It's Subaru's best-kept secret; a car overshadowed - unfairly - in the public eye by the potent rally-bred WRX and STi Imprezas.
Unfairly, because the naturally-aspirated Impreza RS 2.5-litre is a fine car in its own right. In many ways it's more practical everyday transport than either of its hot siblings, especially the STi.
The RS comes in only one guise, a four-door sedan; though there is a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearboxes.
And that may be one of the reasons why the RS is the unsung hero of the highly-competent Impreza range.
Its powertrain package and high-torque lugging ability would turn the car into a highly-desirable and ultra-practical small station wagon if Subaru offered it in the Impreza five-door bodyshell.
The move from the 2.0-litre naturally-aspirated flat four to the 2.5-litre boxer motor has transformed the non-turbo all-wheel drive (permanent four-wheel drive) Impreza. It was always an excellent handler, but the 2.0-litre motor lacked oomph.
The bigger motor offers a useful 112kW of maximum power at 5600rpm (up 20kW on the 2.0-litre at the same revs).
More important is the strong torque of 223Nm at 3600rpm, a huge improvement over the 2.0-litre's 184Nm at the same revs.
That power and torque in a car weighing 1328kg adds up to strong performance; and it's performance you can use fully.
The RS will run the 0-100km/h sprint in 9.5 seconds and the standing 400 metres in 16.7. That's light years away from the STi's 5.9 seconds and 14.0s, but in the real world of everyday driving the RS's performance is more than adequate. You're not going to feel short-changed; and you're likely to find yourself in less trouble than you can get into with the cop-magnet STi or WRX.
The meaty torque - on stream from much lower in the rev range than the 3600rpm peak - ensures strong progress.
That's helped by the quick-shifting and precise five-speed manual (we haven't sampled an RS auto). The gearbox and clutch are smoother and lighter than the STi's and make the car much more user-friendly in heavy inner-city traffic.
Trying to commute in the STi with its slowish-shifting, notchy gearbox, heavyish clutch and driveline shunt was a pain in Auckland rush hour traffic. They detracted from the overall enjoyment of the car and took the gleam off the driving experience. The STi was at its best storming a winding country road, gloriously and confidently oblivious of the weather.
But day-in-day-out commuting was practical in the RS. I prefer automatics for the daily commute, but the manual RS was perfectly acceptable. There was little driveline shunt and the smooth take-up of the clutch made the car a doddle to operate in stop/start driving. I could easily live with it as everyday transport.
Add in the surefooted four-wheel drive chassis, sharp handling and good ride comfort and you have a very appealing car indeed.
Ultimate handling and agility is nowhere near as sharp as the STi's, of course, but the RS is a fine compromise.
It turns-in crisply but without the razor-edged eagerness of the STi, and generally lacks the more competition-style car's nervousness. You're conscious of using a little more steering lock and there's more body roll, but the general feeling is of forgiving handling and great agility.
Where the STi requires a light touch and minimal steering inputs, the RS requires much more driving on roads which change direction constantly. Where the STi is physical in the loads its puts on your body when cornering hard, the RS is physical in the sense that you have to drive it more.
It's only if you try to push it into a corner as hard and as quickly as you might an STi that the RS's relative shortcomings become evident. You find yourself having to back off and lower your expectations.
I haven't driven an RS and a WRX back-to-back but I suspect the handling feel would be closer between the two. An acquaintance has driven an RS in convoy with a WRX on a demanding winding road and the driver of the more potent car couldn't shake off the RS, despite the WRX's power and torque superiority.
The RS has excellent roadholding and will handle wet roads with the same aplomb it will show in the dry.
Subaru NZ chief executive Wally Dumper likes to say that anyone who has driven a Subaru for any length of time won't be happy to go back to a front or rear-wheel drive car. Experience the Impreza RS on a wet road and you understand what he's talking about.
Ride quality is very good and the long-travel suspension soaks up bumps.
The driving enjoyment is enhanced by the RS's race-style front bucket seats which have strong side bolstering and keep the driver and passenger securely located during brisk cornering.
Average fuel consumption is about 10.5 litres/100 kilometres.
The car has disc brakes all-round, alloy wheels - 16-inch diameter shod with 205/50 tyres - and semi-automatic air-conditioning. A good quality Compact Disc sound system is standard.
All five occupants get lap/sash seatbelts; there are driver's and front passenger's front airbags, and the braking system has ABS.
The Subaru Impreza RS is a very desirable car with strong performance, outstanding roadholding and agile handling. The cabin is nicely appointed though understated.
At a retail price of $39,990 for the manual (the auto is $41,990) it represents good value for money.
The balance between power, handling and ride quality can't be faulted and the RS provides superb open road handling with city traffic user-friendliness.
It's only handicap - besides the lack of a station wagon version which Subaru salesmen are sure would find plenty of buyers - is its relative invisibility. The RS is truly the unsung hero of the Impreza line-up.
Story and photographs: Mike Stock