Subaru's Impreza has honed a fine reputation for itself. It may not have won any beauty pageants and its interior comforts have traditionally left much to be desired, but it has always been modelled as a dedicated driver's car to be enjoyed in most road conditions.
The latest generation Impreza is definitely distinct from any of its previous models, with its most obvious adjustment being the abandonment (in almost all international markets) of the traditional sedan in favour of a five-door hatchback.
The new car is larger than before too. Its wheelbase has grown by 95 mm, its track is wider by 45 mm and the overall exterior dimensions are a lot more generous. Shorter overhangs help to offset this, visually.
While there was much uproar when it was revealed that the new-generation would be a hatchback and early images were met with great consternation.
I can report that conventional images, viewed in print or on your PC's monitor, do this car little justice.
Unfortunately it is still unlikely to be bestowed with any awards for design excellence, despite bearing some European styling influences.
But it shows neat, ordered lines with a fair amount of curves although the rear light cluster has a definite "aftermarket" look to it
Furthermore, the car certainly is more refined than before. Ride quality is more polished and the finishes have a significantly more upmarket feel to them.
It's also wonderful to see elements of Tribeca's award-winning facia making their way into the Impreza's cabin.
The swooping band across the dashboard expanse is key and the plastics used for panelling and switchgear are more substantial.
Seats are comfortable and luxuriously finished in a soft-touch alcantara-like suede fabric. But, as far as boot space in this segment goes, the high load sill and shallow luggage area could leave many habitual stashers wanting.
But most importantly, the all the new Impreza models make use of Subaru's signature boxer engines and a symmetrical all-wheel drive system.
Along with a redesigned chassis and drivetrain, the engine has also been re-positioned to give the car a lower centre of gravity than before.
Three models, the 1.5R, 2.0R and 2.5 WRX, are offered at launch - and Subaru assures that the 2.5 is more refined than before.
The new entry-level 1.5R, which retails at R169 000, opens a new segment for Subaru. However, don't expect too much in terms of its real world performance.
With 79 kW and 142 Nm on tap from its 1.5-litre boxer unit, this engine appeared largely incapable of tackling the range of hills that formed part of the launch route between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
It requires a hefty amount of cog-swapping to go anywhere and the gear ratios - particularly for third and fourth - could do with some attention.
I can report that the 2.0R adds power and is better specced than before. Starting at R219 000 for the five-speed manual (add R10 000 for the Sportshift auto), this car makes a lot of sense in the market segment populated by among others, the Mazda3, Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf.
And with figures of 110 kW and 196 Nm, this car is significantly more drivable. Mid-range torque spread is good, and even the five-speed gearbox feels slicker.
Considering it has all-wheel drive, backed up by VDC (with hill start assist on the manual model), it made plenty of sense in the drenched road conditions on the launch.
The one area in which this car cannot be faulted is the dynamics department.
Largely due to the use of Subaru's symmetrical all-wheel drive system, road holding is impeccable, something I found of particular importance while pushing the 1.5 along a fast downward sloping curve.
The ride through the redesigned chassis, which uses a new McPherson strut and double wishbone rear suspension similar to that seen on the Legacy sedan, is impressive and this car has a level of road holding that is unmatched in its market segment.
It grips like a vice in even the trickiest of road conditions, and really showed its mettle in a spurt of torrential rain, confidently leaving drivers to battle the poor visibility and water-clogged roads.
The car's direct steering is quite impressive too.
The current range topper, the 2.5 WRX retains its outputs of 169 kW and 320 Nm, but apparently benefits from remapped power and torque curves. Its braking system has also been completely revised.
Overall, the cars are very well equipped. The entry-level model comes with steering adjustable for reach and rake, air conditioning, power side mirrors and windows, a front-loading audio player with MP3 compatibility and an auxiliary input and 15-inch alloy wheels.
One level up, the 2.0R adds climate control, cruise control satellite audio controls, front fog lamps, VDC and 16-inch alloys.
New Impreza has also secured a five-star occupant and four-star pedestrian safety rating as measured by the Australian NCAP.
Sure, the latest generation Impreza has gone soft to appeal to a larger audience and its pursuit of attracting more fans could alienate the existing pool of very loyal owners (Subaru SA claims a 90% retention rate across its range).
But that does not detract from it remaining one of the most engaging rides out there.
The 1.5R may perplex those expecting the feisty performance and outstanding handling that Subarus have become renowned for, but could easily fit the bill as a daily runabout.
The 2.0R and the WRX, on the other hand, should do much to scare the establishment.
That is until the gun-blazing STI arrives to signal the end of playtime... Keep your eyes peeled from early next year.
1.5R: R169 000
2.0R: R219 000
2.5 WRX: R299 000 (price unchanged)
(add R10 000 for Sportshift automatic models)
Please note all models will be subjected to a price change from January 1, 2008.