Test Drive: Impreza impresses as a lot of car for the cash

What a treat. A simple, sensible, pleasant car with all-wheel drive (AWD), decent fuel economy, comfortable seats and relatively good people space.

Meet the redesigned Subaru Impreza. Generally in the backwaters of consideration when shoppers head out to acquire a smallish car, Impreza now makes more sense than many rivals; it certainly makes more sense than it ever has.

Not because it's a fuel-economy champ; it's just OK. But because it's a lot of car for a modest price. All those top-of-mind economy cars (e.g. Civic, Corolla) are pricey now that $4 gasoline has lighted a bonfire under demand for them. And you don't get AWD standard with those, as you do in the Impreza (all Subies, in fact).

Though still compromised by Subaru's typically rackety-clackety engine sounds, Impreza seems as inviting as a pair of slippers after a day in boots half a size too small.

Impreza is the foundation for Subie's high-performance machines, the WRX and WRX STi, which offer muscle-car scoot from unlikely looking (ugly, some might say) small, four-door hatchbacks.

But Impreza is much more than the scorned relative of those WRX machines. The test car — 2.5i with automatic transmission — was a destination, not a way point.

Small kids or occasional back-seaters? Bad weather sometimes? Hankering to avoid Everyman's Civic/Corolla/Focus? Step right up.

You'll find a car that you can just get into and go. No fuss. No complications.

The downside: There's not a great amount of excitement, nor a bushel of premium ambience. In fact, the insides will remind some shoppers of their last rental car — a bit barren and off-putting.

That would be too harsh a judgment, based on time behind the wheel of the test car — but it would have some truth.

Hard surfaces inside the cup holder and a small rectangular cubby on the console, for instance, were a tactile shock contrasted with the premium-looking and at least OK-feeling materials elsewhere in the car. Why are you poking around in the cup holder, you might ask. Chasing toll booth change, of course.

The barren theme is emphasized by a gauge-shy dashboard. Only a tachometer, speedometer and fuel gauge. The engine temperature is noted by a blue warning light. When it's on, the engine's not warmed up. When it's off, it is.

As on most cars, "idiot" warning lights tell you if oil pressure or charging system have failed. Oops, she's done for; shut 'er down and call AAA.

If you're a glass-half-full kind of person, think of it thus: Impreza is not annoying you with extra information. It leaves you free to savor the moment.

And the underwhelming nature of the interior is countered by Subie's attention to important details. You get carpeted floor mats, for instance. Those are optional on many cars. The air conditioning has a filtration system — welcome where pollen is heavy. The hood is held open by little shock-absorber-style struts, not a schlocky hand-operated prop rod that always seems too hot or dirty. The back seat folks get heat vents, a simple feature that's unfortunately not universal. All three rear seating slots have safety head restraints (aka headrests), something you should be able to take for granted but, alas, can't.

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