For years (and years and years and years), Subaru's Impreza sedan and 5-door hatchback have been trying to get respect in the compact car community. The Impreza has been dying to get asked out on comparison tests, or at least considered as a viable partner by new-car shoppers stuck on seeing themselves in a Honda Civic. The recent crash in the U.S. economy was very good to Subaru -- the Subaru faithful stayed with the brand, and the rest of the world started finding Subaru Foresters and Outbacks on their consideration lists. That's the good news for Subaru. The bad news is that the company still didn't have an Impreza they could field against the Civic, the Ford Focus, the Mazda3, the Hyundai Elantra, or the latest compact contender, the Chevrolet Cruze. The 2012 Subaru Impreza is, as one executive expressed it, a car the company would finally be proud to put up against the leaders in the compact class.

The evidence offered by the 2012 Impreza sedan and 5-door is strong. Exhibit A: The best fuel economy of any all-wheel-drive (AWD) vehicle in America, including hybrids. Exhibit B: A more stylish exterior with a steep rake to the windshield, shorter front and rear overhangs, and fender flares that could almost be considered bold. Exhibit C: A bigger interior that competes for best-in-class roominess, plus the most usable trunk space in the Impreza sedan -- and most usable cargo capacity in the Impreza 5-door hatchback.

In person, the 2012 Subaru Impreza sedan looks better than ever, but still not as class-defining as the Hyundai Elantra. The new Impreza 5-door throws a little more curbside attitude out, and can stand out in a parking lot just as well as its primary competitors, the Hyundai Elantra wagon, Volkswagen Jetta wagon and the Mazda3 hatchback. And while the 2012 Subaru Impreza interiors are a whole lot nicer (and gratifyingly roomier) than the previous generation's, they still can't catch the new Hyundai Elantra or Ford Focus. The standard and optional features offerings are on par with the other guys in class.

Out on the road, the new Impreza is poised and confident. Working with a new 148-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder connected to either a 5-speed manual or a new continuously variable automatic transmission -- the CVT car is the fuel economy master, getting 27 mpg in city driving, 36 on the highway -- the 2012 Impreza loses 22 hp versus last year's engine, but the loss is hardly noticeable thanks to 110 pounds of weight savings over the 2011 Impreza. The new CVT, like most CVTs, likes to rev endlessly, but you can mitigate that irritation by dropping the transmission into manual mode (or working the available steering-wheel paddle shifters) to impersonate manual gear selection. Standard all-wheel drive automatically puts the new Impreza out front for handling -- Subaru does such a good job with awd -- and the ride quality is on par with the rest of the class.

The 2012 Subaru Impreza sedan starts at $17,495 (same as last year), with the 5-door hatchback starting at $17,995. Both base models come with a 5-speed manual transmission. Add an extra $1,000 for the fuel-saving CVT.

So does the 2012 Subaru Impreza deserve a seat at the adult table? It does, and while it's not going to win every comparison test it enters, it won't get walloped in any category and it will likely win some. It's also going to win quite a few fans on streets outside the traditional Subaru avenues.

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