Expert Reviews

2020 Subaru Impreza Sport First Drive

If you happen to be looking for an affordable all-wheel drive compact car that’s available with a manual transmission, the number of choices is getting smaller every year.

Offered in four- or five-door configurations, the 2020 Subaru Impreza comes with either a continuously variable transmission (CVT) or a five-speed manual transmission. Both are mated to a single engine offering – a 2.0L four-cylinder boxer engine making 152 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque.

The feather in the Impreza’s cap is that the base sedan equipped with a manual transmission is the cheapest all-wheel-drive vehicle you can purchase in Canada, period. At a starting price of $19,995, it’s not far off the Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, or Toyota Corolla – none of which are available with all-wheel drive. The sedan model I drove was outfitted in Sport trim with Subaru’s EyeSight safety suite, and included an automatic transmission, bringing its price tag up to a still very palatable $29,545 (including a $1,650 freight charge).

That price gets you a key fob with push-button start rather than an old-fashioned key, power door locks, windows, and a sunroof. Base and Touring models feature a 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system that includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, while Sport and Sport-tech trims get an eight-inch screen.

The top two trims also get blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert and high-beam assist, as well as front and rear automatic braking. Subaru’s EyeSight suite of advanced safety features is now standard on all CVT-equipped models and includes adaptive cruise control that now has a lane-centring function.

The Impreza received several styling changes for 2020, including updates to the front grille and bumper, and the headlights and taillights. Both the Sport trim that I was driving and the loaded Sport-tech added a new drive-mode selector and wheel designs too.

Navigating suburban streets, the steering felt nicely weighted with good feedback, while acceleration and braking felt ample and predictable, respectively. Merging onto the highway, the Impreza was very slow to get up to the pace of traffic, but the cabin remained remarkably quiet at cruising speed compared to the competition – even with winter tires equipped on the vehicle I was driving, which tend to create added noise on dry pavement.

The Impreza’s interior is thoughtfully laid out and its design is nicely buttoned-down but doesn’t offer much in the form of stylishness or creature comforts (but that’s not rare in this segment). Materials are of ample quality for the class. Gauges are easy to read and controls are intuitive.

The sedan features 348 L of cargo space while the hatchback offers 588 L – and 1,565 L with the back seats folded. Both feature a 60/40-split folding rear seat for additional storage or larger items like skis or hockey sticks. This is Canada, after all.

What the Impreza lacks in straight-line performance it makes up for with value, but also quick steering and agile handling. “Inexpensive” doesn’t mean “boring.” Arriving at the first off-road area Subaru Canada set up as part of a testing day, we navigated an autocross course in an empty parking lot, letting us legally perform manoeuvres that if done on the street would land us in jail.

Light and quite tossable with a rallying heritage, the Impreza can be thrown out of sorts, but when you add throttle and apply steering inputs it ends the funny business and gets down to work by going wherever you direct it. Running through a slalom and then an emergency braking section was an uneventful experience, which is what you would want if those cones happened to be curbs, trees, kids, or other vehicles.

When attending a media launch, it is common to be inundated with irrelevant marketing hyperbole, followed by the opportunity to drive on smooth roads in nice weather. It’s rare that a car company will place itself in a position where its products may be seen in anything but a positive light. So, it was in very atypical fashion that we were invited to experience the worst Mother Nature had to offer while putting Subaru’s full-time all-wheel drive to the test in circumstances beyond what many Canadians will ever experience.

Snaking our way through a snow-covered field, the Impreza merely carried on without incident. Approaching a steep grade that I was sure would be a challenge, we simply climbed it. Distracted by conversation due to being overly confident in the Impreza’s abilities, the left tires went off-piste and into some deep, heavy snow. Causing a collective groan, we were sure we’d be stuck until the on-site tractor arrived to pull us out. Sure enough, we were wrong.

Putting the vehicle into reverse, I could feel the all-wheel drive system doing its thing as torque was transferred from one side to the other, to the back and then front, and then all together. Slowly but surely, squirming out of what we all considered to be a hopeless situation, I engaged drive and we were on our way. I don’t recommend duplicating my mistake, but it would bring peace of mind when driving in a snowstorm.

Getting the chance to sample several other models, the Crosstrek offers a similar footprint but comes with a higher ride height and standard X-Mode traction control functionality. It works by maximizing traction through modulation of the throttle, transmission, all-wheel drive, and dynamic control systems, letting you get out of tricky situations or carefully manage steep descents.

Considering that the Impreza tops out at $31,695 before freight and fees if you choose to opt for the five-door Sport-tech, it’s an affordable vehicle even when fully equipped. If you’re more interested in having low payments and very capable all-wheel drive than you are with spirited acceleration, the Impreza is worth a spot on your shortlist of vehicles to check out.