The Impreza range has been a success story for Subaru over its 19-year life. But while the hot WRX and STI variants won plenty of young fans, that crowd has never really warmed to the more suburban end of the range.
Those mainstream models have now been separated from the performance strand, given some updated restyling and a new focus on performance and fuel economy. The automatic sedan tested here is still on the conservative side of design, but has enough street appeal to give it a better chance among the hard-fought field of close to 20 rivals in the small car showroom.
The Subaru Impreza 2.0i is $23,990 with the six-speed manual and $26,490 as tested here with the Lineartronic CVT. At this entry spec level you still get six speaker iPod/USB audio, Bluetooth, cruise, climate-control airconditiong, and a 4.3-in multifunction display trip computer. That's a good equipment list, but the steel wheels with covers still say 'base model'.
But still, the Impreza stacks up well against a lot of the competition. The Mazda3 -- Australia's 2011 best-selling car -- in Neo spec at $22,330 is the main rival, although you would have to go to the new Skyactiv drivetrains to match the Impreza's fuel economy.
The class leader -- and 2010 Carsguide Car of the Year -- is the Volkswagen Polo, and for $21,490 you can get a 77TSI five-door hatch in Comfortline spec with a 1.2-litre turbo engine and seven-speed dual clutch transmission.
Toyota's enduring Corolla Ascent at $22,990 also matches close on equipment but with a weaker engine, an aged four-speed auto and style so sleep-inducing it's a danger to surrounding traffic. Mitsubishi's Lancer is a dependable alternative, at $24,190 for Activ spec. But it's getting on a bit and desperately in need of a makeover.
The Holden Cruze CD will set you back $25,040 with similar spec, and with a smaller but slightly more powerful turbo engine and six-speed sports automatic, but with a dreary interior.
After a few years in the doldrums, the Impreza has finally returned to some individuality. Nothing extreme to startle the horses, mind you, and more of an evolution than a revolution. It borrows a lot from the Subaru Liberty around the nose -- but that's not a bad thing.
And together with pronounced character creases along the sides and over the wheel arches, and a fresh take on light clusters and accents, the Impreza looks notably more interesting than the previous model.
The sedan gets a big 460-litre boot, and the only disappointment in that area is the space-saver spare in a space that could easily take a full-size one. That decision's been made on cost and fuel economy weight-trimming, but there'll be few Aussie drivers who wouldn't prefer a proper spare if asked.
The Impreza sedan tested gets a new 2.0 litre four-cylinder flat -- or 'boxer' -- engine, developing 110kW at 6200rpm and 196Nm of torque at 4200rpm, with a little more low-speed torque on tap than in the previous model.
The four-speed auto has been binned, and the engine outputs now get to all four wheels via a continuously-variable transmission (CVT) -- basically a box without gears, relying on bands to change through a continuous range of gear ratios. You can force changes with the manual mode, flicking the paddle-shifters on the steering wheel.
The CVT and the addition of stop-start technology are behind the official fuel consumption of 6.8L/100km, which Subaru says is an improvement of 22 per cent.
The Impreza gets a five-star crash rating, with a safety list that includes seven airbags, stability and traction controls and anti-lock brakes with helpers for panic stops and to distribute varying force to each wheel to counter uneven loads.
Ride quality is excllent and the sedan cabin is roomy and comfortable, with more space particularly for rear passenger legs. Moving the A-pillar forward and adding a quarter panel to the door improves visibility -- although we couldn't help wishing this base model also had the next level's reversing camera.
You can feel a tad of the extra low-rev torque on take-off, but it's not huge and this is not set up to be a performance leader. The drivetrain is angled more at laid-back than laying rubber, and the aim is to keep the fuel figure low. Impatience with the CVT undermines that if you fall into the habit of using the paddles for changes -- which had us finish a mixed run at 8.9L/100km, destroying Subaru's hard work on improving economy.
The CVT can be hesitant, but otherwise is much more refined than you'd expect -- and its low drone not as noticeable as in rivals. But coupled with the larger body, it doesn't really wring any sparkle out of the engine.
The steering wheel sends accurate instructions and returns decent feedback, and the Impreza gets through corners happily with little body roll until it's pushed beyond normal behaviour. And with Subaru's signature all-wheel drive system taking care of business, the Impreza never feels anything but confidently stable on the road.
It looks better, feels solid and gives the impression of good quality -- a bit more than a base model would suggest. A comfortable and calm little sedan that won't wreck your wallet at the checkout or the servo.
Subaru Impreza 2.0i CVT auto sedan
Warranty: 3 years/100,000km
Service Interval: 10,000km/6 months
Safety Equipment: seven airbags, ABS, EBD, EBA, TC.
Crash rating: 5 stars
Engine: 110kW/196Nm 2.0-litre 4-cyl petrol
Body: 4-door sedan, seats 5
Dimensions: 4580mm (L); 1740m (W); 1465mm (H); 2645mm (WB)
Transmission: CVT automatic; all-wheel drive
Economy: 6.8 l/100km; 91RON; 157g/km CO2