Solid-citizen Subaru quietly waded into the teeming crossover segment years ago — and emerged dripping with success.
It kind of walks on water now.
Put an average-looking Forester or Outback next to a pristine mountain stream and you get an unlikely – maybe even mystical — portrait of an industry powerhouse.
Since 2008, Subaru’s sales have skyrocketed from 200,000 vehicles a year to 615,000 last year, propelled largely by crossovers.
Subie’s clunky, bug-eyed cars still struggle to find the magic juju – mostly because too many look like they wandered away from a government fleet.
While the sedans possess the same solid traits as the crossovers and share platforms with them, they don’t get the same consideration – or respect – as Honda and Mazda sedans.
Maybe that will change some with the restyled and thoroughly revamped 2017 Impreza compact, the first vehicle built on the new Subaru Global Platform.
Though it sounds like a stretch, Subaru wants its cars to be viewed as affordable Audis of sorts. OK.
The wine-red Impreza Sport I had recently certainly felt dressed for success – and that’s not something you expect from nuts-and-bolts Subaru.
Mostly gone was the Impreza’s clumsy front end, which protruded too far past the front tires, giving the little sedan a heavy, awkward schnoz – sort of like Sarah Jessica Parker without the other attractions.
The new front protrudes, but doesn’t intrude, wearing an interesting horizontal grille and large, mildly angry headlamps that cut into the front fenders.
A long, slightly sloping hood flowed into a nicely raked windshield and gently curved top, giving the once-dowdy Impreza a dash of sport.
Meanwhile, Subaru also smoothed the Impreza’s hard sides, putting a subtle curve atop the front fender as well as a couple of crisp lines on the sides.
The rear, sadly, was less impressive with a fairly stylish short trunk and bold wrap-around taillamps marred by a truly silly boy-racer spoiler.
Still, Subie almost compensated for that misstep with fine-looking 18-inch alloy and black wheels wrapped by reasonable 225/40 tires.
I just wish the design team had focused as much attention on the engine. Like Mazda, many of Subaru’s vehicles fall a bit flat because of their mousy motors.
Subaru’s sensations are further dulled by boring continuously variable transmissions (CVTs), a droning belt-and-pulley contraption that often feels like no transmission at all.
As in all Subarus, the Impreza runs an unusual horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine with two cylinders to the right and two to the left – kind of a Trump-Clinton layout, I guess.
The Impreza’s 2-liter engine generates 152 skinny horsepower that must contend with nearly 3,200 pounds. (Other compacts, incidentally, have four-bangers with all the cylinders upright and in-line.)
Although the small engine packs decent tip-in, jumping away from stops on a brief wave of torque, it falls flat by 50-mph.
In the city, the Impreza feels fine, moving smoothly and confidently in traffic. Even the CVT seems acceptably invisible, but punch it hard getting onto a chaotic freeway, and you will be met mostly with moos from the CVT and noise from the engine.
While the engine delivers good fuel economy – 27 miles per gallon in town and 36 on the highway – it jogs to 60- mph in a sluggish 8.9 seconds.
In comparison, a new Honda Civic with its turbocharged 1.5-liter four and CVT can complete the sprint in 6.9 seconds, according to Car and Driver.
That’s a shame because Subie surrounds the modest engine with some commendable hardware in the ’17 Impreza.
Like Audi, the compact offers a stiff, well-engineered platform and sticky all-wheel-drive. Moreover, its flat four provides a lower center of gravity than an in-line four, theoretically improving handling even more.
Toss the Impreza into a hard curve and it will lean some, but quickly settles onto its solid platform, pushing through with all-wheel-drive.
In addition, Subie gave the Impreza quicker steering with better road-feel, making the car more lively and dynamic in twists and turns.
In short, it dances now a whole lot better than I do.
However, the little sedan’s best feature – and the one buyers will likely care most about – was its fluid, well-composed ride.
Likewise, buyers will probably appreciate the Impreza’s well-executed – if somewhat busy – interior, particularly considering its $26,500 window-sticker.
Mine was black as a coalbin inside, but that may have toned down some of the excesses.
The dashboard, for example, featured lots of angles in hard black plastic, curving over the instrument panel and around a recessed bin housing a laughably incorrect date and time readout. (The day was off by three months and the time by seven hours – unusual flaws in a Subaru.)
A center stack dominated the mid-dash area, featuring an 8-inch display screen squeezed between large vertical climate vents.
Among the new tech highlights wired into the stack were a Harmon/Kardon stereo and Apple CarPlay capability, as well as all the typical safety nannies.
The door panels also were mostly plastic, but bristled with details like a shoulder at the top and padded armrests stitched in red.
Similarly, the cloth bucket seats offered woven centers with good bolsters stitched in red, as well as acceptable leg- and headroom in back.
In fact, the 2017 Impreza seems more competitive than ever. All it needs now is a sprinkling of Subaru mystique – and maybe a turbocharger and a real transmission.