2014 Subaru Impreza: A lot to offer, but no mute button

Warren Brown
Columnist December 6, 2013

The engine whined. It sounded like a small child trying to con a parent — with a cry not quite a cry, but a persistent noise created to irritate: Wha-a-a, wha-a-a-a, wha-a-a-a-a!

I wanted to shout, “Shut up!” But that would have been bad parenting. I wanted to slap it, hard. But that would have gone against everything I learned from my parents.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

Seeking relief, I turned on the radio in the 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i PZEV. But the sound coming from the Impreza’s speakers was so static-prone and monotone — below the quality of anything in a comparable Honda, Hyundai or Kia — it reminded me of the woefully quirky sound reproduction in a 1950s Motorola car radio.

Yes, I’ve lived that long, which is why I was able to overlook the Impreza’s little demons in favor of the compact car’s much larger angels.

The Impreza 2.0i PZEV is a good automobile — well built, faithfully reliable and actually fun to drive — the latter quality attributable largely to Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, which is standard on the Impreza and most other Subaru vehicles.

The all-wheel-drive system is one of the best ever, certainly on small economy cars. It is what sets the Impreza above the rest of its rivals in the compact segment.

Symmetrical all-wheel drive simultaneously sends power to all four wheels. When one set of wheels slips — for example, in snow or rain — more power automatically flows to the gripping wheels. Subaru has been perfecting that system for the past 40 years, and it now works wonderfully well. The effect invites cliche. The car sticks to the road in weather fair or foul. It handles with confidence. It provides a peace of mind not undermined by the engine’s wha-a-a, wha-a-a-a.

I suspect that the engine’s noise is more attributable to Subaru’s skimping on sound-deadening materials than it is to the engine itself. It is a spunky, gasoline-fueled machine — four cylinders horizontally opposed, a “boxer” engine in automobile industry parlance. It produces 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque, delivered with enough chutzpah to get you up and down hills and pull you along mountain roads problem-free. It is mounted low enough in the engine bay to enhance the Impreza’s center of gravity, greatly helping the car’s balance on the road. And it gets a very decent, for an all-wheel-drive car, 27 miles per gallon in the city and up to 36 mpg on the highway using regular gasoline.

It’s just so darned noisy, and that’s too bad. Subaru’s competition in the small-car league is catching up quickly. South Korean automobile manufacturers Hyundai and Kia, both of which also have U.S. plants, are keen on turning their small cars into motorized jewels — eliminating such buyer disincentives as engine noise and another Subaru irritant: sturdy but dowdy vehicle interiors.

I think the real problem here is Subaru’s parent company, Japan’s Fuji Heavy Industries. FHI makes a lot of things other than Subaru vehicles — attack helicopters, jet aircraft, myriad industrial products of all sorts. The company has a heavy-industry mind-set, which shows up pitifully in the interiors of too many Subaru automobiles.

Here’s a hint to FHI: Check out your Japanese brethren at Toyota. That rival company is beginning to put color into the interiors of its cars. It is experimenting with different material textures and things such as interior ambient light. It is what you heavy-industry types might call silly stuff. But it is silly stuff that attracts buyers, which is one of the reasons Toyota outsells Subaru in the United States.

It doesn’t have to be that way, FHI. Consider that you are making automobiles, not tanks. Car buyers demand comforts and something that at least approaches beauty. Subaru has the best practical cars and crossover-utility vehicles in the world. But “practical” isn’t everything. Sex sells. Check out your U.S. sales numbers and you’ll see that I’m right.

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