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.

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.