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First drive: Impreza marks ‘new era’ for Subaru

Imprezive: Subaru’s new Impreza has taken a big jump up in refinement and driving dynamics thanks to the first application of its Global Platform.

Subaru eyeing younger market and continued growth with next-generation Impreza

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Subaru logo14 Sep 2016

By DANIEL GARDNER

SUBARU Australia has high hopes for its new-generation Impreza small car and says the pioneer of its new global platform marks the “dawn of a new era” for the brand, attracting a broader and younger audience with a greater focus on safety, driving enjoyment and sporty, advanced design.

The new platform will progressively roll out to other models in the Japanese car-maker’s range and is the first all-new platform for the brand since 1989.

Speaking at the first international drive of the new Impreza in Japan last week, Subaru Australia managing director Nick Senior said it was too early to predict volumes, but the company was aiming to top the monthly sales of the outgoing model which is sitting at an average of 400 this year.

“We want to improve on that but we haven’t set any volume targets at the moment,” he said. “We haven’t set pricing, obviously. We’ll leave that as late as possible before locking that in prior to the mid-December launch.” Some of that growth would come as a result of taking sales from some heavy hitters in the small-car segment including the Volkswagen Golf and Mazda3, according to Mr Senior, but not as part of a price war.

“We’ve been a bit above them (price-wise) because a lot of those have entry-level cars and we don’t compete at that bottom end of the market, but do we see volume opportunity in the Mazda3 and Golf? Sure, but it’s not going to be at that rock-bottom $19,990 pricing.

“That’s where the potential for us is. While the Mazda in particular has an entry level, there is a significant volume in their mid- and upper-range models so that’s where we want to pitch ourselves and see if we can get a bit of that action.” While conquest sales form a significant part of the strategy, Mr Senior explained that part of a “new era” for the brand hinged on snaring a new type of buyer, made possible by a more fun, safer and excitingly styled Impreza.

“That’s part of our challenge with Impreza,” he said. “To get more younger people, more females to get into Subaru, and give them a Subaru experience that’ s enjoyable for them, hopefully then you can keep them in the brand.

“You drive around, whether it’s Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane or Perth, the number of Subarus with P plates on them is testament to the opportunity. So that’s why we concentrate on used cars and I think this new Impreza ticks a lot of the boxes for younger people that we haven’t been able to potentially tick before – infotainment, sporty, quality, design, etc.” Mr Senior explained that since the WRX broke away from the Impreza nameplate, taking the more performance-focused brand with it, the more accessible range had lost some of its reputation to be fun to drive.

However, he believes the new model would restore that perception.

“The philosophy of many of our products incorporates ‘fun to drive’ and you could probably argue that it is a little bit more overt on some. But probably the one that hasn’t, when the designers have been talking about it previously, has been the Impreza.

“If we go back the fun-to-drive element of Impreza was represented by Impreza WRX. Now the two have gone their separate ways that is why you’re seeing more of that fun-to-drive element come into the Impreza.

“The second one there is that younger audience, both male and female, which Mazda does a good job of doing. We want a bit of that.” For the fifth-generation Impreza, 95 per cent of the components are new, with only some basic fixings and fasteners remaining from the outgoing model.

The new global platform will eventually underpin all models over the course of 10 years and, in the case of Impreza, has reduced bodyroll and vibration by a claimed 50 per cent, and boosted stiffness while improving crash protection levels.

More high-tensile steel is used in the construction of the platform and includes unique innovations such as attaching the rear anti-roll bar directly to the body for reduced vibration while minimising cornering roll.

High-speed manoeuvring and stability has been significantly improved, according to Subaru, benefiting handling and driving enjoyment, while the exterior update has lowered air resistance and ensured more room in the cabin footwell and load area.

Height is reduced by 10mm but width – not including mirrors – is up 35mm for a more aggressive stance. Overall width including mirrors is unchanged.

Under the bonnet, the Impreza is still powered by a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated boxer four-cylinder petrol engine, but engineering refinements have found another 5kW, taking power to 115kW. Peak torque remains unchanged at 196Nm.

The basic transmission layout also continues, with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) sending power to all four wheels via Subaru’s trademark AWD technology, but for the new model the system has been optimised with a new 170-link CVT chain for reduced noise and reduced overall weight.

A diesel-powered version will not be made available in Australia, nor will a manual gearbox, with all versions offered with the CVT with paddle shifters to control the seven simulated gear steps.

Inside, Subaru says it has also enhanced the Impreza’s cabin quality and feel with reduced noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels thanks to sound proofing applied to “almost every part”.

A third-generation central information system connects all entertainment and comfort functions in an 8.0-inch touchscreen although entry-level versions will get a smaller 6.5-inch version. The new system supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Voice controls have been made easier to use, all versions get a more premium selection of interior materials, while top-spec versions will have a TomTom operating system navigation as standard.

Exact Australian specification is still a long way off, but a three- or four-tier line-up is expected with a top-of-the-range version with 18-inch wheels and leather interior, while the mid-range Impreza is more likely to have cloth interior and roll on 17-inch rims.

The sedan version was not available for testing on the international first drive but will launch alongside the hatch in Australia this December.

The combination of significant updates to all areas of the Impreza has resulted in a sharpened all-round small hatch that has a more attractive exterior and interior even if it sadly does not create the same allure of the Tokyo show concept that previewed it.

Overall, the styling brings the Impreza in line both with the modern range of fellow Subaru models as well as its rivals, with a certain resemblance to the Peugeot 308, while the low bonnet and forward stance is a little Mazda3.

The cabin has taken a big step in the direction of even some hard-hitting competitors with top-quality materials almost everywhere and a clean, uncluttered but appealing dash layout.

Seating is also appealing in both the leather and cloth upholstered versions we drove, and while the support on offer probably better suits a fuller figure, we felt both rows would provide excellent comfort for all occupants on long trips.

We recruited three adults to test the rear seat room and found the second row adequately accommodated the test subjects with enough head, shoulder and legroom for shorter journeys.

Subaru says styling and practicality is only part of the strategy to gain the attention of younger buyers, so we clocked up a handful of laps on a closed circuit to test the claims that the underpinning global platform has brought a new level of dynamism to the Impreza.

The final word on whether NVH levels have been dramatically improved will have to wait until a full public road test but the early indications from a track test are certainly encouraging. As expected, the silky track surface produced little road noise, but wind noise was notably absent and much improved.

Chucking the 17-inch wheeled Impreza into a few corners highlighted the development Subaru engineers have put into the platform and its tuning for the new Impreza. The ride and handling is not a raw, racing derived bone-shaker with mind-bending resistance to lateral acceleration – wait for the WRX for that – but a restrained balance of comfort and reassuring liveliness.

Steering weight is particularly good with precise control and a pleasant smoothness not unlike the Volkswagen Golf set-up but, again, a few bumps and imperfections may put more distance between them.

Jumping into the 18-inch wheel variant represents another significant improvement due to the stickier Yokohama Advan Sport rubber over the 17-inch Bridgestone Turanza T001 boots, and the addition of torque vectoring through braking.

Where only a slightly messy line through corners could provoke the smaller tyres to complain, the larger wheel package and top-spec car was mostly silent, allowing us to hold a better and faster line through the tricky late-apex turns.

If Subaru is pushing the sporty character and increased driving enjoyment behind the wheel of the new Impreza then the range-topper with torque vectoring will certainly be the pick, although both versions we drove are an impressive improvement.

Some bodyroll is possible to provoke but we found the trade-off for apparently finer road manner a good decision on the part of the development team.

The 2.0-litre 115kW horizontally opposed engine is no grenade but will serve a majority of younger owners and motorists not looking to set Nurburgring records adequately, although the flat four has to be praised for its increased smoothness and low noise.

As we have reported before, Subaru’s CVTs are among the best applications of the technology and the Impreza is no exception. Kick-down was sometimes delayed and occasionally downright defiant, but for gentler progress we enjoyed the smooth nature of the auto.

Final Australian specification and pricing will obviously play a part in its local reception next year but the building blocks for a warmer customer reaction are certainly evident in the fifth-generation model.

With fresh looks, and more fun to be had when driving enthusiastically or simply cruising, the new Impreza will serve as an admirable representative of Subaru’s critical new platform.

Performance pundits will, of course, hold fire until the inevitable WRX and hopeful STI arrive at a later date, but for drivers shopping around in the small hatch market, the Impreza has never looked so good.

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