The Subaru Impreza was once one of the stellar performers in the small car class, but the popularity of the Subaru XV crossover has dented the sales fortunes of the Japanese brand's hatch and sedan.
Part of the problem for Subaru is undoubtedly its pricing. The Impreza range kicks off at $23,990 driveaway - cheaper than it was when it launched here in 2012, but still over the odds when you can buy any of the aforementioned base models from about $21,000 on the road.
But the Subaru’s main point of difference is that is has all-wheel drive as standard.
The company’s symmetrical all-drive system ensures that, unlike almost every single rival it plays against, drive is sent to both the front and the rear wheels at all times. The idea is that it will have better traction, and therefore better safety, if the road surface gets slippery.
There’s no denying that it works, but the added cost means the car will always be priced above its rivals. Add to that the fact many people probably may not necessarily care about the availability of all-wheel drive, particularly as the advent of potentially-life saving standard safety technologies like stability control means front-drive cars are often just as adept at remaining under control in dangerous situations.
Indeed, the greater majority of buyers certainly don’t think AWD is necessary when buying an SUV (in spite of the XV’s success). That aside, the Impreza offers some food for thought in the busy small car segment.
Available in identically-priced sedan and hatchback bodystyles, the Impreza range kicks off at just below $24K with the entry-level 2.0i model, which is available with a six-speed manual gearbox, while an automatic Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) adds $2000. The next model up is the 2.0i-L priced from $25,300 plus on-road costs for the manual and $27,300 for the auto.
The model tested here is the range-topping 2.0i-S, which comes in at $30,990 and is available solely with a CVT. That lines it up close to the likes of hatchbacks such as the VW Golf 103TSI Highline ($32,290), Hyundai i30 Premium ($30,490), Ford Focus Sport ($31,690), Mazda 3 SP25 GT ($30,590) and Toyota Corolla ZR ($30,990).
The cost of entry grants the 2.0i-S niceties such as 17-inch alloys, an electric sunroof, side skirts and rear spoiler (the latter for the hatchback only), leather seat trim, power seat adjustment for the driver, sports pedals.
Those elements are added over the 6.1-inch touchscreen media unit with satellite navigation and reverse-view camera also offered on the 2.0i-L. No parking sensors are available on any Impreza model.
The media system can’t match competitors for ease of use, not to mention ease of visibility. The menus are small and not too easy to read – particularly on the move – and the actual touch zones are small, meaning you may end up accidentally selecting the wrong radio station. However, the Bluetooth phone and audio streaming works well, despite being a little fiddly to connect (you need to select audio streaming from a separate menu once your phone is connected wirelessly).
Thankfully, a 2015-model update is due to arrive in the next 12 months with a new 6.2-inch touchscreen system which should be added as standard across all models, and also give the base model a reverse-view camera (currently the touchscreen and back-up camera are available from the mid-spec up).
The front seats are comfortable but the leather material used is slippery, and there is not much in the way of built-in bolstering to keep you in place.
The rear seats are comfortable but flat, too, though there is decent space, even for taller adults. A lack of rear air-vents is annoying, though.
Storage is exceptional through the cabin, with large door pockets all-around, twin cup holders up front, a covered storage bin and flip-down armrest with cup holders in the rear.
The boot, though, is short on space thanks a shallow floor, with 340 litres of space with the seats in place, and 771L with the seats folded down.
The interior is nicely put together and a generally comfortable place to be, but its presentation can’t match newer, more premium-feeling cockpits seen in the likes of the Volkswagen Golf, Mazda 3 and even vehicles such as the Kia Cerato, Hyundai i30.
Under the bonnet is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder ‘boxer’ petrol engine. With peak power of 110kW at 6200rpm and peak torque of 196Nm not reached until 4200rpm, the engine never feels overly punchy from a standstill, unlike turbocharged rivals such as the Cruze and Golf. However, when you put your foot down at higher speeds the engine is perky enough.
Around town, the drivetrain isn’t as loveable.
It can feel sluggish and the CVT plays a part in that regard, stumbling somewhat at low speeds and low revs. There’s a notable lurching, particularly upon sudden throttle application, though if you’re smooth with your right foot (which isn’t always possible).
Fuel use during our test was close to the claimed combined figure of 6.8 litres per 100 kilometres, and over more than 500km of testing across urban, highway and traffic crawl duties, we saw 8.0L/100km.
The Impreza’s AWD system does enamour it with extra traction, which was notable in a back-to-back comparison against a front-drive rival on some greasy roads. In the dry, its 17-inch Dunlop SP Sport tyres also offered decent grip when pushed hard.
The traction also means it hangs on quite well around corners, though the steering can feel too heavy around town and too light on the motorway.
The ride proved comfortable on the highway, though those bigger wheels and thinner (50-aspect) tread sours the urban ride somewhat, as the suspension can thump over potholes.
On the ownership front, Subaru Impreza models require servicing every 12,500km or six months, with an average annual fee of $726 per annum for the first three years (CVT models) – higher than most competitors. All Subaru models have a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty.
In summary, there are better, more affordable small hatchback all-rounders on the market – unless all-wheel drive is a priority for you.
Shop around, though, because with an updated model due in 2015, we’d suggest there could be Impreza bargains to be had – and there’s a case to argue for the more affordable 2.0i-L, which offers plenty of the same gear, but is more affordable still.