Archive for January, 2012

In any constellation, some stars appear brighter than others. In the constellation of Fuji Heavy Industries, Ltd. – one of Japan’s largest industrial companies – its subsidiary, Subaru, is that shining star.

Literally and figuratively, Subaru, which is the Japanese word for the Pleaides – has been a rock star in the depressed auto sales environment spawned by the collapse of the economy in 2008. Over the past few years, Subaru has seen double-digit sales increases and 2011 was its best year ever.

Perhaps it’s Subaru’s legendary reliability or perhaps its just that the company stayed laser-focused on its core “outdoor lifestyle vehicles” for its rabidly-loyal customers. Whatever the reason, there is no argument that Subaru has hit a successful formula that continues to resonate with hard-core enthusiasts as well as more recent members of the Subaru family.

If you know nothing about Subaru, you should know that it has two defining traits. First, it’s the only mass-market auto manufacturer that uses flat boxer engines in all its vehicles. (Porsche uses boxer engines in its sports cars, but not its other products.) And that boxer engine always drives all four wheels to form what Subaru calls symmetrical all-wheel drive.

Here’s an animation of how the Subaru boxer engine and symmetrical all-wheel drive work:

While Subaru is a popular niche brand in the Southland, you really need to drive up to Big Bear, Mammoth or anywhere in the Pacific Northwest to appreciate how many people choose a Subaru over other AWD cars. The first time I went to Jackson Hole, I was amazed by the number of people (full-time residents) who had a big 4-wheel drive pickup or SUV and a Subaru wagon in their driveways.

The Impreza has been Subaru’s humble entry-level car for many years. For 2012, while Honda and Toyota played it safe with subtle evolutions of their core products, Subaru took a quantum leap with the Impreza. The body, while remaining almost identical in size to the outgoing model, received new creased and crisp sheet metal and the interior lost much of the cheap-looking plastics in favor of more tailored, textured and soft-touch materials.

2012 Subaru Impreza Sedan

Beneath the handsome new metal (with nicely detailed wheel wells) is Subaru’s new 2.0L boxer engine making a relatively modest 148 hp 145 lb-ft of torque. The new engine sheds half a liter and 22 horsepower, but you’d never know it because its power and torque is managed much more efficiently by the new Lineartronic CVT (continuously variable transmission) that replaces the old-school four-speed automatic. Both a 5-speed manual and the CVT are available, but the CVT is the only transmission offered on the top-line Limited model.

Subaru's new 2.0L Boxer engine

Subaru claims a zero to 60 mpg time of 9.8 seconds, 0.3 seconds faster than the last Impreza that had a more powerful engine. While it’s not glacial, it’s 1/10th of a second slower than a standard Prius. It did seem quick off the line, but it takes a bit more time and effort for the engine to achieve highway speed.

The big news, however, is that fuel economy jumped from a decidedly uncompetitive 20 mpg city, 26 mpg highway to 27 mpg city, 36 mpg highway. That stunning 30% increase instantly makes Subaru competitive with other subcompact cars, even while sporting the heavier AWD hardware not available on any competitor like the Honda Civic or Ford Focus.

The new Impreza has a smaller gas tank (14.5 gallons), but with the boosted fuel economy, it still has a potential cruising range of more than 500 miles.

The base 2012 Impreza 2.0i sedan is $17,495. Additional trim levels are Premium and Limited. Add $500 for the 5-door version and $1,000 for the 5-door Sport. I wanted to test the much more rakish and desirable 5-door Sport Limited model; but those are so popular, dealers can’t keep them in stock.

My gracious host at Subaru Pacific had a loaded Limited sedan (MSRP $24,895) ready for me to test. The standard Lineartronic CVT produces the best fuel economy. The sedan is identical to the 5-door/Sport model from the B-pillar forward, so both should have the same driving characteristics.

2012 Impreza Sedan

First, I’d like to state for the record that I’m not a big fan of CVTs. CVTs are a bit buzzy and the mechanical shifts I like to feel when driving are missing. That said, Subaru’s CVT is pretty advanced and civilized. Humming and complaining was reserved for heavy acceleration. However, in normal stop-and-go city traffic and highway speed cruising, the transmission works well and is unobtrusive.

Subaru's Lineartronic CVT in the 2012 Impreza

The Lineartronic’s “M” mode gives the driver the feel and control of a 6-speed automatic. Handsome silver paddle shifters behind the steering wheel engage the fun. The LCD information screen between the analog gauges displays the number corresponding to the “gear” you feel you’re in. Slick stuff, but it’s more of a gimmick than useful. You’ll find yourself just leaving it in Drive and saving the manual mode for a steep decline.

2012 Impreza steering wheel with paddle shifters and audio/telephone and cruise controls. You can see the top edge on the paddle shifter barely visible above the right spoke.

The four-wheel independent suspension with double wishbones in the rear and MacPherson struts up front absorb rough surfaces better than in the past and the overall architecture is 110 pounds lighter (mostly from engine weight) and more rigid. Subaru added some sound-deadening materials that makes the cabin a place where you can hold a normal conversation at highway speeds, even if there is some road noise.

2012 Subaru Impreza Sport. It's almost a wagon, and I know people are calling it a wagon. Subaru calls it a 5-Door.

Standard 4-wheel antilock disc brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) grab the wheels with assurance. Some cars in this class are still cutting costs with rear drum brakes. Of course, there are loads of airbags and the standard electronic nannies of traction control (TCS) and vehicle dynamics control (VDC) and the IIHS awarded the 2012 Impreza its Top Safety Pick rating.

Driving the new Impreza is an uncomplicated experience. As I discussed above, it’s not fast, but it is quick off the line which is good for city driving. There is no torque steer, thanks to the AWD and the 50/50 split torque management system. The electric power steering is light and easy, if a bit vague. It tracked dead straight with my hands off the wheel. It also had a great turning radius (34.8 feet) that allowed me to do doughnuts in the Porsche Pacific parking lot.

The little Subie’s low CG and stiffer structure help keep it flat and controlled in corners — this is no Costa Concordia. Visibility was excellent due to a low belt-line and the new higher seating position.

Creature features are present too. There is the usual power windows, mirrors and remote locking. Leather trimmed seats are standard on the Limited model, as is the effective single-zone automatic climate control, automatic headlights and two-level heated front seats for those chilly mornings.

The interior of the 2012 Subaru Impreza Limited is much improved.

The back-lit analog instruments are easy to read and a vertical LCD screen between the two gauge displays the gear and fuel level was well as information from the multi-function trip computer including ambient temperature, average fuel economy and time. A 4.3″ horizontal LCD screen centered on top of the dash also displays information from the mufti-function trip computer.

The simple analog gauges are easy to read as in the center car information screen.

The Limited trim level includes a 6-speaker single-CD audio system with USB/iPod/AUX and power port (under the armrest) and Bluetooth hands-free connectivity.

The $2,000 Moonroof + Navigation Package on my tester added a power moonroof, GPS touch-screen navigation, an upgraded audio system with HD radio, iTunes tagging, XM Satellite Radio, XM Real-Time Traffic, Bluetooth 2.0 audio streaming, an SD card reader (music only) and SMS text messaging capabilities.

The center dash console is decidedly uncluttered and mercifully free of fake plastic wood. I liked the dark graphite plastic surround and the aluminum-look horizontal blades on either side.

The rotary automatic climate control knobs are easy to use and have a quality feel with notches. There is no digital readout for the climate setting. The optional GPS navigation system is uncluttered with only three buttons and one volume knob.

Only three buttons adorn the left side of the navigation screen Audio, Voice Control and Map. Simple, yes, but I was looking for a dedicated telephone button. All radio functions are performed through the touch-screen, but I think physical shortcut buttons for AM/FM/Sat/Aux would be helpful. Redundant audio and telephone controls are on the steering.

My car was equipped with the optional $250 auto-dimming rearview mirror with digital compass and HomeLink garage opener. I love the compass and ditching the garage door opener clipped to the visor tidies things up. It can be factory-ordered or dealer-installed.

Of course, I have a few gripes. I would have liked more legroom and additional driver’s seat adjustments. The good news is that I was able to sit behind myself, and I had the front seat as far back as could go for my 6 foot 1 inch frame. In fact, the 2012 Impreza added one inch to the wheelbase which helped engineers add two inches of rear leg room. This is much appreciated space in a small car.

There is a much welcome increase in rear seat legroom.

The door plastics were still hard, although textured. The dash cowl was covered with softer plastic, more in line with the competition. I give Subaru props for the effort, but compared to the competition, there is room for improvement.

2012 Subaru Impreza Sedan and 5-door Sport

The 6.1 inch navigation screen looks small compared to the 7 inch screen in the Hyundai Elantra and the 8 inch one in the Focus. However, the full color graphics were sharp and the touch screen was responsive. I’d also like a backup camera.

So here’s the deal: A fully-loaded Impreza is just slightly more than a similar Civic or Elantra. But only Subaru delivers as standard equipment, its reliable, proven symmetrical all-wheel drive with a new, efficient boxer engine and a CVT.

The Verdict: The 2012 Impreza is a fun, economical and versatile little car that can take you places no other subcompact dare go. And based on 2012 Impreza sales – a 58% increase in December 2011 alone – I’d say the secret is out.

2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek

Note: If you want something with more ground clearance, something in the crossover category, the 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek, based on the 2012 Impreza platform and drivetrain, is coming in a few months.

This film was produced by General Motors sometime in the mid-1950s to “solve” the problem of traffic congestion in major cities.  Just in case  you were wondering, the plan didn’t work.

Without seeing the pictures of mid-20th Century America, and with only minor tweaks to the script, you’d swear that it was a speech at a modern meeting of urban transportation planners.  GM’s solution to the traffic problem was more buses produced by, of course, General Motors.  GM wanted people to ride on one of their buses to work and for downtown shopping but still own at least one or two (GM) cars to park in their suburban carports to be used for off-time recreation, family shopping and errands.

We know from history that GM, Standard Oil and Firestone conspired to purchase and then kill the extensive system of commuter railroads that used to crisscross Los Angeles.   Right here in West Hollywood, the rail yard and main hub for the Pacific Electric Railway was on the southeast corner of Santa Monica Blvd and San Vicente, now home to a large MTA bus yard. In fact, West Hollywood used to be called Sherman, after Moses Sherman, one of the owners of the railway.  (Sherman Oaks is also named after  him.)

A pile of Pacific Electric Red Cars waiting to be crushed.

GM’s reasoning sounds simple.  People work and shop in congested downtown districts filled with highrises and streets that were built before the advent of the automobile.  It would be very difficult and expensive to widen the streets and building downtown public parking would be expensive – up to $4,000 per space.

Because of the burgeoning population, people were moving to the suburbs and as a result, they drove themselves to work, usually alone (sound familiar?).  Studies at the time showed that the average passenger car carried only 1.5 persons.  Even the 101 freeway, which was built to connect the San Fernando Valley to Downtown LA, had bumper to bumper traffic in the 1950s!

One easy way to widen a street is to remove street parking and parking meters. That way, you gained one traffic lane each way to help relieve traffic; however, as the logic went, if we opened up another lane of traffic, it too would fill with cars unless public transportation, using comfy GM buses with air conditioning and air suspension, were placed into service.  The first part of that assumption turned out to be true. Unfortunately the second part, public bus transportation, didn’t.

GM estimated that for every bus, 34 cars would be taken off the road during commuting hours.  With an extensive bus system, privately operated, municipalities and states would be able to dramatically reduce taxes as there would be no need for expensive widening of streets and motorways (what we now call freeways).

GM saw no need for publicly-funded, inefficient and expensive public transportation systems (like the NYC subway) because private bus companies could easily earn a reasonable profit.  Yeah, right. GM even argued that a bus company should even be taxed less than other businesses because they would be providing such a great public service that saved taxpayers so much money.  Oh, if only this was true.

To service the suburbs, GM advocated for perimeter parking – something still being built in Los Angeles today near new light rail and subway hubs.  As the theory went, commuters would park in these lots and then ride the bus into the congested downtown business area. The parking lots would be much cheaper because land was cheaper in the ‘burbs – and it used to be.  People would board a bus that leaves every five minutes (!!), exit at a stop just a few steps or a block away from work/shopping and then apparently be able to catch a bus from downtown that got them back to the perimeter parking lot with equal alacrity.  Not only that, but they would arrive at their destination well ahead of driving time.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t true either.

Downtown LA traffic and a bus from the 1950s.

Los Angeles is still trapped in this illusion that buses are going to lead the way to alleviate traffic.  Even the light rail we’ve built during the past two decades crosses city streets and is often halted by traffic accidents.   When my parents bought their home in 1955 in Tarzana, they were just a stone’s throw from railroad tracks belonging to the Southern Pacific Railroad. They were told at the time that a commuter rail system would be going in there “soon” and that it would be easy for us to take public transportation.

Fifty years later, that railway was transformed into the MTA Orange Line bus line.  Just as GM predicted in this short film, there would be roads specifically dedicated to buses.  The Orange Line runs lovely, modern accordian buses but it’s hobbled by the fact that it has to cross normal streets with crossing guards almost identical to ones still used by railroads.  Naturally there are accidents at those intersections because drivers are either too distracted or too stupid (or both) to stop when they see the flashing lights.  Under- or overpasses would have solved this problem, but it was too expensive to contemplate.

At least the Orange Line is nicely landscaped and has lovely bike paths.  Unfortunately, the Orange Line didn’t solve the cross-Valley and Warner Center traffic problem.

What happened in Los Angeles and countless mega-cities across the country was that they were built to cater to automobiles.  Los Angeles County is so large and so sprawled out that it would be impossible to provide bus service sufficient to significantly dent the surface street traffic.  While buses help, they move just as slow or slower than normal traffic. Transferring to another line or route adds significant time to any trip.

Also, Downtown LA is not the center of jobs and shopping.  As with the population, centers of commerce also left downtown. You can work at Toyota in Torrance and live in Tarzana.  No bus line, subway or light rail is going to get you there faster than a car.

Something GM couldn’t have predicted is that we now live in a 24 hour economy. No longer is work from 9 am to 5 pm. If only! People work odd and long hours and many have to drive during work hours every day.  No private company could run the MTA bus/rail/subway system for a profit and still have riders.  People work from home and drive to meetings all day long.  Private cars are now second offices.  And for many, their daily drive has become their only private time.

The 27 minute film, uploaded to YouTube, has flaws and sound problems. Stick with it, if you can, as it’s a fascinating history lesson. The pictures of mid-Century Los Angeles come on around 5:09.

Now that you’ve had a good laugh of GM’s vision for the past, check out GM’s latest vision for the future. The EN-V (electric networked vehicle) concept sure sounds amazing, but one has to wonder how it would work in the snow. Any chance we’ll see this happen in LA or anywhere outside the Arabian Peninsula in the next 50 years?