Ford Focus VS Subaru Impreza
- Great chassis
- Surprising engine
- Optional advanced safety
- Better tyres would be nice
- Too many optional colours
- Sturdy AWD road feel
- Standard safety
- Good value
- 2.0L and CVT a bit dull
- Missing hybrid variant
- A bit thirsty
Ford's small hatch, the Focus, is criminally under-bought in Australia. The latest model is one of the best hatchbacks on the road and when you chuck in the decent price, impressive equipment and absurdly powerful engine for its size, it's a winner.
But you lot? You don't buy it in nearly the kinds of numbers it deserves. Partly because there isn't a bait-and-upsell boggo model to lure you in, partly because it's got a badge that is not exciting Australians any more and partly because it's not a compact SUV.
Or is(n't) it? Because alongside the ST-Line warm hatch is the identically priced and therefore technically a co-entry level model; the Focus Active. Slightly higher, with plastic cladding, drive modes and a conspicuous L on the transmission shifter, it's a little bit SUV, right?
|Engine Type||1.5L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Regular Unleaded Petrol|
Subaru is now known best for being an SUV brand that doesn’t really make SUVs.
Now the Liberty mid-size sedan has reached the end of its long run in Australia, the Impreza hatch and sedan represent a little slice of Subaru’s past. The range has been updated for the 2021 model year, so what we’re set on finding out is whether the storied Impreza badge should take your eyes away from more popular rivals.
We took a top-spec 2.0i-S for a week to find out.
|Fuel Type||Regular Unleaded Petrol|
Ten years ago, the idea that the higher-riding version of a hatchback would be a good city car would have been laughable. The Focus Active is pitched as a kind of SUV with its different low-grip driving modes, which you'll never touch if you stick to the city.
The Ford Focus is genuinely a brilliant car, no matter where you take it. The Active takes a terrific chassis, tweaks it for comfort but, ironically, doesn't lose much of the speed.
Sturdy, safe, and comfortable, the Subaru Impreza continues to cut its own path as a little, lowered-SUV with all-wheel drive in the hatchback space.
Unfortunately, in a lot of ways the Impreza is a shadow of its former self. This is a car calling out for some sort of engine and tech upgrade, be it a smaller turbocharged option or the new ‘e-Boxer’ hybrid. Time will tell if it survives another generation to evolve into what it needs to be in tomorrow’s market.
For a fairly conservative hatchback, the Focus came under fire for what some termed its derivative styling. I quite like it, and not just because the styling work was led by an Australian. The front end is very much family Ford, as long as it's the European arm of the family, fitting in with its smaller sibling, the Fiesta. The Active scores the usual black cladding, higher ride height and smaller diameter wheels, in exchange for more compliant, higher-profile tyres. All of that takes nothing away from a design that I think looks pretty good.
The cabin is well put together, with just that oddly angled touchscreen causing me a bit of a twitch. The design is a fairly steady Ford interior with a lot of switchgear shared with the Fiesta, but it's all quite nice. The materials feel mostly pleasant and the hardwearing fabric on the seats feels right for this kind of car.
Subaru plays it very safe for the Impreza’s latest update, with a gently re-worked grille, new alloy wheel designs and, well, that’s pretty much it.
For a hatch, the XV is already safe and inoffensive, wearing some swoopy lines down the side, but otherwise adhering to the brand’s chunky and squared-off side and rear profiles. It’s set to please people who find the Mazda3 too extreme, or the Honda Civic a bit too sci-fi.
If anything, it’s hard to tell this top spec apart from the rest of the range, with only the larger alloys as the big give away.
The inside of the Impreza is nice, with the brand’s hallmark steering wheel, an abundance of displays, and comfortable seat trims well and truly present. Much like the XV, Subaru’s design language really takes its own path here, away from rivals.
The steering wheel is an excellent touch point, and everything is really adjustable, with plenty of room, even for larger adults. Soft trims extend from the centre console, across the dash, and into the doors, making the Impreza’s cabin a relatively attractive and comfortable place to be. All but the lowest spec get a similar interior treatment, a testament to the value within the range.
The only issue here is it feels a little less agile, and maybe a bit too SUV-like from behind the wheel. Everything in the interior layout feels a little exaggerated, and while this works for the SUV pretences of the XV, it does feel a little out of place here in the lower-riding Impreza.
The Focus is quite roomy compared to other cars in its class. The rear seat has good leg and headroom, with the feeling of space accentuated by large windows. Annoyingly, though, all that work put into making the rear a nice place to be is ruined by a lack of amenities like cupholders, USB ports or an armrest.
Front-seat passengers fare better with two cupholders, a roomy space at the base of the console for a phone and a wireless-charging pad. The front seats are very comfortable, too.
The boot starts at a fairly average 375 litres - clearly sacrificed for rear-seat space - and maxes out at 1320 litres with the seats down. While you have to lift things over the loading lip and down into the boot, it's one of the more sensibly shaped load areas, with straight up and down sides. Ironically, the smaller Puma has a noticeably larger boot.
The Impreza does a good job of looking and feeling like a box on wheels, and this makes for a pretty practical interior. Despite big chunky seats and lots of padded trim points, the cabin proved to be a spacious and adjustable environment, with thought given to places for objects.
There’s a large trench in the doors with a bottle holder on either side, two large cupholders in the centre console, a large console storage box with soft trim on top, and a small bay underneath the climate unit. It seems as though a wireless charger could go here, but there isn’t one yet available in the Impreza range. There’s also no USB-C, with two USB-A outlets, an auxiliary input, and a 12v power outlet featuring in this location.
The large, bright touchscreen is easy to use for the driver, and practical dials for all the important functions are joined by perhaps one-too-many steering wheel controls to make functions easy to operate while driving.
The Impreza’s cabin is notable for the amount of room on offer in the rear seat, where I have airspace for my knees behind my own driving position (I’m 182cm tall), and there’s plenty of width here, too. The middle seat is perhaps less useful for adults, with a large transmission tunnel taking up much of the space.
Rear-seat passengers can make use of a single bottle holder in each of the doors, a set of cupholders in the drop-down armrest, and a single pocket on the back of the front passenger seat. Despite the amount of room on offer , there are no adjustable air vents or power outlets offered to rear passengers, although the nice seat trim continues.
Boot space comes in at 345-litres (VDA), which is small in the case of the XV, which purports to be an SUV, but a little more competitive in the case of the Impreza. For the record, it’s larger than the Corolla but comes in smaller than the i30 or Cerato. There is a space-saver spare wheel under the floor.
Price and features
The Focus Active wears a $30,990 sticker but the several people I know who bought one haven't paid that much, so Ford dealers are obviously keen to do deals. Even at that price, it's got a fair bit of stuff. The Active has 17-inch wheels, a six-speaker stereo, dual-zone climate control, reversing camera, keyless entry and start, front and rear parking sensors, cruise control, auto LED headlights, LED fog lights, sat nav, auto wipers, wireless hotspot, powered and heated folding door mirrors, wireless phone charging, a big safety package and a space-saver spare.
Ford's SYNC3 comes up on the 8.0-inch screen perched on the dashboard, which weirdly feels like it's facing away from you slightly. It has wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, sat nav, DAB+ and also looks after various functions in the car.
The panoramic sunroof is a stiff $2000 and includes an annoying perforated cover rather than a solid one.
Being the top-spec, our 2.0i-S hatch wears a before-on-roads cost (MSRP) of $31,490. You’ll note this tops out quite a bit below many of its rivals, and notably a significant margin below the equivalent XV ($37,290), which is simply a lifted version of this car.
Traditional top-spec rivals include the Toyota Corolla ZR ($32,695), Honda Civic VTi-LX ($36,600), and Mazda 3 G25 Astina ($38,790), and there is also now the ever-popular Hyundai i30 N-Line ($31,420) or Kia Cerato GT ($34,190) to compete with.
You’ll note all those rivals are front-wheel-drive, of course, giving the AWD Subaru a bit of an edge from the get-go, although unlike some of its rivals, even this top-spec misses out on a more powerful engine.
Equipment levels across the board are good in the Impreza, although it is missing some of the more modern tech items that feature prominently in rivals.
Standard stuff on our top-spec 2.0i-S includes 18-inch alloy wheels in a new design for this year, an 8.0-inch multimedia touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, sat-nav, DAB radio, a CD player, a 4.2-inch multi-information display, a 6.3-inch multi-function display, dual-zone climate control, push-start ignition with keyless entry, full LED exterior lighting, leather-accented seat trim with heated front seats, and an eight-way power adjustable driver’s seat.
While this Subaru arguably already has too many screens, the top-spec car is missing a fully digital dash or a head-up display, which many of its rivals now feature. There’s also no truly premium audio system, so you’re stuck with Subaru’s tinny one, and a power adjustable passenger seat would be nice, too.
Still, it’s a significant discount from the equivalent XV, and undercuts many rivals, so it's not bad at all on the value front.
Engine & trans
Ford does an excellent range of small turbo engines. The "normal" Focus range (such as it is, now the wagon has disappeared from the market) comes with a 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine. Bucking the SUV-this-size trend (yes, I know it's not really an SUV), this punchy little unit delivers an impressive 134kW and 240Nm. They're both very decent numbers for such a small engine.
The big numbers continue with the transmission boasting eight gears, a number you don't often find in a hatchback. It's a traditional torque-converter auto, too, so those of you who have bad memories of Ford's old PowerShift twin clutches should worry no more.
Power goes to the front wheels only and you'll get from 0 to 100km/h in 8.7 seconds.
The Impreza soldiers on with just one engine choice, a 2.0-litre non-turbo horizontally opposed ‘boxer’ producing 115kW/196Nm. These figures wouldn’t be so bad in most hatches, but this engine has to contend with the added burden of the Impreza’s all-wheel-drive system.
Speaking of which, Subaru’s all-wheel drive is always on and theoretically “symmetrical” (as in, it can send about equal torque to either axle), which is generally preferable to the “on-demand” systems used by some rivals.
Ford's official testing for the big window sticker delivered a 6.4L/100km result on the combined cycle. In my time with the Focus, I got 7.2L/100km indicated on the dashboard, which is a pretty solid result given the Focus spent a good deal of the time on suburban or urban roads.
With its 52-litre tank, you'll cover around 800km if you manage the official figure, or just over 700km on my figures.
The downside of having standard all-wheel drive is weight. The Impreza tips the scales at over 1400kg, making this all-wheel-drive hatch one chunky unit.
It has an official claimed/combined consumption of 7.2L/100km, although our testing returned a decidedly disappointing 9.0L/100km over a week of what I’d consider to be “combined” testing conditions. That's not great when many much larger SUVs are getting the same or better consumption. An argument for a hybrid variant, or at least a turbocharger, perhaps?
At least the Impreza will drink entry-level 91RON unleaded fuel for its 50-litre tank.
Despite the very mild off-road pretensions, if it's a comfortable city ride you're after, the Active is the Focus to have. While the ST-Line isn't uncomfortable - not by a long way - the Active's more compliant tyres and higher ride height (30mm at the front and 34mm at the rear) iron out the bigger bumps without sacrificing much of the sportier car's impressive dynamic prowess, even with the low-rolling-resistance tyres.
The cracking 1.5-litre turbo is responsive and well-matched to the eight-speed auto. The big torque number pushes you along the road and makes overtaking much less dramatic than a 1.5-litre three-cylinder has any right to.
Ford's trademark Euro-tuned quick steering is also along for the ride, making darting in and out of gaps a quick roll of the wrist, which has the added benefit of meaning you rarely have to take your hands off the wheel for twirling. That darting is aided and abetted by the engine and gearbox, with the turbo seemingly keeping the boost flowing with little lag. It's almost like they planned it that way.
You have good vision in all directions, which almost renders the fact that the blind-spot monitoring is optional acceptable. Almost. It's very easy to get around in, easy to park and, just as importantly, easy to get in and out of. Compared to, say, a Toyota Corolla, the rear doors are very accommodating.
Like all Subarus, the Impreza has a lot of nice characteristics granted by its all-wheel-drive system, fairly organic steering, and comfortable ride. It’s sturdy and reassuring on the road, and while it misses out on the ride height of its XV sibling, it still possesses a comfortable suspension tune.
In fact, the Impreza is just like the XV, but more engaging and reactive, thanks to it being closer to the ground. If you don’t need the ride height, the Impreza is the better pick.
Thanks to that lower height, there’s also better body control for the Impreza in the corners, and yet it deals with potholes and road imperfections seemingly just as well as its raised companion. Indeed, the Impreza’s ride is preferable in urban scenarios to many of its sporty rivals, if you’re looking for a softer edge. It’s also a breeze around town or when parking, with great visibility and good camera coverage in this top-spec version.
The engine and transmission are less pleasing, however. The 2.0-litre non-turbo gets the job done for urban commuting, but it’s a thrashy, noisy unit, which needs to fly up the rev range to provide adequate power in a lot of situations. It’s not helped by the rubbery response from the continuously variable transmission, which is particularly average. It just sucks the joy from what could have otherwise been a fun and capable hatch.
It’s a shame to see there’s no hybrid “e-Boxer” version of this car, as the hybrid version of the equivalent XV is a little more refined, and the electric drive helps take some of the edge off the underpowered engine. Perhaps it might arrive for this car’s next iteration?
When venturing out of town, this Impreza offers a contrast of excellent active-safety features for the freeway, with a notable drop in refinement over 80km/h. Still, its ride comfort and chunky seats make it a decent long-distance tourer.
Overall, the Impreza will suit a buyer who is looking for something a little more comfort-oriented than its rivals, plus the security and safety of all-wheel drive.
The Active has six airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, forward AEB (low speed with pedestrian avoidance and highway speeds), forward collision warning, lane-departure warning, speed-sign recognition and active lane-keep assist.
Annoyingly - and I can't for the life of me work out why this is a thing - despite some advanced safety features in the base package, you have to pay $1250 extra for blind-spot monitoring, reverse cross traffic alert and reverse AEB, which are part of the Driver Assistance Pack. No, Ford is not the only company to do this.
The back seat has two ISOFIX points and three top-tether anchors.
The Focus scored five ANCAP stars in August 2019.
Subarus have been notable in recent years for their unique and impressive ‘EyeSight’ safety system, which uses a stereo camera set-up to to host a suite of active-safety functions.
Included are auto emergency braking (works to 85km/h, detects cyclists, pedestrians, and brake lights), lane-keep assist with lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, reverse auto braking, lead-vehicle alert, and adaptive cruise control.
The 2.0i-S also has an impressive suite of cameras, including a side and front-view monitor to assist with parking.
The Impreza has seven airbags (the standard front, side, and head, as well as a driver’s knee) and features the standard array of stability, brake, and traction controls, with the addition of torque vectoring via the all-wheel-drive system.
It’s one safe mainstream hatchback. Unsurprisingly the Impreza carries a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, although it is dated all the way back to 2016 when this generation launched.
The first five services cost $299 each and also include a free loan car and a 12-month extension to your roadside assist membership for up to seven years.
Subaru covers its cars with an industry-standard five-year and unlimited-kilometre promise, although there are no boons or frills to this, like free loan cars, or the transport options offered by some rivals.
One thing Subaru isn’t known for is low running costs, with the Impreza’s yearly or 12,500km service visits being relatively expensive. Each visit will cost between $341.15 to $797.61 for a yearly average over the first five years of $486.17, which is painfully expensive compared to, say, Toyota’s Corolla.