What's it about
The Subaru Impreza has always been a bit of a dark horse that just so happened to strike it lucky with the playstation-generation on the small screen and a string of WRC thumpings in real life. The new Impreza does things a bit differently this time around, though.
The first, and most obvious difference, is the way it looks. In all markets barring the US, new Impreza is only available as a hatchback. Subaru claims this is mainly because the sales bias in most other markets is heavily skewed towards hatchbacks.
Whatever the sales argument could be, this Impreza is a completely different car to its predecessors in more than just appearance. Where the sedan's biggest drawback was arguably its polarising styling (remember that bug-eyed creation?), those tasked with designing the new hatchback must have put in a few hard years on Toyota's design team.
Much like that Japanese giant's products, new Impreza's styling is soft and inoffensive to the point of it being possibly decidedly offensive to hardcore Scooby fans.
Gone is the awkward yet distinctive grille, which has been replaced with a more formulaic front end. The lines are reminiscent of the new Hyundai Accent hatch and the rounded rump with aftermarket-like tail lights takes a while to get used to.
The 2.0R test unit was endowed with a sports grille and fog lamps, which did heighten some of its visual appeal.
It also came with a lengthy list of standard equipment including six airbags, power windows and mirrors, climate control, cruise control, a six-disc audio system with MP3 functionality, satellite controls on a steering wheel that is also adjustable for reach and rake, and height adjustment for the driver's seat.
The manual test unit was equipped with hill start assist, along with Subaru's Vehicle Dynamics Control (or ESP), ABS with EBD and brake assist, too.
The 2.0-litre was fitted with stylish 16-inch wheels shod with Pirelli rubber while a full-sized spare wheel is standard on all Impreza models.
Inside the cabin it's a whole new story as well. One of Subaru's greatest aims with new Impreza was to give its product wider appeal, and the dramatic improvement of the materials used in the cabin is the most definite sign of these changes.
The seemingly cheap interior plastics, in particular, have been replaced with finishes that are hard to the touch but durable. The overall effect is also a lot easier on the eye, and the facia incorporates several elements first seen on the Tribeca SUV's award-winning dash. It also seems to have attained a good balance of shimmering plastics, which are confined mostly to the centre hangdown.
The most obvious drawback of this car is the lack of bootspace. A hatchback, by virtue of its basic dimensions, is almost always disadvantaged in the bootspace department, but Impreza's is simply laughable.
Although this is merely another sign of the symmetrical all-wheel drive system in place (the high floor accommodates an intrusive rear axle), this means very little if you're the family or active type who needs to cart a supply of "things" around with you wherever you may go.
Thankfully this car has more redeeming features that will soon have you forgetting about the puny load space. Like experiencing the 2.0-litre motor the test unit was equipped with.
Under the bonnet
Well, it's been carried across from the previous model, but that is no indication that it is any less punchy than expected.
Impreza is most entertaining when matched with this flawless naturally aspirated 2.0-litre boxer engine that generates 100 kW and 196 Nm between 2 000- and 4 000 r/min.
Active Valve Control System (AVCS) or continuously variable valve timing used is said to improve torque deliver in the low- to medium rev range.
And while this unit has, with a few adjustments, been carried over from the previous model, it has not lost any of the spine-tingling raspiness the flat-four is renowned for.
Toss in the slick-shifting five-speed manual gearbox on the test unit and meaty steering feel through the leather-wrapped steering wheel, and let the games begin.
New Impreza's roadholding is nothing short of impressive. While its symmetrical all-wheel drive system is undoubtedly one of the key drivers, the fact that its horizontally-opposed boxer engine is now placed lower in the engine bay helps too.
This lowering of the car's overall centre of gravity ensures minimal body roll through tighter road sections, helping to boost driver confidence immensely. Its wide track also helps to keep this car planted firmly on the road.
It's all good news though, because this car begs you to push the limits whenever you can. And it's a bit of a cheat knowing that the all-wheel drive system is unlikely to reach its limit before you run out of talent. But this car does invite exploring its limits.
Steering firms up as performance demand increases and is nicely weighted for surprise-less turn-in in even the most demanding circumstances.
Handling is neutral and even when the tyres are sent squealing for all they are worth, the feedback and vehicle control remains balanced.
Ride quality through the fully independent front and rear suspension is just firm enough to provide a positively sporty environment without
And the soft cloth sport seats are supremely comfortable too, offering just the right kind of lateral support needed when negotiating tight sweeps.
The latest Impreza is faced with an almighty conundrum - advancement and refinement, yes, but at what cost?
It is infinitely more refined that its predecessors, and Subaru has previously shown it can do refinement extremely well with its Legacy models.
One of Subaru's primary aims with new Impreza has also been to expose its bread-and-butter model to a larger audience. But Subaru Impreza fans, while being extremely loyal, are somewhat left of centre, and it is feared that several may be turned off by a beloved that has been allowed to go soft around the middle.
There is no doubt that this is a true Subaru. Apart from the boxer engine and symmetrical all-wheel drive, it is arguably the best handling vehicle in its segment. It just happens to have been dolled-up with a bit of colour on its cheeks and a quick wax to the brow. But drive it and you'll see.
Also, the 2.0R makes a stronger argument than any other in the current line-up - bar the STI when it arrives shortly. It has the right mix of power and performance and makes the R80 000-premium for the WRX seem very unnecessary. Unfortunately this car's excitement quotient is perhaps all too easily overshadowed by a rather dull appearance. First impressions, after all, do count.
PlusesMaintains Subaru's signature symmetrical all-wheel drive system and horizontally-opposed Boxer engine
Arguably the best handler in its segment
MinusesLimited boot space