Car reviews - Subaru - Impreza - sedan/hatch range
Ride comfort, flat cornering, improved interior quality, low cabin noise, decent specification, lives up to economy claims
Room for improvement
Notchy manual and whiny CVT, engine could do with more punch, boot space not the best
24 Feb 2012
SUBARU has maintained the Impreza small car’s strong points of safety, value for money and of course, all-wheel-drive grip and stability but addressed one of the previous model’s failings: poor fuel economy.
It has also worked to improve interior quality, never a Subaru strong point and ever more vital in the face of Volkswagen’s aggressive growth and the leaps and bounds being made by the Korean competition.
Subaru Australia managing director Nick Senior said the new Impreza’s improved fuel efficiency (by up to 22 per cent) takes it from close to the bottom of the class to close to the top and proves that all-wheel-drive does not necessarily equal thirst.
Subaru has maintained the Impreza’s opening price point, with modest price rises for the mid-level, top-spec and optional automatic transmission, which is now a continually-variable tranmsission rather than the dated four-speed unit used previously.
The company claims that with the value of standard all-wheel-drive factored in, the Impreza offers better value for money than most rivals and goes “toe-to-toe” with the Mazda3, something a glance at the specification sheets can verify.
All variants come with seven airbags and a five-star ANCAP safety rating, standard climate control, cruise control, six-speaker CD sound system with iPod, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, height and reach steering wheel adjustment and two interior 12-volt power outlets.
Uprgading to the L and S variants adds dual-zone climate control, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and gear shifter, a reversing camera, front centre armrest, front fog lights and rear privacy glass.
Of the three launch variants, we drove the entry-level sedan with the CVT automatic and the mid-spec L hatch with the six-speed manual transmission plus optional satellite navigation and sunroof.
Top-spec S variants are CVT-only but apart from that, the main specification differences are mainly cosmetic, although the S also gets larger 17-inch alloy wheels compared with the 16-inch alloy items on the L or 16-inch steel wheels of the base model.
The big news comes with the combined-cycle fuel consumption figure of 6.8 litres per 100 kilometres for CVT models – a 22 per cent improvement – while six-speed manual variants consume 7.1L/100km, a 20 per cent reduction over the old car.
When comparing these figures against the competition, of which only the Ford Focus, Holden Cruze (1.4 turbo) and Volkswagen Golf are notably more efficient, remember the Impreza is also working against the extra weight and friction of its all-wheel-drive system.
Unusually for a launch drive programme, we found Subaru’s efficiency claims held up in the mixed driving conditions presented by our journey through Adelaide and nearby Barossa valey. Both manual and CVT variants registered fuel consumption in the low sevens, despite not being driven with economy in mind and as mentioned later, full use of the Impreza’s throttle travel and rev-range employed.
The more efficient new engine, which maintains the 110kW/196Nm power and torque outputs of the previous-generation unit, can claim 25 per cent of the credit for this new-found frugality, helped by improved aerodynamics and the wider range of ratios offered by the CVT and six-speed manual tranmsissions.
But the big news is the standard fitment of idle-stop across the range, which cuts the engine when the car is stationary and starts it again just in time to pull away. Subaru reckons the technology can mean the engine is turned off for up to 30 per cent of the journey time in rush-hour traffic.
Subaru has even fitted the Impreza with a display that measures the amount of time the engine has been turned off for and how much fuel this has saved, along with other fuel-efficiency tracking data designed to encourage drivers to drive economically.
Styling-wise, the Impreza is quite derivative of other small cars, adding a Liberty-inspired front-end to mark it out as a Subaru. The effect is likely to ensure the wider appeal of the conservatively-styled predecessor is maintained, but it is a more chunky, masculine design that looks just as good as a sedan or hatch when viewed in the metal.
Inside, Subaru has definitely upped its game. Whereas previous efforts appeared to be trying too hard and featured a mish-mash of textures and finishes, the effect of the new car is to instil a sense of quality and solidity, with soft-touch coverings for much of the upper dashboard and a pleasing texture to the harder plastics located lower down.
It is a simple, non-distracting layout with clear instruments and the audio system (replaced with a touch screen where the optional sat-nav is fitted) and ventilation controls located nice and high and a central status display atop the centre of the dash. The overall blackness is broken up with silver-ringed dials (chrome on the S) and a metallic-finish trim strip above the glovebox.
The door bins are quite small but include notches for carrying drinks bottles, cupholders are present and correct, the glovebox is a decent size and a deep cubby is located beneath the central armrest. Rear passengers get door bins and one seat-back map pocket, with cupholders located in the armrest.
Rear passengers get more room than before owing to a longer wheelbase, but the admittedly extreme test of positioning the seat for your 186cm-tall correspondent and then attempting to get comfortable on the back bench meant knees brushing the seat in front, although the contact point was well cushioned and there was plenty of foot room.
Up front the seats took us some time to adjust for a decent driving position – unfortunately a Subaru bugbear – and a lack of thigh support for taller drivers was disappointing and we have concerns over the ability of the Impreza’s softly-cushioned seats to provide long-journey comfort.
Once positioned as comfortably as possible, visibility is good, with the far-flung windscreen moving the A-pillars out of the way and mirrors placed behind front quarterlight windows opening up even more visibility, making negotiating roundabouts and right-hand bends far easier than in most modern vehicles.
Boot space is limited at 340 litres for the hatch and 460 for the sedan, which employs dated goose-neck hinges that can rob further space.
On the move in the manual, round-town progress is adequate but not speedy, with pleasantly light accelerator and clutch actions complemented by a progressive brake pedal feel and confidence-boosting stopping power.
We found the gearshift a little notchy, with a narrow gate that led to us accidentally selecting fifth gear instead of third more than once but we feel things may improve with familiarity and once the transmission loosens up with use.
On the manual Impreza, the idle-stop system requires the driver to select neutral and take their foot off the clutch, a bit of a chore if getting away promptly on a green signal is preferred but again, something that would become natural with practice. CVT variants simply shut down the engine when the car is stopped with the brake pedal pressed, firing it up again as soon as the brake is released.
A long uphill stretch at freeway speeds exposed the 2.0-litre engine’s lack of grunt, meaning it had to be mostly taken with the accelerator flat to the floor in fourth gear and in the undulating, curvy roads of the Barossa valley both transmission and engine must be worked hard if progress is to be made.
However the trademark Subaru boxer thrum means this is no means a chore as revving the engine beyond 4000rpm elicits a tuneful and not overly-suppressed note from beneath the bonnet.
The CVT, in addition to the usual traits of allowing the engine to howl around the tachometer, came with a pronounced whining sound. Paddle-shifters provide six simulated manual ratios, making the driving experience better, although the car tends to surge between upshifts.
It also quickly defaults do ‘drive’ mode if paddles are not regularly used, meaning it suddenly jumped the equivalent of two ratios mid-bend but this is remedied by slotting the gear selector into manual mode.
Twisting country lanes revealed the Impreza’s fuel-saving electric power steering to have a feel and feedback-free zone around the straight-ahead, making it quite boring to drive on gently curving roads, although it loads up nicely on tighter turns and provides more feel to the fingertips when most needed.
Despite a comfortable, absorbent ride that irons out most undulations with aplomb, the Impreza takes corners commendably flat thanks to its low centre of gravity and beefy anti-roll bars and remains impressively composed when faced with mid-corner bumps or ridges.
The Impreza has fairly neutral cornering characteristics when pushed, with the all-wheel drive traction pulling it cleanly out of bends under power – which no doubt will add confidence in the wet – but it feels as though the car would benefit from grippier tyres, at least on the 16-inch wheels as tested.
Road and wind noise are well suppressed, although those huge mirrors do cause some rustling at higher speeds and only when driving on the coarsest of coarse-chip bitumen did we experience intrusive road rumble.
Subaru has done nothing with the new Impreza that will upset the die-hard fans, while further broadening the car’s appeal to other potential small car customers. Its value-for-money and fuel-efficiency equation is clear to see and its unique all-wheel-drive ability makes it stand out from the crowd.
So this update means the Impreza remains a strong contender, if not quite class-leader, in the fast-growing and highly competitive small car market and for that Subaru deserves credit.
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