to so Impreza s spare tire is a good idea. Tie downs are handy too.

The cargo area is quite large with the split seats folded down. I always do the TP test with the seats usable though and Impreza does fine swallowing up six packs of the two-ply.

What My Week Taught Me

This new Impreza is the perfect choice for those who want all-wheel drive but think standard SUVs are too big and thirsty. There s no doubt it made my life easier during a pretty nasty week and I have to believe that Subaru dealers will be swamped once people dig out from our big snowstorm. The brand s loyal buyers will certainly come back for more and, no matter what color they buy, it always looks good in the white stuff.

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