Now with five doors instead of four, wheelworldreviews editor DAVID HOOPER puts the latest version of one of his all-time favourites to the test – but will it live up to his expectations?
SUBARU’S Impreza has always been one of my favourite cars. It, and the Mitsubishi Evo. I spent many a Saturday afternoon as a youngster watching them tackling the world’s rally and stages, with one or other of them usually coming out on top.
Former World Rally Champion Colin McRae, who died in a helicopter accident a few years ago, was usually at the helm of a Prodrive prepared Impreza WRC, in its traditional blue and gold colour scheme.
Road-going versions of the rally cars were thrilling to drive. With four-wheel-drive and around 300bhp apiece, they were both very fast and slightly edgy. They had attitude – they were almost fierce to the extent that you felt that if you overstepped the mark, took one liberty too many, they would bite.
But with the latest generation of both these iconic cars, things have changed – a lot. They are now much more grown up, refined, almost docile. Yes they are still both very fast and very capable, but you no longer need a back-to-front baseball cap perched on your head to feel comfortable driving one.
So what of the new Impreza. What was once a four-door saloon with one of the biggest spoilers you’d ever seen perched on the boot lid, is now a sensible five-door hatchback. Yes, it’s still got a big spoiler stuck to its rear end, but it is more discreet.
The distinctive air intake in the bonnet is still there, as are the flared wheel arches, while at the back, under the bumper is an aerodynamic splitter with four exhausts (two each side) sticking out the back of the car.
In its bright red paintwork, it’s a great looking machine, which, from some angles, reminded me of the Lancia Integrale – another rallying legend.
Open the door and you are met by a typically Japanese interior. While it’s not up to German standards, it is perfectly acceptable and seems to be reasonably well screwed together, although there was some plasticky chafing going at the back of the car somewhere. It is well equipped, with climate control air conditioning, a decent music system, electric windows and mirrors and all the creature comforts you might need, but this car is all about the driving experience.
Turn the key with the door open, and its 2.5-litre five cylinder Boxer engine fires up, immediately putting a silly grin on your face. Close the door though, and it’s much quieter than in the Imprezas of old.
Driving around town reveals a compliant, comfortable set-up which manages to soak up most of the potholes left by the recent cold spell. So long as you don’t allow the revs to climb beyond the 2,500 mark, it’s as easy as a Ford Fiesta, but the best fun is to be found above that level, when the big turbo comes on stream. Then you discover what this car is all about. The break-neck acceleration is unleashed, with the 0-62mph dash being dealt with in a mere 4.9 seconds and if you blast through the gears, the Impreza reels in the horizon at a terrific rate of knots. Of course, you can almost watch the fuel gauge drop, and with a C02 figure of 243g/km, it means your annual road tax costs over £400. I think the car itself, however, is good value for money. At just over £27,000, it’s about £3,000 cheaper than the cheapest Evo, its arch-rival, and a couple of hundred less than the Focus RS.
The driver can chose from three different settings by means of a dial on the centre console, just in front of the gearstick. An “Intelligent” mode turns on a gear-change indicator to help you drive as economically as possible, while Sport and Sport Sharp settings do what they say on the tin. Further complications can be found by adjusting the centre differential to the point of locking it completely, which you may want to do in snow, but I left it in the Auto setting most of the time.
At cruising speeds, on A roads or motorways, for example, the Impreza is as quiet and refined as they come, but it was on one of my regular test routes, on a wet Saturday afternoon on damp, greasy and occasionally mud-coated B roads, where its true breadth of abilities impressed the most. There were no dramas, no sliding and squirming around, no wheels scrabbling for grip, and hardly any intervention from the traction control – just a composed performance from a very capable car which would have left most rivals trailing in its wake, especially out of the slower corners. Just a week before, I’d driven a rear-wheel drive Mercedes E-Class along the same route, much more slowly, and I didn’t feel nearly as relaxed as the flashing traction control light was on as much as it was off as the car tried to put less power through its rear wheels. Even the Focus RS, which impressed me hugely with its clever front axle, can’t match the Impreza’s traction.
In the Subaru however, there isn’t really enough drama. The famously delightful noise from the Boxer engine on full song can hardly be heard any more – and I missed it. And the response from the lower-geared steering rack isn’t as instant as it once was. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not as sporty, but at least after my cross-Lincolnshire sprint, the Impreza looked like a proper rally car, lathered in wet mud from the wintry roads.
Impressive as ever then, the Impreza is still a formidable piece of kit that will get you from A to B quickly and safely. Only now, it does it in a more refined, grown-up, mature and sensible way.
THE VITAL STATISTICS
MODEL: Subaru Impreza 2.5 WRX STI 5-door.
IMPREZA RANGE: From 1.5 R 5dr (£13,495) to 2.5 WRX STI 5-dr (£27,245).
ENGINE: 2,457cc, 300PS four-cylinder engine, driving four wheels through 6-speed manual gearbox.
CO2 EMISSIONS: 243g/km.
PERFORMANCE: Top speed 155mph. 0-62mph in 4.8 secs.
Fuel tank: 60 litres.
INSURANCE: Group 19.
WARRANTY: 3 years/60,000 miles.