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‘Do something you love’ is Subaru’s catchcry for the 2017 Impreza which lobbed into Australia within days of Christmas 2016, a chapter fresh and emphatically ‘all-new’ enough in the nameplate’s history that we dubbed it the biggest generational change in the small cars’ decades.
It’s easy to imagine that same catchcry was briefed to Subaru’s designers from up on high when tasked with styling from an essentially clean sheet, particularly given only five percent of the new car’s physical being would carry over from the old generation.
Those charged with the look of Impreza could shoot for the moon this time around, and given how subjectively patchy the small cars' near three-decade-old styling heritage has been, they damn well should have. And, initially, they did.
The Coupe and Sedan concepts of Tokyo and LA shows respectively, circa 2015, were the handsome and stirring Imprezas Subaru fans had long hoped for. The revelation in design was such that I asked one of Subaru’s design team point blank at the Japanese show if the Coupe Concept before us on display really, truly portrayed the 2017 production car with accuracy. He assured me with much conviction that it did.
Fast forward and, of course, the production car is hugely letdown measured against conceptual promise. In metal, the new Impreza apes the online dating cliché: it doesn’t look nearly as good as its (out-dated) profile picture.
Now, the new four-door doesn’t look bad, per se, it’s just that our flagship 2.0i-S test car and my first personal introduction to New Impreza is a dead ringer, down to colour and rim choice, to the 2016 New York production car that was frankly such a letdown after the promises of the stylised 2015 Tokyo sedan concept. Naturally, I’d suspected the rest of the showroom package might also drop the proverbial ball.
Turns out I was half right, half wrong. Here is an Impreza that moves the game forward markedly in some areas, gains little to no ground in others. It’s better, if not the best that it could perhaps otherwise be.
We’ve covered off the broad stroke updates in reports past: the new modular platform, the smarter all-wheel-drive system, the lift in tech, a more premium touch throughout and a generally more value-laden proposition across the range given the aforementioned combined. Today, specifically, is the chance for the top-spec 2.0i-S Sedan to shine under a critical spotlight.
First, pricing. At $28,990, the 2.0i-S is a modest step up from the 2.0i Premium ($26,290) if a huge leap beyond the entry 2.0i ($22,400. But, the measure of its value for money is perhaps best looked at against the 2.0i-L which, at $24,490 and one rung up from base, we described as the sweet spot in the range in its recent garage review. The 2.0i-L also scored a commendable 8.5 out of 10 rating in our recent three-way comparo against Civic and Corolla.
Equipment wise, and with the L as a reference point, the extra $4500 spend on the S version adds factory sat-nav to the 8.0-inch touchscreen-based infotainment system (which is CarPlay and Android Auto compatible across the range), a sunroof, auto headlights and wipers, leather seat trim with heating, a go-faster bodykit, 18-inch wheels, full LED headlights and the Vision Assist suite of features that includes blind-spot monitoring, lane-changing assist and rear cross-traffic alert. As a bundle, it looks a premium reasonably well spent, then.
Worth consideration, though, is that the $4500-more-affordable L already gets a rear-view camera, proper climate control (as opposed to air con), the up-spec 8.0-inch touchscreen, and a want-for-little list of equipment that includes the impressive EyeSight bundle of radar-based cruise control, lane-departure warning and pre-collision braking.
Also, the S doesn’t offer anything extra – torque vectoring apart – underneath the skin, in terms of powertrain, suspension and braking, despite wanting for a 20 percent hike in price.
Some of the extra outlay is invested in making the tree-topping S version look faster – let’s call it ‘tentatively sporty’ – yet none if it goes into improving forward progress. And for herbs under foot, the Impreza breed is workmanlike at best.
Yes, it’s a mostly new engine, but even with impressively trim sub-1500-kilogram kerb weight the modest 115kW and 196Nm works very hard and quite boisterously for its keep. Mated to a CVT rather than a conventional automatic transmission, the powertrain combination provides workmanlike motivation, if not a lot else.
There’s enough torque to make do keeping up with most driving demands, but side-street departures, overtaking and merging manoeuvring takes patience, planning or both.
Where the powertrain suffers, though, is that without torque-imbuing forced-induction, barely 200 Newtons arrive way up at 4000rpm, which is where the CVT pins the tacho needle – complete with the strained howl of the engine exhaust – during almost any attempt at decent acceleration. Effortless it most certainly isn’t, and there's no manual option available.
Sure, there’s the SI-Drive system that fiddles with the throttle calibration and the behaviour of the CVT and its so-called ‘seven speeds’, but these are small Band Aid fixes for a powertrain that firmly places tractability, effortless and flexible usability on the back foot.
For instance, the relationship between throttle input and output delivery is completely non-linear, where an initial burst of response is thereafter met with no change in response regardless of how the right pedal is treated. Flex the right foot and the Impreza changes noise and fanfare to a more dramatic degree than it does actual vehicle velocity.
That said, the boxer-four and CVT performance is handy enough for ambling around town or maintaining pace on the highway – it’s no less potent than naturally aspirated Impreza boxers past. And regardless of how often you wring its neck, the two-litre unit returns between low seven- to low eight-litre-per-hundred consumption. And it’ll run on 91RON if necessary (95RON recommended).
The steering is quite heavy and at times laborious at low speed but lightens up with faithful weighing the higher the road speed. For a new electric system, it seems tuned to feel much like a hydraulically assisted design. Tip into a corner, and the front end of the Impreza tracks well and points with consummate accuracy provided you don’t push on too hard...
The chassis is the real highlight of the package, improving what’s long been a handy breed. But in fitting in with the family all-rounder theme, the rest of the package – the powertrain, the modest grip – doesn’t really inspire you to explore what’s clearly the car’s highlight.
Look, much is made of all-wheel drive being the great inhibitor of grip, but the road-holding anchor remains the tyres. The Impreza does a reasonable if unheroic job of mustering up adhesion in corners. It’s no WRX-alike (itself something of hamstrung dynamic performer).
What Impreza does have, and where it plies its all-paw talents commendably, is in poise, balance and handling neutrality. If the road gets wet and slippery, or if you’re driving across broken surfaces, this new chassis is very friendly and responsive to driver input – long the Subaru strong suit. And controllability for the driver is about as fundamental a safety feature as there is.
Ride comfort is fairly decent but where new Impreza lifts its game most noticeably over the old, is the suppression of vibration and noise, and the degree of isolation between the cabin and the road surface. It’s a generally more solid and comforting driving experience beyond the actual tuning of the suspension dampers.
Overall, the on-road experience leans more towards leisurely and, dare I say, more mature tastes, though Subaru admits to be aiming more at younger buyers with this new Impreza generation, and the evidence is no more conspicuous than on the treatment to the interior.
If added size, or at the least the sensation of it, makes for the better, then the Impreza is certainly on a winner.
Sat in the front row, in either seat, it feels a larger car than it actually is. Part of the impression is the sheer size of the glass, the thickness of the long A-pillars and the depth of the dash, with its myriad lines and layers that seem to tumble down into your lap.
In your forward viewpoint, there’s a lot going on with a ‘chunky’ design that’s busy and overtly stylised while avoiding looking like some sort of garish '80s portable stereo system.
Yes, there’s a lot of plastic, much of the metal-look switches and doodads unconvincingly so. Though, the premium feel in the Subaru ethos means making the most of soft touch points and the Impreza does a commendable job, even though the surfaces, down to the leather trim, aren’t quite properly premium in tactility. As far as upmarket vibe, it’s bloody impressive for the money.
The front seats balance comfort and support nicely, and the multifunction wheel is one of Subaru’s best to date, though adjustment for taller drivers makes reaching for the central stack controls, including the 8.0-inch touchscreen, a real stretch.
Proprietary sat-nav as well as CarPlay and Android Auto phone mirroring facilities is handy, and while infotainment is hardly cutting edge, the system is quick and functionally fit.
If there’s a specific gripe to the interior design, it’s the use of the different fonts and graphics for its elaborate array of displays, particularly in the three-screen configuration where there’s little cohesion from one screen to another.
We’ve described the cabin as “hard to fault” in reviews past, but this ‘smorgasbord’ approach to information displays, buttons and switches leaves the Impreza feeling a bit faux-premium. Over-styled, perhaps, but a lot of buyers seem to love it…
The roomy second row completes the sense that Subaru is all out to bust the ‘small car’ mould by making Impreza feels as large – as ‘mid-sized’ – as possible. That said, headroom is impacted somewhat by the sloping roofline and it’s mystifying why a segment so clearly aimed at moving families (even on a budget) lacks rear ventilation.
And youngsters might struggle to see out due to the upswept window line, though generally, outward visibility is pretty good. Meanwhile, boot space is a handy 460 litres.
For running cost, the 2017 Impreza range spearhead’s a much more palatable 12-month or 12,500-kilometre servicing schedule, an improvement over the below-par six-month/12,500km intervals that remains the burden of Forester, Outback and Liberty ownership.
Our test car’s costs total $1301.08 projected cost to the conclusion of its three-year/36,000-kilometre capped-priced servicing program: $348.30 for the first and third service, $604.48 at the 24mth/24,000km interval, which is at the pricey end of servicing in segment. Warranty is three years with no kilometre cap.
Seven-airbag surety and a five-star ANCAP rating round out a package that, in top dog S spec, wants for precious little for equipment and features, and by that measure alone its sub-$30k ask seems an absolute bargain. And in outright terms, perhaps it is, but don’t part cash without having a good look at the L for significant drop in price and, for our money, more impressive value.
The goodness of the chassis is offset by the lacklustre powertrain, and while the combination has that ‘about right’ fit in more affordable Impreza variants it does leave the top dog a bit undercooked.
That said, the more upmarket push, and the improvements in general comfort and refinement, moves the Impreza evolution onwards, if only to about where it needs to be, rather than presenting revolutionary leaps ‘all new’ might otherwise suggest.