Winter's-A-Comin' - Affordable All-Wheel Drive

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If we got away lucky lucky with some spring-lime weather for Thanksgiving this week, WBBM-TV meteorologist and “Drive…He Said” friend, Ed Curran, would caution that meteorological winter is still another week away.  We are willing to go out on a limb and make a forecast of our own: that by the first of the year more than one piece of crystalized H2O will fall from the heavens above.

Once the snow starts sticking to the pavement, buyers in the market for new sets of wheels, white knuckles, sweaty brows and all, will make B-lines towards models which can send power to “All Wheels.” Keeping in mind, whatever advantages all-wheel drive offers in the slippery also apply in the dry.

While slight weight and fuel economy penalties are associated with all-wheel drive hardware, in recent years the gap with front or rear-driven vehicles has truly narrowed.

Drive…He Said” recently tested two “affordable” all-wheel drive applications with divergent missions.

2012 Subaru Impreza Sport wagon: On-Road All-Weather Traction on the Cheap:

Boy do we have an affordable all-wheel drive car for you. A brand that was once  viewed as quirky as SAAB, (and was likely confused with the now defunct Swedish car-maker), has made lots of converts. The reason: Subaru’s allegiance to all-wheel drive throughout its entire model line-up (well, save for the BR-Z).

– For 2012 Fuji Heavy Industries automaker has given us a re-bodied Impreza Sport five-door wagon. Haunches are less exaggerated than in the last model, now more squared off. The additional D-pillar with imparts the profile of a wagon.

A 104″-inch wheelbase results in 35″-generous inches of rear leg-room and 22.5-cubic feet of trunk, which doubles when rear seat-backs fold, is competitive with many compact crossovers.

– Be prepared for an overall somber interior in terms of finish. Standard hands-free connectivity is welcome. But, pairing devices is no easy feat. Blame it on an infotainment head-unit which resembles that in an early 1990s Honda Civic and which offers minimally improved sound. Kudos to Subaru USA’s Customer Service call center, where a living, breathing agent answered our call on the first ring (sans queues). The same agent returned our call with a fix, inside of an hour.

Overall build quality in the Impreza Sport is good down to the polished door fasteners. Quite a few plastics are actually soft. A steering wheel adjusts for height and reach, and the center arm rests slides forward. The driver’s bucket is plenty wide with a modicum of side bolstering. And parents will be heartened by what have to be the easiest-to-access child seat anchors out there, minivans included. Each latch in the Impreza Sport has it’s own cavity in the rear seat cushion, concealed by fabric flaps. Many fingers will owe Subaru gratitude.

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– For years Porsche has been touting the packaging and weight distribution advantages of horizontally-opposed piston (aka “boxer” / “flat”) engines for the track. Subaru is the only other company which offers “flat” engines in its mass produced street cars in the U.S.. In the Impreza Sport he 2.0-Liter flat-4 cylinder gas powerplant sits fore of the front wheels. So the 148-horsepower flow rear-wards, split evenly between the front wheels and then those “out-back.” When sensors detect loss if traction at a wheel, the viscous coupling of that wheel’s axle shaft will detach power to that wheel. Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive and aggressive stability control easily prevented the 205/55 Yokohama Avid S34 tires from breaking traction on dry pavement.

Despite an ultra-short 4.1:1 gear ratio, meant to make more of the 145-pound-feet of torque available, we found ourselves frequently downshifting the 5-speed manual gearbox by two gears for any meaningful freeway acceleration. That Impreza Sport manual transmission rewards drivers with direct, if long-ish throws and feather-light clutch engagement. Without an extra 6th gear engine, drive-line, tire and wind-noise become cabin intrusive in concert.

Steering reactions are whoopsie-daisy slow to inputs. The front strut rear double wishbone suspension deserve higher spring and damping rates given the excessive roll and dive. Disc brakes at each corner begged for more aggressive pads with better initial bite, as the brake dust would have been camouflaged by the attractive smoke-finished 17″ alloy wheels.

– Perhaps the 2012 Impreza Sport’s less-than-icy air-conditioning helped matters, but we’ll take the 28 miles per gallon in boisterous combined driving. As we will the good ride compliance on rough city roads. The price-meter just barely moved from $19,000 to just over $21,000 in the case of our Camelia Red Pearl premium tester. To find another car with the boxer engine’s low-speed raspiness you’d have to multiply that figure by at least a factor of three. And that Porsche Boxster has neither the Subie’s standard all-wheel drive nor its utility.

2012 Jeep Compass 4×4 – Off-Road Capability For a Bit More Dough

A local kid from Belvidere, Illinois, the 2012 Jeep Compass 4×4 is initially a front-drive compact crossover utility vehicle, sharing its platform with the Mitsubishi Outlander. Optionally, it is fitted with Jeep’s Freedom II all-wheel drive system. Under normal dry traction conditions, 100% of engine power is fed only to the front wheel, by way of a continuously variable transmission.  However in the event that ABS and stability control sensors at either front wheel sense slippage, the electronic coupling engages and power is fed rear-wards.

– Without any snow to contend with, we tried out our Compass Latitude 4×4 first on an off-road trail. Suffice it to say that with a “19:1 selectable “crawl” ratio in the CVT assisted by an electronic locking brake differential, 9-” inches of ground clearance and a maximum 29.6-degree approach angle, the little sport-ute handled some steep grades admirably.

You’d expect the 2.4L inline-4 twin-cam gasoline engine’s 172-horsepower rating should be up to snuff for a 3300-pound compact-ute. Alas, the super wide spacing of the CVT band ratios requires constant battering of the accelerator pedal to obtain any meaningful motion. Twenty-two (22) miles per gallon in combined driving,  isn’t too shabby for an off-road CUV. Invaluable was the Compass’ tow hook as a leaf and mud hill got the best of us during a photo-op. It proved that the tuned-for-the highway quiet 215/65 Goodyear Wrangler SR-A all-terrain tires, on 17″ alloy wheels, should never by mistaken as true off-road mudders.

– On blacktop, the Jeep Compass’  front strut / rear multi-link suspension does a good job of quelling excessive body motion. Only the nastiest impacts transmit to the seat bottoms. Steering is sufficiently quick if “galaxies-away” in feel. More numb, if it’s possible, is the spongy brake pedal response fed by four disc rotors. There aren’t lots of soft touch materials and the plastic grains are dicey. Still the isolation of  the Compass cabin from noise was a welcome surprise.

– The former Wrangler-style front fascia, with its pancake-shaped headlamps, has been sent to the showers in favor of a more streamlined front treatment in line with the Grand Cherokee line.

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– The 2012 Jeep Compass 4×4 is priced starting at $21,000. Our Latitude-spec tester creeped and crawled out the door for just under $26,000. That included luxuries like heated seats, universal garage door remote,  and hands-free voice commands for media / communications. Off-road equipment includes hill descent braking drive/power-train/ fuel tank skid plates, engine oil cooler and a trailer tow wiring harness for 2,000-pounds of trailer-pulling.

The steering wheel, adjustable for tilt, has the kind of illuminated infotainment and cruise control buttons that are well sized, spaced and intuitive. Seats were covered in a mystery fabric that clings to clothing even as the skin and bones inside the pants slide around. Rear seat legroom and headroom each measuring 39″-inches would be more impressive were it not for the extension of the driver’s center console which protrudes into the space normally reserved for the rear seat middle passenger’s feet. Feel free to load 22 cubic-feet of cargo behind the second row seat, or 54 cubes if you flip the seat back down.

Rugged outdoor types and backyard types alike will appreciate the clever pop-out flashlight recessed behind the cargo bay ceiling courtesy lamp.

– Yeah, we know there are prettier, more “car-like” compact CUVs out there, with monikers like CR-V and CX-5. For the money, though, none of them offer the all-wheel drive off-road adventures which await in the Jeep Compass.

And, hey “…Let’s be careful out there….” on the roads this winter.

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