Subaru Impreza review
by David Finlay (19 September 2007)
Whatever you thought of the old Impreza - and it had its fair share both of supporters and of detractors - there was little doubt that it carried on for many years after what most manufacturers would have considered its reasonable sell-by date. Now, at last, Subaru has produced a new version which in many ways represents a complete rethink of what had gone before.
Most obviously, there is now no saloon version, nor an estate, and for UK purposes at least there won't be either in the foreseeable future. Both have been replaced by a five-door hatchback, a body style which is far more likely to appeal to European buyers. Rally fans may mourn the loss of the saloon's distinctive look, but that issue is likely to come to an end as soon as Petter Solberg starts competing in World Rally Championship rounds in the new-shape car, which he will do some time in 2008.
It's also a temporary blow for sporting enthusiasts that the new Impreza is being launched without a high-performance turbo-engined model in the range, though that's just because the WRX won't be along until November; the even more powerful STi is being introduced next year.
For the moment, the available engines are naturally-aspirated 1.5- and two-litre petrol units, mildly-uprated versions of what you could buy in the old Impreza. There will also be a turbo diesel, which is very big news for Subaru, but it isn't coming onstream for about another year.
Priced from £12,495 to £18,495 for the non-turbo models, and with much lower insurance groups than before, this Impreza is based on a new platform with a considerably simplified suspension arrangement (no front subframe and a multilink rear axle instead of struts, for those of you who like to know the technicalities).
Two long-standing Impreza features are carried over, though, namely the universal provision of four-wheel drive and the fact that all the engines are low-slung flat-fours which keep the centre of gravity much nearer the ground than in more conventional cars - and in fact even lower this time round, since the engines are also mounted half an inch further down than before.
The radically different shape means that the hatchback Impreza is shorter than either the saloon or the estate, which means there's less chance of making sharp contact with anything during a tight parking manoeuvre. The wheelbase, however, is longer - actually identical to that of the Legacy - and the whole car is wider. This is excellent news in terms of driving dynamics, and despite the apparently non-sporty nature of the launch cars we're really going to have to get on to that subject. With only a few exceptions, previous Imprezas have been wonderful to drive, and wouldn't it be a shame if that were no longer the case?
Well, it still is the case. Subaru has put a lot of effort into improving the Impreza's ride quality (that's largely what the new rear axle layout is about) and it has certainly operated on the basis that a soft set-up is a Good Thing. In fact, the car flirts perilously with becoming too soft - there is rather a lot of body movement - but it's saved from this indignity by the fact that, as so often in the past, Subaru's engineers have done a world-class job with the dampers.
Although the Impreza may lean over quite far on occasions, it never wallows, and whatever the angle the chassis is always ready to accept pretty much all the power the engine can throw at it. Grip levels, too, are extraordinarily high, just as they have always been in the very best Imprezas. If you have the inclination, and the space, and the view, it can be made to dance through a series of corners in a manner that is just staggering.
Now, this is all wonderful news if you're an enthusiastic driver, but Subaru is explicitly aiming the new Impreza at young families and older, "empty-nester" couples for whom on-the-limit handling is unlikely to be much of an issue. And that's something of a pity, since handling is by far the Impreza's strongest card.
The whole point of the new model is that it's a more conventional C-segment car than the last one (albeit one that the company insists will always be a niche model, bought by people who don't want to be part of the mainstream), and in many respects it lags well behind its rivals. Subaru says that the interior is better than before and that the gearchange on cars fitted with the five-speed manual gearbox is slicker, and both of these things are true, but that's not to say that the Impreza has now caught up with the best of the opposition.
It does feel more refined in one significant area. All previous Imprezas had frameless doors, and when you shut them the windows rattled in a way that screamed, "Cheap! Nasty!" The new one has proper frames, and the doors close with a more confidence-inspiring sound. But the interior doesn't look great, and those flat-four engines constantly rumble in a way that's fine for a performance car but is less impressive in something that's intended for everyday transport.
The four-wheel drive system which contributes so much to the brilliant driving experience inevitably compromises practicality; the driven rear axle leads to quite a high boot floor, and that limits luggage volume to 301 litres with the rear seat up. You can fold down the seat backs, but you can't create more space by removing the bench part, so the volume with the seat folded is also less than it might be at 1216 litres (to roof level).
Space for occupants isn't of the best, either. At six foot three I would need a little more seat travel to be fully comfortable behind the wheel, and because accommodation in the back is fairly limited you wouldn't get four of me on board without complaints. The Impreza is also not realistically suitable for carrying five averagely-sized adults, despite the existence of a cleverly-made marketing video which suggests that it is.
The clutch action is just a little too sharp for smooth operation in town, though the steering is light and easy to use, and there's the option (unheard-of in other C-segment cars) of slipping into low-range gearing, which is really meant for such light off-roading as the Impreza can manage but also works pretty well when you're pottering round suburban streets. As with the outgoing model, however, the low-range lever is mounted where you expect the handbrake to be, and it's all too easy to perform an action you weren't intending if you don't concentrate hard enough.
Town driving isn't helped by the fashionably silly rear side windows which Subaru has been tempted to fit in the switch from saloon to hatchback body styles. The old car didn't particularly suffer from rear quarter blind spots, but this one does, and terribly.
The general impression I get from the new Impreza is that a car which felt twelve years out of date has been replaced by one that feels eight years out of date. There is nothing about it which suggests that we had to wait until the 21st century before the wit of Man had developed sufficiently to create it. And yet I do love driving it - as before, there is simply nothing else in the class which is in the same league round corners.
And that - for all the changes - remains the cornerstone of the Impreza's appeal. It isn't going to make a big impact on the C segment, and in fairness Subaru doesn't expect it to. The relatively few people who choose it will ignore its obvious faults and concentrate instead on its quirkiness, or its rarity, or the fact that it's a Subaru, or, most dramatically, that it has the best ride/handling balance in its class by a simply colossal margin.