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
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.
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.
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.
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.