Grace but no pace

New Im­preza may not be up to speed for some but price, top-notch safety and com­fort keep it in the game

Herald Sun - Motoring - - ROAD TEST - BILL McKIN­NON bill.mckin­non@news.com.au

SUBARU is a car com­pany that takes its own en­gi­neer­ing path.

Its hor­i­zon­tally-op­posed “boxer” en­gine lay­out, for ex­am­ple, is used by only one other maker: Porsche. Oh, and BMW’s R Se­ries twin-cylin­der mo­tor­cy­cles.

All-wheel drive is also “part of our DNA” ac­cord­ing to Subaru’s Dave Row­ley. Ev­ery­body else in this class gets by with cheap, sim­ple fron­twheel drive that does the job just fine, es­pe­cially with sta­bil­ity and trac­tion con­trol now stan­dard on all new cars.

Subaru cus­tomers, though, are a loyal bunch, in large part be­cause they like the fact their car, and their brand, is dif­fer­ent. So when Subaru re­leases a new from the wheels up model such as the 2017 Im­preza, it doesn’t change a win­ning for­mula but in­stead gives the faith­ful more of what they like. We’re in the top spec 2.0i S hatch­back, priced at $29,190.

DE­SIGN

Im­preza’s plat­form — the foun­da­tion struc­ture of the car — will form the ba­sis for all new Subarus over the next ten years.

En­gi­neers want a plat­form that’s light and rigid, so the fin­ished ve­hi­cle is strong, safe, ag­ile, smooth and quiet.

Im­preza scores on all counts. You have only to drive it for five min­utes to re­alise that in the so­phis­ti­ca­tion, strength and qual­ity of its body and chas­sis en­gi­neer­ing, it’s at the front of the class with the VW Golf.

Subaru has also put in a ma­jor ef­fort to im­prove the aes­thet­ics and qual­ity of Im­preza’s cabin, but the dash is fussy and un­co­or­di­nated, with weird an­gles, ran­dom bulges and com­plex curves all com­pet­ing with each other. It’s try­ing for an edgy, tech­nolux­ury ef­fect, sim­i­lar to Lexus, but it’s try­ing too hard.

It’s a dif­fi­cult, dis­tract­ing dash to nav­i­gate, too, with three dis­play screens (in­clud­ing an in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem touch­screen), each with its own set of con­trols. What­ever in­for­ma­tion, menu or func­tion you want is cer­tainly there — find­ing it is the hard part.

Subaru’s voice con­trol doesn’t un­der­stand sim­ple com­mands and on the test car was all but use­less.

Im­preza has grown sig­nif­i­cantly in size, so tall adults can now travel com­fort­ably in the back seat, al­beit with­out air vents.

Boot space isn’t par­tic­u­larly gen­er­ous in the hatch.

AROUND TOWN

You sit high, in a well-bol­stered, heated, leather arm­chair, with plenty of ad­justa­bil­ity. Vi­sion is clear around the car, as­sisted to the rear by a cam­era with mov­able guide­lines, blind spot mon­i­tor­ing and rear cross traf­fic alert, part of the Vi­sion As­sist radar-based pack­age stan­dard on 2.0i S.

Subaru’s Eye­sight sys­tem uses twin cam­eras to read the road and in­cludes au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing, adap­tive cruise, pre-col­li­sion man­age­ment and a long list of other ac­tive safety tech. No other car in the class has such a com­pre­hen­sive suite of driver as­sist safety fea­tures.

Im­preza’s nat­u­rallyaspi­rated 2.0-litre en­gine, matched with a CVT trans­mis­sion, does the job in town but only just. Even by the hum­ble stan­dards of this class, the Subaru is gut­less.

The CVT auto gets it off the line well enough, but the en­gine then dies, so you have to ap­ply more right boot to keep the plot rolling, and at times you won­der if the ac­cel­er­a­tion you want is ever go­ing to ar­rive. CVT doesn’t help the cause ei­ther, be­ing far too slow to re­spond.

The fact that you have to work the ac­cel­er­a­tor also means that Im­preza is fairly thirsty in traf­fic. Even with auto stop/ start, the test car recorded 911L/100km, on reg­u­lar un­leaded.

I swapped into a Toy­ota Corolla sedan straight af­ter the Subaru. Toy­ota’s 1.8-litre/CVT is hardly the last word in arm­rip­ping go-fast ei­ther, but it’s a more re­spon­sive, will­ing per­former than the Im­preza and more fuel-ef­fi­cient too.

ON THE ROAD

Im­preza’s ride/han­dling com­pro­mise is a high­light. It feels al­most French in the way its sus­pen­sion (in­de­pen­dent at both ends) glides over poor sur­faces, de­liv­er­ing a smooth, sup­ple, quiet ride while main­tain­ing dis­ci­plined con­trol over body move­ment and se­cure road hold­ing.

It’s not a sporty drive, but Im­preza can string a se­ries of cor­ners to­gether in style, aided by light, pre­cise steer­ing, a low cen­tre of grav­ity and all-wheel drive. The in­side front wheel is au­to­mat­i­cally braked in cor­ners, keep­ing the nose tucked in tight and min­imis­ing un­der­steer.

The en­gine’s short­com­ings are less ob­vi­ous in cruise mode, where it’s smooth and silent, re­turn­ing 6-7L/100km at a steady 100km/h. Over­tak­ing isn’t what you would call brisk, though, and on steep hills the CVT has to park the tacho at 4000 rpm or more to main­tain mo­men­tum. Cruise con­trol also takes aeons to re­sume your set speed af­ter an in­ter­rup­tion.

You can use the shift pad­dles to ac­cess a seven “ra­tio” shift map, but here the CVT is a slow learner, too.

VER­DICT

The 2017 Im­preza is a good thing let down by a medi­ocre driv­e­train. The en­gine just doesn’t have enough torque, while the CVT is in­ef­fi­cient and un­re­spon­sive, largely be­cause it has pre­cious lit­tle per­for­mance to work with.

Subaru might like to do things dif­fer­ently, but de­cent per­for­mance is a pretty uni­ver­sal re­quire­ment. Im­preza is the Cap­tain Slow of small cars.

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