Payne: Subaru Impreza stakes claim for best AWD wagon

Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Jack Sprat could eat no fat.

His wife could eat no lean.

And so between them both, you see,

They licked the platter clean.

Sprats, meet the Paynes. My wife likes her meat rare, I like it well done. She orders shellfish, I order fish. She prefers turf, I’d rather surf. When it comes to cars, I covet sportiness, she values utility.

Downsizing from a three-row crossover when our kids flew the nest in 2011, we went looking for a compact, all-wheel-drive station wagon. Five-door wagons satisfied her utilitarian needs, their low center of gravity my need for speed. We needed all-wheel drive so we could get up our driveway in Michigan blizzards.

Alas, wagon options are limited in crossover-crazy America. The menu consists mostly of foreign luxury makes: Mercedes E-class wagon, BMW 3-series, Audi All-Road. All are north of $40,000.

The exception was the Subaru Impreza wagon. At just $23,000, it had everything we needed for half the price of the premium competition: AWD, fuel economy, style, heated seats. Well, almost everything. Its 148-horse engine paired with a continuously variable transmission had all the excitement of a farm tractor. But marriage — and car-buying — is about compromise, yes? Besides, with Subaru’s bulletproof reliability reputation, Impreza promised relief after my wife’s four years with the multi-talented (but multi-glitch) Chrysler Pacifica. And with a BMW M3 on my side of the garage, I could get my speed fix elsewhere.

Five years on, we’ve never second-guessed the decision. Impreza has impressed.

As my wife and I contemplate a new ride, however, a Subaru sequel is not a cinch. Impreza wagon has a challenger in the mainstream aisle: the 2017 VW Golf.

Loyal readers of this column know I am a Golf disciple. The 2015 North American Car of the Year is the best-engineered, best-packaged, best-handling compact in its class. The hatchback architecture is the basis for the dynamic duo of Golf GTI and AWD Golf R, perhaps the best all-around cars built today. Would I like a Golf wagon? Does Mr. Sprat like lean?

I flipped for Golf’s AWD wagon (Alltrack or SportWagen variant) at its introduction this fall. Not to be outdone, Subaru also has a new Impreza. Not just new, but all-new with chassis and tech upgrades to match the German. Mrs. Payne and I put it to the test.

VW may be the biggest automaker on Planet Earth, but in this market it’s a junior player to Subaru. While VW has struggled, the Tokyo-based automaker has prospered: Its sales have tripled from 200,000 to 600,000 since 2008. The Tokyo-based carmaker credits a host of factors from its “love” ad campaign to its value to its appeal to active Gen Y-ers.

Maybe. But I think it’s about looks.

Subaru was once the ugly duckling of autodom. Talk AWD engineering all you want, but it had a face only “Shallow Hal” (a Jack Black movie classic, look it up) could love. That changed with the 2010 Impreza. Aerodynamic bod, Pentagon grille and wing-like logo accents turned Eliza Doolittle into a much comelier compact.

For 2017 Subaru has continued to refine its look. To complement a stiffer platform (more on that later), Impreza’s design has been trimmed to look thinner, more athletic. The grille “wings” have been trimmed, side wheel-humps liposuctioned, rear taillights widened. I miss the old Impreza’s unique, chunky accents but astute designers have taken a page from Golf by outfitting the (best-selling) Limited and Sport trims with standout wheels. The 18-inch pinwheels on our blood-red, Sport tester were knockouts. At a posh restaurant, the valet kept our Impreza parked at the curb along with a Maserati and Audi S4. You’ve come along way, ugly duckling.

But Mrs. Sprat barely noticed the changes.

The styling is pleasant enough to get her inside — because that’s where she lives. Once plasticky and subpar, interior materials are now soft and stitched. The ergonomic console layout is familiar (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), but the infotainment system is state-of-the-art with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. CarPlay worked flawlessly. In an all-day drive through rural terrain, the app never lost signal and its audio commands never confused commands. Superior to Subaru’s own navigation system, it’s yet another reason why the gulf between luxury and mainstream cars has shrunk dramatically.

Impreza’s all-new platform has earned it a coveted, IHS Top Safety Pick trophy and will be the basis of every Subaru from here on — from Outback to coming, three-row ute. A marvel of clever packaging, the new bod allows for an inch more cabin width and rear seat room — even a wider hatch opening for your stuff. All-told Impreza is No. 1 in its class in interior room even as its overall dimensions are average.

Already blessed with a low center of gravity thanks to its four-cylinder boxer engine, the wider, lower chassis is now 70 percent stiffer via more high-strength steel. Under the cane through the twisties, the Impreza is a blast to drive — the stiff chassis and torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system (exclusive to Sport and Limited) rivaling the benchmark V-dub. Like the Honda Civic and Ford Focus compacts, Impreza and Golf have good reason to build athletic chassis — their bones must ultimately support performance cars. In the case of Subaru, it’s the WRX and STI hellions.

Only the engine and CVT tranny (replaced by turbo-4s and automatics in the WRX and STI) are noticeably outclassed by the Alltrack’s 170-horse turbo and superb, 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic. The old CVT’s drone was so depressing I had to take Prozac before driving. No more. Impreza’s four-banger gains just 4 horsepower over the last generation, but the CVT now mimics an automatic with “shift steps.”

Ask my wife if she cares.

Crucial to her is Subaru’s 30 mpg EPA rating (27 city/35 highway) which stomps the peppier Alltrack’s 25 (22/30). Fewer stops at the gas station are almost as valuable to her reliability — another metric where Subie is top drawer. And though the domestic makers have no dogs in the AWD wagon fight, the built-in-Indiana Subie does have a Midwest accent.

There’s one more metric for buyers to consider. Similarly equipped, the stylish $28,000 Alltrack costs about $2,000 more than Impreza.

With that kind of value for under $30,000, the Sprats — er, Paynes — won’t be looking in the luxury aisle for their next car.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Subaru Impreza Wagon

Vehicle type

Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger, 5-door wagon

Power plant

2.0-liter, direct-injection, boxer 4-cylinder


Continuously variable transmission


3,183 pounds


$24,015 base ($27,060 as tested)


152 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque


0-60 mph, 8.5 seconds (est., Car and Driver)

Fuel economy

EPA 27 city/35 highway/30 combined

Report card


Standard, winter-ready AWD; roomy interior


Miss the Sport model’s practical roof rails; engine still underpowered


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★