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Car reviews - Subaru - Impreza - 2.0R 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Value, safety, refinement, space, practicality, improved cabin quality, quietness
Room for improvement
Garish grille, front seat lumbar support, only four speeds for the auto, vague steering, too much bodyroll

14 Feb 2008

SOMETIMES people just need to look forwards and not backwards. Case in point: the latest, third-generation Impreza.

Stylistically, it is such a radical departure from what we know of the series.

Just in case you have been stuck on Mars for 15 years, the original 1993 Impreza caught our attention with its elegant styling and then kept us hooked for the rest of the decade, thanks in no small part to a turbocharger, all-wheel drive and Subaru's towering success in the World Rally Championship.

Subaru cobbled this car up from the original Liberty/Legacy and did a mighty fine job of creating a very grown-up-feeling small car.

Impreza version 2.0 from late 2000 baffled people with its gawky styling, but proved to be a very capable thanks to a whole host of refinements. Despite the styling, the MY01 Impreza was a much better Corolla alternative.

Now we come to the all-new model. No more wagonoid hatch, but a regular five-door hatchback that could come from any number of rival manufacturers.

Looking at the overall design, the BMW 1 Series, Mazda3 and even the Daewoo Lanos (from behind, apparently) have all been mentioned. We seem to be one of the few that actually like it, although that fussy nose treatment does the Subaru no favours at all.

But is the MY08 Impreza really so different to its distinguished predecessors?

Get past expectations of a rally-winning, fire-breathing small-car David against a Porsche-style Goliath, and another likeable little car emerges.

Better still, compare the base R model against its mid-$20K competition such as the Mazda3 Maxx, Toyota Corolla Conquest, Mitsubishi Lancer VR, Ford Focus LX and Holden Astra CDX, and the Impreza suddenly and emphatically starts to make a lot of sense. It even shines in areas such as value, refinement, comfort, security and quality.

Like all Australian-market Subarus, this Impreza offers all-wheel drive. This came in extremely handy during torrential summer rains and proved – if proof was needed – the benefits of all-wheel drive. You can drive the car as if the roads are dry.

Although thirsty – 11.0 to 11.4L/100km around the suburbs is certainly nothing to write home about - the revvy 2.0-litre four-cylinder boxer engine is quicker than its rather languid take-off acceleration suggests, as long as the driver is determined with the right foot.

It is quite easy to be caught out by the Impreza’s (lack of) low-speed inertia, so be prepared to pile on the revs.

Once past about 3000rpm, the performance really lights up, all the way to the redline, providing the Impreza with a strong turn of speed accompanied by the boxer engine’s familiar thrum – although Subaru has done a fine job in keeping actual mechanical, wind and road noises from entering the quiet cabin.

The cheaper five-speed manual is a better bet than the four-speed automatic gearbox (despite its welcome Tiptronic-style gate), making the most of the engine’s elastic power delivery. It is a nice shifter, mating well with the light and easy clutch.

Lots of standard gear – like six airbags, ESP stability control, four-wheel drive, four-wheel disc brakes and traction control – helps keep the Impreza on the move in check.

Then there is the interior presentation. Surely it is no worse than most rivals, despite what some critics have said.

Yes, there is some sheeny plastic trim to contend with, but the dash is a solid, sensible effort, with some thoughtful material and trim use to lift it above the usual small-car fare. We reckon it is classier than the Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Holden Astra and Mitsubishi Lancer.

We like the front seats, although more lower back support (a manual lumbar device would be nice) would be appreciated, and the new model’s extra back seat space is a move in the right direction.

There is an excellent ventilation system and the driving position is great, backed by ample steering wheel and seat adjustment. And we understand and accept – owing to the all-wheel drive mechanicals underneath – why the luggage area is a little higher than most front-wheel drive rivals.

For the dough, the R gives you good features like cruise control, a fuel consumption read-out, outside temperature gauge, power windows, electric mirrors, remote central locking, 16-inch steel wheels, map reading lights, a lovely three-spoke steering wheel and a plethora of storage areas.

About the only cabin annoyance concerned the infuriating squeak from the rear parcel shelf, which drove us to distraction.

We do not really like the Impreza’s vague steering, either, or how the soft suspension set-up of the R results in plenty of lean through corners. Just to be sure, we rolled out a Focus LX and found the Ford to be far sharper and more dynamic than the squishy Subaru.

Still, this is not meant to be the sporty model and the supple ride, long-travel suspension and general cabin isolation from road, wind and mechanical noises are further plus points.

This is the first Impreza with a sophisticated multi-link rear suspension and it imbues the Japanese small car with sure-footed dynamics. In fact, the excellent Liberty mid-sized family sedan kept coming to mind, and in some ways this car feels like a smaller hatchback version of that car.

In the end, we grew fond of the base-model Impreza. Subaru clearly intended to create a more mainstream small car, so it probably shouldn't surprise that the R might be the best of the lot.

Forget all the baggage and expectation of previous Imprezas and take this car at face value. In our books, it represents exceptional value.

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