On Autos: Subaru Impreza hatchback offers alternative to crossover

The 2017 Subaru Impreza is a compact economy car with standard all-wheel-drive and a roomy interior. (Brady Holt/The Current)

By some definitions, Subaru’s most popular compact car isn’t actually a car.

That best-seller is the Crosstrek — essentially an all-wheel-drive hatchback with some off-road-focused styling details and an elevated ground clearance. Subaru calls the Crosstrek a crossover, marketing it against such models as the Honda HR-V and Jeep Renegade.

But the bones of the Crosstrek — the body, the interior, the engine and even the all-wheel-drive system — come straight from an unambiguous compact economy car. That’s the Impreza, a model that’s typically less expensive and more fuel-efficient than the Crosstrek, yet one that fails to resonate the same way with buyers.

The redesigned 2017 Subaru Impreza interior — like the rest of the car — is functional but nothing too fancy. (Brady Holt/The Current)

A redesigned 2018 Crosstrek is just beginning to arrive in dealerships, but the Impreza already saw most of the same upgrades for the 2017 model year: a modernized interior with more up-to-date infotainment; a quieter ride; slightly better EPA fuel economy ratings; and revised styling.

The changes weren’t transformative. A weeklong test in a 2017 Impreza revealed a pleasant but unexciting experience, with fewer flaws than its predecessor but no radical advances.

The Impreza still promises to be the most affordable and most fuel-efficient way to get all-wheel-drive, a feature that comes standard at a base price of $19,215 for the sedan and $19,715 for the tested five-door hatchback. It still has respectable interior room, a smooth ride and excellent crash-test performance.

But the Impreza has basically no flair to speak of. While functionally sound, it doesn’t boast head-turning styling, a fun-to-drive character or any particularly upscale qualities. While Subaru has made some progress at the latter compared to the old Impreza, it remains a generation behind such competitors as the Honda Civic and Mazda3. Also, somewhat heavy low-speed steering can be annoying in parallel parking.

The 2017 Subaru Impreza isn’t as sporty or luxurious as many of its competitors. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Furthermore, although Subaru was a pioneer in bringing advanced safety systems like emergency automatic braking to the mainstream market, they remain expensive options — even as Honda and Mazda make them more affordable and as Toyota and Nissan have begun including them as standard equipment.

That said, some buyers of subcompact crossovers may not want to overlook the Impreza. Even if it’s not especially fun to drive by the standards of a compact car, this Subaru could be impressive for someone who might otherwise buy a bulkier SUV. And its EPA fuel economy rating of 31 mpg in mixed driving would be outstanding by crossover standards. (One caveat: While these personal experiences aren’t standardized like the EPA’s procedures, the tested Impreza averaged a mere 27.2 mpg in a week of mixed driving, much lower than other recently tested small cars and even some crossovers.)

If the Impreza’s qualities sound appealing to you, give this hardy but underappreciated model a look. And if you want those same qualities but with higher ground clearance and tougher-looking styling details, join the crowds surging for the redesigned 2018 Crosstrek.