The tale of Subaru Impreza is like ugly duckling meets groundhog day.

Repeatedly, it's styling has swung from pretty to pretty awful, drop dead gorgeous to drop kick.

Honestly, Subaru has got it right this time - really right - and now I'm scared that the next model is going to look like a chewed suitcase. So a message to Subaru - just don't play with it.

The sedan is now a balanced car in terms of style, has a neat nose and an interior - and particularly the dash - that is almost perfect, has soft-feel materials, is streets ahead of most rivals and belies the car's sub-$24,000 entry price.

Even the engine is better, performance is good and fuel economy is back among the pack after previously having a reputation of being something of a lush.

VALUE

Really good. It's only when you stack the Impreza 2.0i up against similarly-priced rivals - Mazda3, Holden Cruze and Toyota Corolla - that you see it equals them on most things, wins on some but gives very little ground away. 

The fact it's all-wheel drive, now has a spacious interior and boot, has loads of features - Bluetooth, six speaker iPod/USB audio, cruise and a trip computer - for the price makes it close to a bargain. Not much point in up-speccing here because the lower priced Impreza models have it all.

DESIGN

After two - and more - years, finally a shape that looks good in your driveway. Impreza takes the good bits of big-sister Liberty but discards the slab-side look in favour of deep side glass, crease lines through the doors and eyebrows raised over the wheelarches.

As mentioned, the soft-feel dash is light-years away from the previous Impreza's hard-plastic, satin-black finish that, at best, cheapened the car. The boot is big - again - and though there's a space-saver wheel, there's room for a real one. So why isn't there a real one there?

TECHNOLOGY

The 2-litre engine appears to be the same but is a long-stroke version as Subaru aims to lift low-speed torque and reduce fuel consumption - both long-standing sticking points with its flat-four mill. With a modest 110kW/196Nm it works and is now on par with rivals. Fuel consumption is a claimed 6.8 L/100km which thrashes most rivals (see comparison box).

The four-speed auto has gone in favour of a CVT auto - effectively a gearbox without gears so it's smooth and fuel efficient - which is great but needs a tweak, while the all-wheel drive remains the Impreza's core advantage.

SAFETY

No surprises that this is a five-star car when crashed. It gets seven airbags. all the electronic brake aids, has all-wheel drive for extra safety but that space-saver spare shouldn't be there.

DRIVING

A manual gearbox would show up the difference more but there's definitely more grunt of the mark than before. That makes driving the new Impreza a lot easier. The CVT auto has a great improvement on the previous wide-spaced four-cog auto. But it can sometimes ``hunt'' while cruising and show some initial hesitation when accelerating. It needs a bit of tweaking but in the overall scheme, still works well.

One major change is the stance of the Impreza. It feels far more confident on the road, corners with more accuracy than before and the ride comfort - thanks in part to very comfortable seats - is excellent. It drives like a more expensive car and the engine - while a few more kiloWatts wouldn't hurt - is more than adequate for its target market.

VERDICT

It's now amongst a (very small) handful of base model, small sedan cars that I'd consider buying. I actually disliked returning it to Subaru.