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

Typically for a Subaru, the test car's all-wheel-drive system performed very well. It provided plenty of traction — no wheel spin of note in hard starts on slick or loose surfaces, none of the sagging of engine power felt on some rival AWD setups when the traction-control systems slap on the brakes or cut engine power too aggressively while inexpertly trying to keep wheel spin minimal.

Ordinary driving was just close enough to fun to keep you interested.

The engine could be prodded into misbehaving. The suspension held the car at acceptable angles during brisk cornering. Brakes brought everything to a halt with acceptable urgency.

Seats coddled sufficiently, though knee room in back was more suited to kids and short adults than to big folks.

Though the interior was not a model of premium ambience, neither was it annoying, stupidly laid out or gratuitously furnished.

Impreza is a pleasing machine despite the plain interior and the undistinguished exterior (which still is better than some of the "styling" you get when Japanese designers are let off the leash).

It's a bit like a beloved mutt that followed you home and has become a well-behaved, good-natured friend. If you're looking instead for a purebred that's handsome and smart and talented — and involves you in ways you wish it didn't on those days you yearn for simplicity — look elsewhere.

2008 Subaru Impreza

What? Remake of Subaru's small car. Four-door sedan or four-door, wagonlike hatchback.

When? On sale since August. Almost identical 2009 is due at dealers in September.

Where? Made in Gunma, Japan.

Why? It was time.

How? Lengthen wheelbase; change rear suspension for smoother ride, better handling; upgrade interior materials; design new body.

How much? Base 2.5i sedan with manual transmission starts at $17,640 including $645 shipping. Hatchback starts at $18,140. With all factory options, about $23,000, but dealer-installed accessories can add several thousand.

How potent? 2.5-liter, "boxer" configuration, four-cylinder engine rated 170 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 170 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm; five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

How lavish? Quite for a small car. Among standard features: all-wheel drive; anti-lock brakes; front- and side-impact air bags in front, head-curtain bags front and rear; air conditioning; power steering, brakes, windows, locks, mirrors; AM/FM/CD stereo; tilt-adjustable steering column; remote locks; cruise control; height-adjustable driver's seat; rear-window defroster; front tow hooks.

How big? Not very. 180.3 (sedan) or 173.8 (hatchback) inches long, 68.5 inches wide, 58.1 inches tall on a 103.1-inch wheelbase.

Weight's listed as 3,064 lbs. (manual transmission) or 3,131 (automatic).

Cargo space: Sedan trunk listed as 11.3 cubic feet; hatchback holds 19 cubic feet behind back seat, 44.4 cubic feet when back seat's folded.

Turning circle: 34.4 feet.

How thirsty? All models rated 20 miles per gallon in town, 27 highway, 22 combined.

Regular (87-octane) gasoline is specified.

Overall: Sensible, comfortable, capable.

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