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Impreza is all-wheel drive star

Ann m. Job, For The Associated Press

This image made available by Subaru shows the 2012 Subaru Impreza. (AP Photo/Subaru)

The 2012 Subaru Impreza five door is a pleasant looking, versatile and smart handling car whose standard all-wheel drive makes it unusual among small cars that typically are front-wheel drive only.

Better yet, the Impreza comes at a competitive retail price starting at $19,045. This base Impreza price is on par with the starting retail prices of some competing front-wheel drive cars.

Meanwhile, the Impreza's top fuel economy rating of 27 miles per gallon in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway from the federal government confirms the all-wheel drive is not a drag on gasoline mileage. In fact, the 2012 Hyundai Elantra GT five-door hatchback, which doesn't offer all-wheel drive, has the same fuel economy rating as the all-wheel drive Impreza.

Also worth noting: The 2012 Impreza is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports, where its predicted reliability is better than average.

The manufacturer's suggested retail price of $19,045 is for a base, 2012 Impreza 2.0i five-door hatchback with manual transmission and 148-horsepower four cylinder.

A 2012 Impreza hatchback with continuously variable transmission (CVT) that a driver operates like an automatic has a starting retail price of $20,045. The 2012 Impreza is not offered with an automatic transmission.

By comparison, the 160-horsepower, 2013 Ford Focus five-door hatchback has starting retail prices, including destination charge, of $19,995 with manual transmission and $21,090 with automatic. And the 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT hatchback with 148-horsepower four cylinder starts at $19,145 with manual transmission and $20,145 with automatic.

Still, buyers wanting even lower-priced four-wheel traction can find the 2012 Jeep Patriot 4X4 sport utility vehicle has a starting retail price, including destination charge, of $18,670. The Patriot, however, has a lower fuel economy rating of 22/28 mpg.

The 2012 Impreza offers a wheelbase that is an inch longer and has updated exterior styling, richer-looking interior, increased passenger and cargo space and smaller displacement than its predecessor. The four-cylinder engine with CVT is also new.

The styling is attractive but not as expressive as a Focus.

Inside, the passenger compartment looks ritzier than before and the top of the dashboard even has soft-touch materials. Gauges and controls are easy to read and well placed.

The engine change is especially noteworthy, because automakers are loathe to make an engine smaller and reduce horsepower in a new model.

But Subaru soundly met its goal of improving fuel economy in this new, fourth-generation Impreza. The 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter four cylinder is gone from this "regular" Impreza, replaced by a 148-horsepower, 2-liter four cylinder.

Note that the performance versions of Impreza — the WRX and STi — continue in 2012 with the 2.5-liter engine.

The new, smaller engine still is a horizontally opposed, "boxer" design that has become a Subaru hallmark, but it's lighter in weight. Peak torque is reduced from 170 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm to 145 foot-pounds at 4,200 rpm.

Besides a five-speed manual, the engine now can be mated to a continuously variable tranny, which maximizes fuel mileage because it doesn't have fixed gears. Instead, it allows infinitely variable gearing to get the most out of every gallon of fuel.

The new model can travel an estimated 55-plus additional miles on a fill-up than a comparable 2011 Impreza, even though the fuel tank holds 2.4 fewer gallons.

But the 2012 Impreza tester with CVT had the incessant droning during acceleration that characterized early CVTs and turned off many potential buyers.

Subaru does include in uplevel Impreza trim levels a six-speed manual mode so a driver can select from six, electronically controlled, pre-set gear ratios for a more normal transmission sensation. But this seems to contradict the idea of having a CVT, and the Impreza's improved government fuel mileage rating was achieved without a driver electronically selecting pre-set CVT ratios.

The Impreza's standout quality is its handling. The car took to curves with confidence and managed turns securely.

The all-wheel drive on CVT models uses an electronically managed, continuously variable hydraulic transfer clutch and operates without input from the driver. It worked seamlessly on wet pavement, where the tester tracked confidently.

The ride was mostly smooth and better than in previous Imprezas. Rear suspension is a double wishbone design, rather than a torsion axle like that of the Elantra GT.

The Impreza has more front- and back-seat legroom — 43.5 inches and 35.4 inches, respectively — than the Focus and Elantra.

Rear seats split 60/40 in the hatchback and fold down, boosting cargo space from 22.5 cubic feet to 52.4 cubic feet. This is on par with the Elantra GT.

Some amenities that are options or require uplevel trim on the Impreza five door are standard on the Elantra. Examples: Cruise control, Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio controls on the steering wheel.

The Impreza comes standard with many of the usual safety features, including antilock brakes, vehicle dynamics control which combines electronic stability and traction controls, and frontal and curtain air bags as well as a driver knee air bag to keep the driver properly positioned behind the wheel in a frontal crash.

The 2012 Impreza was the subject of one safety recall, involving a brake master cylinder that could malfunction and change the amount of brake pedal travel needed to stop the car.

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