Greatly improved interior, 4WD grip and handling, solidity
Room for improvement
Engine needs more punch, quite pricey
A STEP down from the turbocharged rocketship Subaru WRX models are the normally aspirated RX sedan and hatch; where the WRX is a pure high-performance road-rocket, the RX-badged cars make do with much less power and performance, add more civility and comfort but do not skimp much in the technology.
Although they may appear to be more or less the same vehicle, there are now also some subtle differences between the RX hatchback and the sedan, including the sedan's wider track, WRX-style radiused wheel arches and revised suspension settings to further differentiate the two models.
The styling of the new Impreza has polarised enthusiasts around the world, but in reality it is only the nose, which is much altered, with the addition of ovoid headlamps and seemingly ever-bigger driving lamps.
In fact the odd-looking front end includes clear indicators housing yellow bulbs and pretty conventional headlamps - it just looks like a Daihatsu.
Behind the controversial styling, the Subaru continues to offer solid build quality, comfortable cabin appointments, world-class driveline technology and a pleasing driving experience, although a little more sparkle to the performance is needed to lift the car away from being bland.
Surprisingly, there was a significant difference in the experience between the manual hatch and the auto sedan, with the manual hatch offering dual range, high-low selectable ratios and the auto getting preference for a smoother drive and more together feel in spite of, or perhaps because of, its more overtly sporting seats.
The small-medium four or five door car retains its unique flat-four cylinder engine and all-wheel drive technology. The advantages of this layout are many - the low engine keeps weight low for better handling and a lower bonnet-line, while all-wheel drive adds to steering, stability and traction safety levels in a manner which becomes immediately apparent to the first-time driver.
To this basic layout the RX adds safety features such as ABS anti-lock brakes, power steering and dual airbags, and convenience features such as cruise control, adjustable steering column, radio/CD unit, power windows and mirrors, air-conditioning and a remote central locking and immobiliser security system. This last has become a much-needed feature on the high-performance WRX model, now one of the most stolen cars in Australia.
Differences in body style, transmission and interior appointments notwithstanding, the Impreza offers reasonable interior space - the front two seats are well-provided with hip and leg room, but up to three rear seat passengers will not feel so pampered.
The rear seat is unsculpted and the backrest is very upright - coupled with a low sitting position and limited leg-room and even medium-sized kids will find the back seat a tiresome place to spend much time.
For the driver, the Impreza offers a well-designed driving position with clearly marked controls and good visibility. A drinks holder pops out of the dash but tries to masquerade as a piece of silver trim. Already slightly mis-aligned, this feature is not expected to wear well.
Although power delivery is not in the astonishing WRX league, it is still adequate - the two-litre engine offers 92 kW and 184 Nm to get the roughly 1300 kg car around. However, the turbocharged WRX puts out 160kW and the difference is remarkable; clearly the chassis can handle the extra mumbo, so perhaps a low-pressure turbo might make the RX just a bit nippier.
Stopping was an equally unfussed operation, the four discs pulling the car up in direct proportion to the extent of effort used - even the ABS system is relatively discreet.
The four-speed automatic transmission is pleasantly good at its job - when in power-mode, it allows the motor to spin right up to the red-line when provoked, and gives brisk changes, up or down, at optimum moments. When the Power switch is off, the change pattern becomes more relaxed and less frenetic, with shifts occurring earlier and being less insistent and intrusive.
The five-speed manual gearbox offers ratios which seem about right for Australian driving, although at our speed limits, fifth is a bit of an overdrive - motorists wanting some instant response from the engine will need to drop back to fourth, or even third. The gear selection and clutch actions are both light and economical with effort.
However, the engine on the automatic model seemed coarse and grainy - intrusive and noisy without ever being mellifluous. Other Subarus don?t usually suffer from this, so it is possible that our particular car has had a hard life.
That or the extra fitment of the dual-range selector, unique to the two manual hatchback models, has had an effect on the driveline's smoothness.
The odd-looking hatch back offers a small rear section - think of it as a sedan's boot with windows and you've about got it. However, the space is very useful, as there are almost no restrictions in terms of what can be loaded, whereas the sedan's boot aperture is much more limited.
With the rear seat up, load capacity (to the bottom of the windows) is quoted as 356 litres; with the 60/40 split rear seat folded down, this increases to 1266 litres. In contrast, the sedan's boot capacity is rated at 401 litres - not bad for a small-medium sized car. The cabin is well-served with oddments trays and storage bins.
The booted sedan offers a more conventional profile than the hatchback, apart from the unsubtle rear wing. From the outside, the rear spoiler just looks ostentatious, but from inside, in the rear mirror, the wing effectively blocks a big piece of what lies behind the car.
Steering geometry on both hatch and sedan has been altered - the sedan's front track has been widened by 20mm for better braking stability when irregular braking surfaces are encountered. The hatch's track remains unaltered, but the mass offset, the weight of components outside the strut-line, has been reduced to lessen bump-steer.
As Subaru sales demonstrate, the car-buying public have recognised the advantages of all-wheel drive technology and the inherent build quality from the star-studded badge. The changes which Subaru have introduced on their new model have been very much aimed at improving what is already available, rather than reinventing the wheel.
- Automotive NetWorks, 20/12/2000