When Subaru says the Impreza is all-new, it really means it. How do the car's fresh platform and techy cabin stack up in top-spec 2.0i-S guise?
New doesn't always mean new in the motoring world. The 'new' Audi TT is actually a three year-old car with a few mid-life tweaks to the grille and bodykit, for example.
When it announced the new 2018 Subaru Impreza, though, Subaru wasn't talking about a mild refresh. The hatchback you see here is built on an all-new global platform, boasting a fresh exterior and complete interior redesign over its predecessor. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, it's kind of a big deal for Subaru.
That's not to say there aren't elements of the new Impreza that are still very 'old Subaru'. It's powered by a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre boxer four-cylinder engine, sending its power to all four wheels through a full-time all-wheel-drive system. There's no part-time, clutch-based trickery going on here, just 60 per cent of the engine's torque going to the front wheels and 40 per cent to the rears, regardless of conditions.
It also looks like a Subaru, with hawkish headlights and downturned L-shaped tail-lights bookending a bevy of streaks and slashes along the flanks. It's a winner compared to the dowdy design it replaces, but it's disappointing given the pair of concepts preceding the production car were so damn pretty.
Then again, the brand has form when it comes to letting us down with its designs. Viziv Performance STI Concept vs WRX STI, for example.
Subaru doesn't really have an excuse for the uninspiring sheetmetal, either, because the new Impreza truly is a clean-slate design. It sits on a new global architecture, and shares just five per cent of its parts with the car it replaces, carrying over a handful of hidden nuts, bolts and casings under the skin.
The new architecture is between 70 and 100 per cent stiffer than the outgoing Impreza's underpinnings, with crash energy absorption improved by a claimed 40 per cent. It also allows for a lower centre of gravity, with the goal of delivering better handling.
What it doesn't do, unfortunately, is offer the road-noise suppression you'd expect of a hatch priced close to $30,000 in i-S guise.
Road noise is intrusive on essentially any surface, forcing you to drown out the din with the stereo, while the sound of stones pinging on the undercarriage is louder, and seems to crop up more often, than on any other modern car I've driven. Maybe we just had the Impreza on a particularly stony week in Melbourne...
It's a shame because the cabin is finished quite nicely, with all the tech you could possibly expect of a modern compact flagship. Jumping from mid-spec 'i-Premium' to top-grade i-S adds $2950 to the sticker price, but brings factory satellite navigation, a sunroof, automatic headlamps/wipers, and heated leather seats to the spec sheet.
You also get blind-spot monitoring, lane-change assist, adaptive cruise control and rear cross-traffic alert atop the basic EyeSight suite offered on all Impreza variants.
The leather seats are brilliant: supportive and well-bolstered, with plenty of adjustment for taller drivers. They were perfect for a two-hour run to the AARC, with the heating a highlight. Melbourne is freezing at the moment, making a warm bum worth its weight in gold.
There's a general sense of space lacking in previous models, like Subaru has hit the car with an 'expand' ray for 2018. With 345L of space in the boot, storage spaces in the doors and under the dash, proper cupholders and a generous centre bin, you're not left wanting for places to stash your stuff.
Rear leg room is acceptable for the class, too, although taller rear passengers might struggle with longer trips. Par for the course, really.
As we discovered in our long-term Impreza Premium, the 8.0-inch touchscreen StarLink infotainment system is responsive and easy to use, with the requisite Apple CarPlay and Android Auto packed in. Subaru sources its navigation from TomTom, which means you get up-to-the-minute traffic information and routing that, while not Google Maps standard, is on a par with rival systems.
The whole thing is very 'new', but it's let down by the details: the dash-top trip computer and driver-facing screen in the instrument binnacle tread on each other's toes, for example. Sure, you get some cool details in the dash-top screen – stuff like an inclinometer – but it's redundant 99 per cent of the time, given most of the same information is on offer in the instrument binnacle.
Having the trip computer atop the dashboard was cool in my fourth-generation Liberty wagon, but there are more elegant solutions out there in 2018.
While we're talking technology gripes, the 'phone call active' graphic takes over the in-dash display entirely and can't be removed whenever you make a call, which means the digital speedo disappears. Why?
You're probably bored of talking technology by now. Sorry. With that all-new platform under the skin, and a lower centre of gravity than before – aided by the boxer engine – there's no excuse for the car to drive poorly, and it mostly delivers. The steering is pleasingly hefty at low speeds without being burdensome, and the ride waltzes the line between 'too firm' and 'pleasingly purposeful' with aplomb.
It's an independent set-up at all four corners, with struts up front and double wishbones down back, aided by stabiliser bars all round. The initial ride is relatively soft for a smooth ride on ugly, pockmarked roads, but body control hasn't suffered. Thank a quality damper tune for that one.
Given it's not a WRX or an i30 SR-style warm hatch, corner carving wasn't necessarily high on Subaru's list of priorities, but the Impreza's front-end is pointy enough, and overall grip good enough, to encourage keen drivers to crack in.
Less encouraging is the powertrain. The engine is a 2.0-litre boxer four-cylinder making 115kW of power and 196Nm of torque, the latter on tap at 4000rpm. It's matched exclusively with a CVT with seven pre-programmed steps, but more on that in a second.
Subaru claims 6.6L/100km on the combined cycle, while we saw 7.7L/100km over our week with the car. It's worth bearing in mind there was one four-hour round trip at 100km/h on the highway included in that figure, and another 90-minute freeway run. Around town, our indicated figure was closer to 8.7L/100km.
Although its power figure is essentially on par for the class – the Volkswagen Golf Highline has 110kW from its turbo four-cylinder – the lack of torque is telling. Put your foot down and there's an unpleasant flare of revs and noise, but not a huge amount of forward progress to go with it.
No-one said the Impreza is meant to be a performance car, so the fact it isn't fast is forgivable – and around town the CVT is unobtrusive in the extreme, slurring away in the background. But, as is often the case with these transmissions, it's just not a very nice thing when the throttle dips past halfway. Uninspiring is the word that springs to mind.
It's also expensive to service, even after the move to annual servicing from six-monthly increments. Subaru asks for $348.30 at the first service, $604.49 at the second and $348.30 at the third, compared to just $259 for each of the first three Hyundai i30 services. Like VW, Subaru only offers a three-year warranty compared to the five on offer from Hyundai, Holden and Honda, and the seven you get with Kia.
Being realistic, the people shopping the Impreza probably aren't buying based on long-term running costs. Subaru has a loyal following, and the fact the Impreza is all-wheel drive makes it unique in its segment, which will be enough for some. The in-car and active safety technology is nice, too, but we're left wanting more.
Subaru has the makings of a proper range-topper here, but the powertrain in the i-S drags it down. The Impreza has its strengths, but value just isn't one of them at this point in the range.