CVT: A-OK

We at Cars.com haven't warmed to CVTs because of their typical hesitation and the droning they illicit from engines. Like most automatics, CVTs are at their worst when teamed with small engines, so I was wary of this one, which Subaru describes as a more compact version of the one in the Outback and Legacy.

Overall, I was relieved. Though the car takes a few seconds to really get going from a standing start, it feels natural enough. Likewise, the lag when you jab the accelerator for passing power is acceptable. Sometimes you don't even notice it. The engine provides enough oomph at lower engine speeds that it need not rev up to the heavens at the slightest request for power. More than some CVTs, the Impreza's allows the engine to wind down pretty quickly when you let off the gas, giving it a more natural feel like a conventional transmission does when it shifts up a gear after a quick sprint. The CVT also has an effective hill-hold feature so you can take your foot off both pedals when waiting on an incline, and the car won't roll backward.

A CVT has truly succeeded if the average driver can hop in, drive and never know there's anything different about it. The Impreza isn't quite there, but it's as close as any four-cylinder/CVT combo I've driven, and maybe closer.

Anyone who wants to pretend he's driving a regular automatic can use the steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles to select "gears" sequentially. They aren't gears as much as six fixed ratios along the CVT's wide range.

If you want a true manual, you can get that, too, standard on all trim levels but the Limited. The five-speed has a light clutch pedal and a journeyman shifter and is pleasant enough to use, but the advantages are fewer than ever. Yes, it will save you $1,000, but the mileage advantage is gone 25/34 mpg versus 27/36 mpg with the automatic, in the sedan. (The manual hatchback gets 1 mpg less on the highway.)

The transmission also needs another gear, both for efficiency and performance's sake. As manual transmissions' mileage advantage slips away, I suspect automakers will learn that they appeal mainly to those who simply want to drive a manual, and those buyers will demand more performance, not less. The manual 2012 Impreza doesn't fit that description.

Apart from the manual gearbox's inherent limitations, it teams with a simpler, viscous-coupling all-wheel-drive system rather than the automatic's sophisticated electronically controlled clutch-based hardware. The latter can apportion 100 percent of the power to the front or rear axle while the manual splits it 50/50. This is the norm across Subaru's other models (except the high-performance STI), in which I've found both systems to be excellent in snow and off-road. Most drivers wouldn't perceive a difference.

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