Subaru once made small boxy, rather tinny front-wheel-drive cars with no visual appeal. Now look what it has done. The compact Impreza is the smallest model in Subaru’s auto lineup and is one of its most popular ones, with standard all-wheel drive.

Faced with greater competition, it makes sense the fourth-generation Impeza has arrived as a much-improved 2012 model.

Subarus long have been gotten high marks tackling tough New England winters, but the automaker has been striving for some time to make its vehicles more popular throughout the country.

Major features include much-needed sleeker styling, with such things as a sharply raked windshield and crisp character lines. However, the low front end can be damaged by curbs and other such obstacles if a driver isn’t careful.

A new two-liter four-cylinder engine with Subaru’s horizontally opposed piston design lets it sit low in the chassis for better handling — just like the opposed-piston Porsche engine. There’s also a modern new automatic transmission.

Even the base Impreza is well-equipped. Standard items include an AM/FM stereo system with MP3/WMA file capability, air conditioning, tilt/telescopic steering wheel,  split folding rear seatbacks, tire-pressure monitoring system and power windows, locks and mirrors.

Options include a power sunroof and a touch-screen navigation system, although some extras are offered only on higher-line versions.

Safety items include a new driver knee air bag, along with a bunch of other air bags, and anti-lock brakes with a brake assist feature. 

The Impeza comes as a front-engine four-door sedan that’s 180.3 inches long or as a four-door hatchback that’s 6.5-inch inches shorter. But both ride on a 104.1-inch wheelbase, which is about an inch longer than that of the 2011 model’s to help enhance rear legroom.

However, despite a roomier back seat, only four adults fit comfortably in the car because the rear center section is stiff. Front seats provide good support for spirited driving. It’s now easier to slide in and out of the Impreza, although it could use wider rear door openings.

The quiet interior has a fair amount of plastic, but has been improved with various soft-touch materials. Climate controls are a snap to use. Sound system controls are smaller, but  acceptable. There are a good number of storage areas and easily reached front cupholders, although the covered front console storage bin is set too far back. .  

My test hatchback model had a low, wide opening for the large cargo area, which can be considerably enlarged by easily flipping forward the rear seatbacks, which sit flat when folded.

The Impreza has new, nicely geared electric power steering, a first-rate all-independent suspension that provides sharp handling and a comfortable ride and Vehicle Dynamics Control, which combines stability and traction-control functions.

Also helping assure safe, spirited driving is standard all-wheel drive—long a strong Subaru selling feature. The brakes stop the car quickly and surely, with good pedal feel.

There are two sets of list prices: For the regular model, they range from $17,495 to $22,595, without a $750 freight charge. Prices for partial-zero-emissions (PZEV) models go from $17,795 to $22,895, without that charge.

I tested the new Impreza 2.0i Sport Premium (PZEV) model, which costs $20,595. This trim level has such special items as larger 17-inch (up from 15-inch) aluminum alloy wheels, “sport fabric” upholstery and body color rocker panels.

All have a new 2-liter four-cylinder that produces 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. It’s smaller than the 2.5-liter, 170-horsepower “four” it replaces. But it’s smoother, and Subaru says performance doesn’t suffer because the Impreza has shed approximately 165 pounds.

The long-stroke engine is sophisticated, with double overhead camshafts and a dual active valve control system for more efficient performance and low emissions. 

The engine works with a five-speed manual, which generally shifts well and is hooked to a light, but long-throw, clutch or to a CVT automatic transmission that replaces an dated four-speed automatic.

The Impreza is no fireball, but acceleration of my manual-transmission test car was lively—although a downshift from fifth to third gear was needed for decent 65-75 mph passing. There was no chance to test an Impreza with the CVT.

Estimated fuel economy with the CVT is 27 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway, which Subaru says makes the new Impreza the most fuel-efficient gasoline-engine car with all-wheel drive sold in America. Figures with the manual are 25 city and 34 highway, although the EPA sticker on my manual-transmission PZEV test car said the estimates were 25 and 33.

A manual hood prop rod is used instead of a hydraulic strut to keep the hood open. Most fluid filter areas are easily reached from the front of the car—except for the one at the rear of the engine compartment.

In all, here’s a Subaru that you need not live in, say, Vermont to appreciate.

Pros: Sleeker styling. New engine. Increased fuel economy. Better automatic transmission. All-wheel drive. Agile.

Cons: Rather narrow rear door openings. Low front end. Low-throw clutch. Could use more power.

Bottom Line: More stylish, refined and fuel efficient.

Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.

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