The Impreza turns sensible but who is going to buy it?
Subaru is either extremely brave or taking a very big risk. With its new hatchback Impreza, it's deliberately moving away from the established and passionate following on which the outgoing model has thrived. So it’s farewell big wings and bonnet scoops and hello sensible hatchback styling and sensible, normally aspirated powerplants. But if it doesn’t cater for Subaru fans who on earth is going to buy it? After years of providing durable transport for country folk the combination of rally success and the rise of the PlayStation generation introduced Subaru to a whole new audience. And now high streets across the land resound to the thugga-thugga beat of stickered-up Imprezas with dustbin-sized exhausts. Meanwhile a small but loyal band of country vets and farmers pound the lanes in their ever dependable non-turbo Subarus, keeping the brand’s core values alive. Coming up with a car that satisfies such disparate markets while at the same time gaining mainstream acceptance is one hell of a challenge. Subaru has obviously been wrestling with the problem for some time but the decision has been made and, for now at least, the Impreza is turning its back on its turbo nutter image and attempting to take on the mainstream C-segment. Subaru calls it ‘sports casual’ but whether owners are ready to ditch their tracksuits for chinos is another matter.
Is being boring the price of mass acceptance?
For a brand with a less than 1 percent market share in the UK, Subaru has huge profile. But with just over 7000 sales last year bosses acknowledge things are not going well, admitting 'last year was a disaster for us.'. Strong words for a Japanese company. And while a hardcore fanbase will happily lay down cash on anything with blue paint, a big spoiler and gold wheels, Subaru knows long-term survival means going beyond niche appeal. Enter the new five-door Impreza. Subaru fundamentals like a flat-four engine and all-wheel drive remain but the new car is aimed squarely at the C-segment, with favourites like the Honda Civic, VW Golf and Mazda 3 firmly in its sights. But can buyers really be convinced the extra complexity and running costs of a four-wheel drive chassis are worthwhile? Well they’re not going to be turned on by the styling, that’s for sure. After horrors like the second-generation ‘bug eye’ Impreza and the jaw-droppingly ugly Tribeca, Subaru has sensibly played it safe with the new Impreza. But has it gone too far? Is it just too dull?
So why can’t I have a saloon version any more?
Subaru is stressing functionality with the new Impreza and the new hatchback-only format certainly delivers practicality by the bootload. Shorter overall than the outgoing model, the wheelbase has been stretched by 95mm and the track widened by 50mm. Elbow room and rear legroom have grown by corresponding amounts and the boot is a generous 538 litres in capacity. The trunk's a bit shallow compared with front-wheel drive rivals though, for which you can blame the need to accommodate a rear differential. But there's an all new double wishbone rear suspension set-up to offset this, with much less intrusion into the load area than the previous strut configuration. The engine and gearbox are mounted 10mm lower in the chassis to further improve the low centre of gravity the flat-four configuration brings. And in another move likely to upset Subaru purists, the trademark frameless doors have gone. Sacrilege! The engineers insist this has been done for practical reasons and that the doors now have bigger apertures and open wider as a result. But the loss of such a distinctive design quirk means the Impreza loses some of its character. Such is the price of progress...
Are we getting the WRX or not?
Subaru UK was adamant there would be no WRX turbo version for the UK market. Then word slipped out that certain dealers had accepted orders and confusion reigned, not helped by Subaru denying this had ever happened and firmly jumping on the story. So do we get a WRX or not? We do, but only in limited numbers and you’ll have to wait. Subaru reckons we'll get 1000 or so cars in total with deliveries starting later this year - plus an additional 1500 STI versions coming from spring 2008. But the focus is very much on the normally aspirated models, so to begin with you’ll have the choice of a 1.5 or 2.0 petrol, the latter offered in two spec levels. A diesel will follow next year, on which Subaru is pinning high hopes. But for now the 2.0-litre is the hottest version you’ll be able to buy. And with 148bhp and 145lb ft of torque fans of hot Imprezas are going to be seriously underwhelmed. It's less Richard Burns, more Montgomery Burns.
There must be something to get excited about on the new Impreza!
In sportier RX spec you get bucket style seats, 17-inch wheels and a bodykit with rear diffuser style valance incorporated into the bumper. But with a 0-62mph time of 9.6 seconds, your socks are in little danger of being blown off. In some ways the more modest 1.5R is a bit more fun. Subaru imported a small number of previous-shape Imprezas with this engine and was amazed at the speed with which they sold out. And while the smaller boxer engine is rather gutless there is a certain amount of fun to be had out of wringing the neck of an underpowered car such as this. Do that and you won’t feel the benefit of the smaller engine’s more modest 37.6mpg combined fuel consumption (the 2.0 manages an unspectacular 33.6mpg), but the difference between the 1.5 and 2.0-litre is subjectively smaller than you might think. You’ll have to wait for the WRX if you want the real Scooby experience though, the new car using an updated version of the current car’s 2.5-litre turbo flat four. Tuned to an identical 227bhp, peak torque of 236lb ft will come in at 2800rpm rather than 3600rpm.
OK, so it’s not very fast. But is the new Impreza still fun to drive?
In this respect Subaru fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The steering is faster than before, with a 15:1 ratio rather than the 16.5:1 on the outgoing car. So it turns in sharply enough but there is little in the way of feel and the amount of front end grip is left to guesswork. It’s not all bad though. Running a nominal 50:50 split through the central viscous coupling the Impreza’s trump card is of course its four-wheel drive. And on the bumpy, slithery Czech back roads we drove for the launch you could really feel the benefits. The long-travel suspension deals superbly with lumpy tarmac, traditionally one of the reasons the Impreza works so well on broken British B-roads. The new rear set-up is especially impressive and the excellent body control enables the Impreza to really hammer home the traction advantage of its four-wheel drive chassis. On loose or slippery surfaces you can feel the power being shuffled to the rear wheels, neutralising initial understeer and offering a real sense of security in the ability of the chassis to deal with less than perfect tarmac. Which means it should perform brilliantly here in the UK.
So has Subaru finally made a car with a decent interior?
Er, no. One Impreza tradition we would happily have seen consigned to the past is the prevalence of hard plastics and low-rent switchgear found inside previous versions. But for whatever reason Subaru has missed the opportunity to move the game on. This is a tad worrying considering the quality of the competition the Impreza is aiming at. Cheap-feeling switches, some big gaps between panels and acres of moulded plastic are not going to win over buyers accustomed to the current crop of European hatchbacks. Given Subaru’s reputation for toughness it’s probably a lot more durable than it feels but that vital perception of quality is sadly still missing. Ergonomically it all works well though, the seats firm and supportive and with plenty of adjustment. RX models get standard-fit sat nav and both 2.0-litre models benefit from stability control, wiper de-icers and xenon lights. All models get front, side and curtain airbags, climate control and a low-range gearbox, making the £12,495 asking price for the 1.5R pretty keen.
Despite Subaru’s stated aim of mainstream appeal, the new Impreza retains the quirkiness that has always been so appealing in previous versions. That character extends to the driving experience, which offers a truly unique range of attributes ideally suited to UK back lanes. But whether the majority of drivers will appreciate these qualities, or be prepared to accept the penalties in luggage space and fuel consumption, is another matter. For mass appeal the Impreza desperately needs a competitive diesel engine (in the pipeline, but not here yet...), while enthusiasts will bemoan the lack of a turbo version. Both will come eventually but a delay in either could cost Subaru dear.