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Second-hand: 2008-11 Subaru Impreza 

A punchy compact. Roomy and smooth-handling Subaru is what other econoboxes aspire to be. All-wheel-drive performance is a welcome trade-off for higher fuel usage.

Most economy cars are happy with their lot in life: shuttling somnolent commuters, fetching the dry cleaning and gathering a week?s worth of carbohydrates.

Bollocks to that, Subaru?s engineers seemed to say.

With the shift to smaller and lighter rally cars, they needed a compact that packed an explosive punch, and came up with the all-wheel-drive Impreza in 1993. It would earn Subaru the World Rally Championship Manufacturers? title for three consecutive years, the first Japanese marque to win the honour.

The Impreza is what little Toyotas and Kias aspire to be.

2008-11 Subaru Impreza

CONFIGURATION

The third-generation Impreza arrived in 2008 as a larger, more refined automobile, both in four-door sedan and five-door hatchback forms. The wheelbase was stretched by almost 10 cm to make the interior more hospitable, a welcome development.

In addition to more space, the cabin gained an upscale design and better materials with matte finishes replacing glossy plastics. Visibility was excellent and, for the first time, the windows had frames to reduce noise at speed.

Despite growing larger and stouter ? the Impreza scored strong crash-safety ratings ? engineers took pains to prevent the car?s weight from ballooning. The front suspension retained its MacPherson strut setup, while the rear featured a new double-wishbone suspension, allowing for a lower trunk floor.

The all-aluminum SOHC 2.5 L flat-four put out 170 hp ? three horses fewer than the previous model, although torque was slightly higher at 170 lb.-ft. The engine was a ?boxer? design, meaning that the cylinders were horizontally opposed, two to a side, laying flat to lower the car?s centre of gravity and to quell the paint-mixer shakes.

Thanks to the boxer?s longitudinal orientation, Subaru could fit equal-length driveshafts to minimize torque steer. AWD with a viscous limited-slip centre differential was standard issue in North America. A five-speed manual transmission was standard, and available with a hill-holder clutch to prevent rollback. The optional automatic had just four forward gears.

The rally-inspired 224-hp WRX was about 25 kg lighter than the previous model, with its 2.5 L turbocharged motor reconfigured for better throttle response. The top-dog WRX STI produced 305 hp, thanks to more aggressive turbocharging, and was instantly recognizable by its boy-racer fender flares.

Stung by criticism that the 2008 WRX was too softly sprung and, well, civilized, engineers upgraded the suspension with aluminum pieces nicked from the STI and boosted output to 265 hp by swapping turbochargers in the 2009 model.

All 2010 models received slightly revised styling and some new optional equipment. The 2011 WRX STI lineup added the sedan body style with a rear wing big enough to hang laundry on.

ON THE ROAD

The base Impreza 2.5i could sprint to highway velocity in 7.6 seconds, which put it at the speedy end of the econobox spectrum. The softened WRX could do it in 5.8 seconds, while the boosted 265-hp 2009 model wrinkled the asphalt to make it in 4.7 seconds ? oddly quicker than the bonkers STI (whose more advanced AWD system is coveted by racers).

The Impreza impressed with its balanced platform and eager turn-in. Body roll was evident, but never seemed to compromise path control. Engineers had struck a nice trade-off between handling and ride quality.

?My car is faster than a $60,000 BMW and Porsche, has beautiful AWD, and cannot only be used year round, I actually look forward to winter,? one WRX owner wrote.

Although some drivers have recorded exceptional fuel economy, the consensus is that the Impreza uses more gas than most small cars. Average consumption is about 10.5 L/100 km. That?s the AWD penalty, something many Subie owners are willing to accept.

WHAT OWNERS SAY

?I?ve owned four Imprezas so, sure, I drink the Kool-Aid,? starts off a post from a loyal owner, one of thousands wedded to the brand for its clever engineering and escalading levels of refinement and performance.

There have been a few quality setbacks: Subaru has fallen below average in the annual J.D. Power and Associates? dependability studies.

Most common is a fragile paint finish that is susceptible to chipping and even sandblasting, owners charge. Hanging engine idle when the clutch is depressed requires reprogramming the main computer.

Most disconcertingly, WRX owners have reported piston and ringland cracks, often preceded by telltale oil consumption. Entire engines have been replaced. Subie owners need to get acquainted with their dipstick.

Other reported problems include short-lived clutches, failed a/c compressor bearings, filmy windows in winter (burning coolant?) and some interior rattles.

Overall, the Impreza is a peerless compact that mustn?t be mistaken for an econobox. That will only make it mad.

2008-11 Subaru Impreza

What’s Best: Stylish interior (at last), AWD stability, Subie sensibility.

What’s Worst: Thirsty, poor paint, oil level bears watching.

Typical GTA prices: 2008: $14,000, 2010: $19,000

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