A few months ago, the parents of Ashley Falonk, a senior at the University of Scranton, gave their daughter a choice: She could either have the family's late-model X-Type all-wheel-drive Jaguar, which had cost around $40,000 new, or they would buy her a new small car.
Falonk let her mom have the Jaguar and instead took a nimble little 2005 Subaru Impreza, which sold for less than half the Jag's sticker price. "It's an awesome car," says the 22-year-old. "It's like a cross between a car and a truck: You can drive it anywhere. It's good on gas and looks good, too."
Obviously, not everyone would take a Subaru over a Jaguar, but Falonk's choice shows the fierce appeal the Impreza inspires in many college students. Imprezas are reliable, versatile, and relatively inexpensive, and they handle well for economy cars. They especially make sense for snowbelt drivers because of their full-time all-wheel drive. They also get robust quality ratings from J.D. Power & Associates, Consumer Reports, and others, and have a reputation for lasting forever.
But good luck finding a used one, though. "People tend to keep them in the family and drive them into the ground," says Subaru spokesman Dominick Infante.
As far as Falonk is concerned, the latest Impreza includes definite improvements over her 2005. Her first reaction to driving my test car, a bright-red 2006 Impreza 2.5 i sedan: "Hey, this car is ballsy."
That's because Subaru added new valve-lift and electronic throttle-control systems to the 2006 Impreza's standard 2.5-liter engine (the same engine the Subaru Outback has), raising its power from 165 to 173 horsepower. Falonk immediately noticed the car's greater zip at low and medium speeds. She also liked some of the small improvements Subaru made in the latest Impreza, such as the added outside thermometer.
The version of the Impreza most students would really like to have is the red-hot, turbo-charged WRX. But many parents would quail at the thought of helping finance this model, because it would jack up insurance rates for most under-25-year-olds. The WRX starts at $24,995 ($32,995 for the top-of-the-line WRX STI model, which goes from 0 to 60 in under 5 seconds).
That contrasts with the $18,295 price tag for the Impreza 2.5 i sedan or station wagon with manual transmission -- $19,095 with a 4-speed automatic transmission. (Add $179 for rubber all-weather floor mats and $944 for an upgraded heavy-duty sound system with a six-CD changer, big speakers, and a subwoofer.)
Of course, a certain Blue State image has attached itself to Subarus in general because of their popularity with environmentally conscious political lefties. (They're almost de rigueur in liberal enclaves such as Takoma Park, Md., and Madison, Wis.)
The Imprezas are also very clean, appealing-looking little cars. Subaru restyled the 2006 Impreza's front end, adding some cool black grillwork. The front and rear fenders are sculpted and wider than on the previous model. The rear end is squared off but also sculpted and has a little crease over the logo on the trunk.
The Impreza's passenger compartment is reasonably spacious for a small car. At 5"11', Falonk has plenty of legroom. The car's head and shoulder room also suit her well. She says she can fit three adults in the rear seat, though I wouldn't want to be one of them.
GENEROUS STANDARD FEATURES.
The car features a pass-through from the trunk into the passenger compartment -- good for carrying skis and snowboards (Falonk and her mom usually take the Impreza -- not the Jag -- skiing in the winter). The trunk has an adequate 27.9 cubic feet of storage space, which expands to 61.6 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down.
Quite a bit comes standard on the base-model Impreza: power door locks, windows, and outside mirrors, as well as a leather-wrapped shift knob, air-conditioning with air filtration, 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels, and cruise control. The controls are straightforward and much simpler to figure out than those on most small cars. Falonk says she learned to use the climate controls, sound system, etc., without consulting the owner's manual.
Other standards include such safety features as antilock brakes, occupant-sensing front air bags, additional side air bags, and active headrests. The Impreza comes with a free three-year/36,000 miles roadside-assistance program, too. One big failing: Side-curtain air bags, a key new safety feature, aren't available, even as an option.
THE USED-CAR ROUTE.
Another big negative about the Impreza as far as I'm concerned is its relatively unrefined automatic transmission (on both the 2006 and Falonk's 2005). The car hesitates when you first hit the gas. Moreover, the transmission hunts around a lot for the right gear on hilly, curvy roads and runs out to high revs when you accelerate, both at highway and lower speeds. The system for manual shifting with the automatic is much clunkier than in the Mazda 3 and VW Jetta, but Falonk uses it to get better acceleration on the highway.
I put the Impreza through its paces during some pre-Hurricane Katrina weather. At the beginning of a shower, when the pavement tends to be slickest, I swerved it hard back and forth at 55 mph on a blacktop road, trying to make it slide (an experiment not recommended for readers). The car felt solid on the road and came to a fast stop with no hint of skidding when I slammed on the brakes.
If money is tight, don't give up on finding a used Impreza. Subaru doesn't have a dealer-certified used-car program, but a 2000 or 2001 Impreza -- both recommended by Consumer Reports -- goes for around $10,000 if you can find one in the general used-car market. However, pre-owned Subarus tend to have more miles on them than most small cars.
EXPECTING BIG SALES.
Don't expect huge discounts if you decide to buy new -- Subaru isn't known for price-cutting. On end-of-the-model-year 2005 Imprezas, the manufacturer is offering some modest deals, such as 1.9% financing for 24 months, and $199 per month for a 48-month lease deal, but you won't find any of the deep, deep discounting done by General Motors (GM), Ford (F), and DaimlerChrysler (DCX).
Nonetheless, Subaru says it expects to sell about 30,000 Imprezas this year, same as in 2004. If the company makes that goal, it will likely attribute it to the great loyalty the cars inspire in owners like Ashley Falonk.