Rarely lauded for its good looks, and often a compromise between practicality and performance, Subaru's Impreza has nevertheless gained a passionate following over the years
That's partly because the headliner cars – the WRX hottie and its insane STI sibling – are inextricably linked with rallying. Particularly in NZ, where Subaru blue was once a signature of the late Possum Bourne.
It’s also partly because of the cars’ strong character imparted by the horizontally opposed boxer engines, the four-wheel-drive, and often quirky designs.
This latest generation’s no different. More handsome in the flesh than in photos, the blend of curves and creases hints at BMW’s equally individual 1 Series, while linking this car to its bigger, Legacy sibling, particularly when viewed from the rear.
Subaru’s dropped its bare-bones entry-level 2.0i while pulling the WRX version closer to the mainstream cars, and further from the high-performance STI revealed at Tokyo. The latter gets a 2.0-litre engine in Japanese domestic spec, with 227kW and 422Nm of torque. Our cars will be fitted with a 2.5-litre turbocharged engine, the figures yet to be confirmed.
Softening the WRX was a deliberate gamble by Subaru. Families wanted the entry-level versions, while the WRX was too hard for everyday use, and looked it. At first, this latest Rex feels a touch too plush on NZ’s daily commute or bumpy B-roads. But get the bit between your teeth and you'll find it corners incisively, the touch of extra body roll not enough to blight the driving experience. Boy racer meets mum-and-dad motoring – a delicate compromise. Only time will tell if the gamble's worked, with families wanting performance liking the WRX blend, or not – hoons preferring harder fare and sensible types rejecting it, if nothing else because it doesn't follow the traditional hard-core WRX image.
Of course as always, most buyers will choose between the entry-level $26,990 2.0R, and the $31,990 R Sport.
All the cars are roomier, with new suspension, improved brakes and safety and enhancements to the engine aimed at better fuel consumption. That 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine is mounted 22mm lower for improved weight balance, and offers its increased torque further down the rev range. It's mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed auto transmission, with 110kW and 196Nm on tap.
The Sport gets the same basic drivetrain equation, but looks considerably sharper. That's thanks to the ground-effect spoiler, rear diffuser and different exhaust with its chrome tip; the larger 17-inch alloy wheels, and those bucket sports seats. Specification is higher too, with cruise control, a six-disc 10-speaker sound system, cruise control and an iPod port added to the base car's generous larder of six airbags, ABS brakes, climate control air and stability control.
All Imprezas get the latter, which contributes to their five-star crash test rating, giving the brand a full line-up of five-star cars.
Drive these Imprezas and you'll find the careful attention to noise reduction really has made them quiet on road. Both 2.0-litre cars feel confidence-inspiring, apart from a touch of rattle about the steering rack on corrugated corners. Both sound impressive when treated aggressively, that horizontally-opposed boxer engine's characteristic engine note at its best when revved.
Get a bit hairy and yes, they'll understeer, the engineer's typical approach to warning the everyday driver they're going a tad too hard. But there's plenty of feel, and though the car doesn't pretend to superhero status, it does its best to reward a spirited drive.
Naturally the $42,990 WRX is the most livliest, with its 2.5-litre engine throwing 169kW and 320Nm to the road through those 17-inch ten-spoke alloys. Though not as aggressive-looking as the outgoing car, there's no doubt this is a hot hatch – the bonnet nostril’s the dead giveaway, though the aluminium sports pedals and electroluminescent instruments add sharp detail to the interior.
The downside is thirst, the WRX swallowing a claimed 10.7l/100km to the 2.0-litre car's 8.7, lower than before in part thanks to a 30 to 40kg weight saving. That's despite the increased size, which offers a roomier cabin and boot that will be appreciated by the families at which these cars are primarily aimed.
Buy a Corolla or Civic if you want a more frugal car, and are willing to pay the power trade-off and give up four-wheel-drive for two.
Overall? No, this Impreza isn't perfect. That's too much to expect from 30 grand. What it does offer is individual looks and character in a more spacious car with a generous features list, and a well thought-out cabin. That five-star crash test rating is a bonus.
Safe and spacious doesn't have to mean boring – Impreza is still capable of a spirited drive, while the Sport adds sufficient embellishments to look the part, and justify the higher price.