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Car reviews - Subaru - Impreza - RV 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Creates its own niche, distinctive look, all-wheel drive, absorbent ride
Room for improvement
Not suited to off-road work, blunted engine performance, notchy manual gearshift, temporary spare tyre

Subaru logo20 Feb 2002

DESPITE vast improvements brought with the all-new Impreza launched some 12 months back, the niche range of small, well-kitted, all-wheel drive cars has failed to live up to expectations.

The official line from Subaru Australia is that the car is a victim of its own success.

We are told that strong demand in North America is the reason sales have slipped Down Under, as well as the fact that the range-topping WRX was without an automatic transmission for the first 11 months.

But there are other reasons for the lacklustre sales performance. The premium pricing, controversial appearance and an influx of excellent new rivals have all had an impact. And with the WRX, blame can also extend to a lack of special editions, rising insurance premiums, the crash of dot.com companies and the softer engineering focus.

To its credit, Subaru has responded. The flow of cars is said to have improved and the "Rex" has both dropped in price and added more equipment.

Yet like never before the all-wheel drive specialist has swung its attention around to the run-of-the-mill (normally aspirated) Imprezas.

The range now has a higher-performance 2.5-litre RS, for example. An expensive, but nonetheless excellent, little sedan.

And exceeding all expectations in its short time on the ground here is the Outback-inspired RV.

This is the sort of thinking that will resurrect the Impreza range. While the base GX and sports RX models must continue to fight a bloody battle in the small-car colosseum, the RV in particular has turned up with enough differentiation and appeal to stand firm in its corner of the market.

The basic idea was to dress up the Impreza hatch to resemble the strong-selling Outback wagon and let the combination of all-wheel drive, dual-range transmission (on manual variants) and a comprehensive features list speak for itself.

And it works. The sand-coloured bumpers, wheel arches, side skirts and rubbing strips give its off-road pretence some clout and tie in well with sports details like the large front fog lamps, rear spoiler and 16-inch alloy wheels.

The interior, too, has an appealing two-tone treatment to the dashboard and doors as well as a thick grade of grey cloth on the seats.

Leather did not make it onto the gearshift or steering wheel, the glovebox cannot be locked and the driver's sun visor could do with a little mirror stuck on the back. But details like this take some finding.

On the whole, the RV has enough convenience and safety features to make the high sticker price palatable. Consider the inclusion of air-conditioning, remote central locking, CD stereo, cruise control, electric windows and mirrors, variable intermittent wipers, dual airbags and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS.

All-wheel drive is there as well, a defining trait of the star-studded brand and one which provides the Impreza with reassuring traction and control across all manner of surfaces.

We should reiterate these are road conditions we are talking about here, not four-wheel drive tracks. While American versions feature heavy-duty raised suspension, Australian-spec RVs have the same mechanical package as the other non-turbos. As a result, ground clearance is kept to 150mm and even modest off-road work is best left to the imagination, even with low-range reduction.

That said, there could be no disputing the superb ride and handling traits inherent in this car. The ride is extremely well controlled and generally absorbent across our pockmarked landscape, grip levels are huge thanks to AWD and 16-inch Bridgestone rubber, and the steering is both informative and accurate, if a little too light.

Refinement? Better than all previous Imprezas and now nearing the best in class.

As with all Subaru models, a horizontally opposed ("boxer") engine also forms an important part of the overall appeal. In this case, power is derived from an SOHC 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine that can muster 92kW at 5600rpm and 184Nm at 3600rpm - attractive figures for the small-car class, although in real terms performance is no more than average.

Again, the Australian model must do without the 2.5-litre engine found on its American cousin.

Commendable structural reinforcements with the latest generation and four-wheel drive components are the most obvious impediments to a quick turn of speed (and fuel consumption), forcing the 1320kg RV to languish at low engine speeds and leave the driver will little choice other than to go in search of more torque.

This brings the light, less than precise manual gearbox into action and once up past 3250rpm the clean-revving engine shows a greater willingness to please - though at all times the car still feels overweight.

The kilos take their toll on the brakes, too, showing insufficient resistance to fade on our demanding test drive. There is, however, the added reassurance of ABS and a good level of composure and power during emergency stops on dirt and bitumen alike.

Assisting situations such as these are head restraints and three-point seatbelts in all positions (the centre-rear uses an awkward twin-buckle arrangement) as well as excellent seat support for the front occupants.

The driver benefits further with full-seat height adjustment, simple and uncluttered instruments/controls and a good view of the road.

Acceptable room in the critical areas is provided for rear seat passengers although storage options are poor and the folding rear seatbase would be better served with a 60/40 split and underside protection as seen on the seatback.

There's also no rear power socket or a full-size spare to make this a bona fide recreational vehicle.

But, really, it does not need to be.

Impreza RV is a clever attempt to cash in on the global appetite for rugged road-goers.

Considering the sting seems to have gone out of the WRX tale, this new chapter could be just what Subaru needs.

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