Subaru Impreza

Is the new-look Subaru Impreza a hatch winner?

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3.0 out of 5

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The new Impreza represents a huge shift in direction for Subaru – but we’re not convinced of its appeal. It lacks the character of its predecessor, and brings little to the hatchback sector. If you want all-wheel drive, it makes sense – especially at £12,495 for the entry-level 1.5 R. Yet its rivals are more accomplished. Still, a top-of-the-range WRX STi is due in the spring, while a saloon is also on the cards.

If you thought the Impreza badge stood for big spoilers and booming exhausts, think again. Subaru is radically changing its famous model in a bid to appeal to more mainstream buyers.

The firm hopes to double Impreza sales in three years – no small challenge when you consider the original car’s enormous popularity.

With its rally inspired styling and powerful engines, the previous saloon earned the respect of enthusiasts. At one stage, turbo variants accounted for nearly three-quarters of the Japanese machine’s total demand.

Yet with the third-generation car, the manufacturer has taken a bold new direction. It aims to return non-turbo models to volume sales, and take the range upmarket at the same time. Gone are the saloon shape and boxy looks, replaced by an all-new five-door hatchback that’s intended to compete directly with the likes of the Honda Civic and Volkswagen Golf.

The styling will certainly court controversy. The front end is neat, and the strong waistline crease has echoes of BMW’s 1-Series, providing an air of solidity. But while the car has a tidy profile, the rear appears rather fussy, and overall, it’s neither a memorable nor inspiring design.

The look is enhanced slightly on the RX model we drove. It adds front and rear spoilers, side skirts, 17-inch alloy wheels, a chrome exhaust and a rear bumper diffuser.

As the sportier variant, the RX also gets bucket-style seats – although they do little to lift a drab cabin domi-nated by large expanses of grey, brittle plastics. The switchgear and column stalks are far from upmarket.

The driving position is a little too high but, thanks to a longer wheelbase, rear space is better than in the previous model. With a 538-litre boot capacity, the latest Impreza is more practical than before as well.

For now, engine choice is limited to only two petrol units, putting the Subaru at a big disadvantage. But an all-new 2.0-litre diesel is due in next year’s Legacy, and will later appear in the Impreza. For those seeking more performance, a 227bhp 2.5-litre WRX limited edition arrives in November.

Our car’s normally aspirated 2.0 unit is carried over from the previous generation. It has been tweaked, and now offers improved mid-range pull. The torque output is up by 10Nm to 196Nm, although power has dropped from 158bhp to 148bhp.

The pay-off is better economy and lower emissions. On the move, the engine still has to be worked hard to make swift progress, although things improve at motorway speeds, and the characterful exhaust note remains. In contrast, the 1.5-litre feels sluggish and slow to rev, and we’re not convinced by the merits of offering a high and low-range transfer box in a hatch.

Thankfully, the Impreza retains its handling capabilities. A new platform with a wider track and lower-placed engine keeps body roll in check. There’s plenty of grip through bends, turn-in is precise and the ride quality superb.

So this is a competent car – but the new Impreza lacks sparkle, and there’s little to make it stand out in the hatch market. It’s not as involving to drive as its predecessor and, aside from the all-wheel-drive set-up, there are few selling points.

While it can’t match the class leaders for quality or style, the Mazda offers excellent value and decent driving dynamics. What’s more, there is a diesel option – essential for success in the competitive family hatch market.

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