Subaru continues to evolve the Impreza hatchback away from the brand's rallying heritage, delivering the fifth generation of car to wear the marque's most recognisable nameplate, but one that is as far away from something capable of taking on an Irish tarmac rally stage as it's possible to get. However, Subaru believes its core attributes of all-wheel-drive traction, the traditional 'boxer' engine, impeccable safety and near-unimpeachable reliability should keep buyers interested in the sturdy Impreza MkV.
In the Metal:
The Impreza sits on the Subaru Global Platform, a new chassis that will underpin all of the marque's products in the near future. This allows the body of the new Impreza to be bigger than the old model, but what you can't see is that it's also stronger and much more rigid in torsion - in fact, up to 100 per cent stiffer than its predecessor, by some measurements. That means it's extremely tough and exceptionally safe, the Impreza recording the highest-ever NCAP safety marks awarded to a car in crash tests conducted in its native Japan. Aesthetically, Subaru's designers have done a good job of making the styling of the new model much easier on the eye than the old car, but that's not the highest bar to have to clear in the world and so we'd stop a long way short of saying the Impreza MkV is actively attractive; you might even say it's a bit bland, a bit too safe, a bit too Opel Astra. Be that as it may, the Impreza is certainly not ugly.
If the exterior is unlikely to please all of the people for even some of the time, as the old adage goes, then rejoice in the interior. Subaru's cabin finishing team has put in some serious overtime here. Despite the fact the company says it needed to keep durable materials in play, mainly because traditional Subaru owners subject their cars' interiors to hard lives that would make a valeter weep, you'll spend an age trying to find any scratchy plastics or substandard switchgear. It all looks and feels really good, while there's a lovely, logical layout to the main controls and ancillaries. OK, eventually you'll find the buttons for the infotainment system are a little ropey in terms of their haptics, although you can bypass those by using the touchscreen itself, while the fake carbon fibre around the door handles is a bit obnoxious, but in general this is light years ahead of where the Impreza was previously. It's also, as a direct and beneficial corollary of its new underpinnings, more than roomy enough within for a quartet of adults, and there's a larger boot that has a wider aperture with which to access it than before - so practicality levels are high.
Irish Subaru buyers get just one 1.6-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine for the Impreza. That's teamed to Subaru's symmetrical all-wheel drive and the brand's 'Lineartronic' continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is more like a conventional torque converter automatic than most CVTs. That 1.6-litre motor produces a mere 114hp and 150Nm. Now, if you're looking at those stats and thinking they're modest in this day of forced-induction downsizing, then... well, you'd be right. And 'modest' is perhaps kind on the 1.6, which is so torque-light that 'bashful' might be a more appropriate word for its anaemic performance. It means you have to thrash it remorselessly on a regular basis and, while the Lineartronic is good up until a point and the smaller capacity engine remains velvety smooth from idle to redline, the drivetrain makes a strained racket at full revs that is the hallmark of something with CVT and a low-output petrol engine. It's really not pleasant.
And you'll need to employ full revs, because otherwise the Impreza 1.6 is almost a slow-moving hazard to other traffic, so lethargic is its acceleration. You're either forced to choose between driving like an octogenarian priest or having your hearing impaired by the engine at maximum rpm, and even if you go for the latter, you won't be moving quickly. Without a shadow of a doubt, the Impreza's main weakness is its lack of a choice of decent engines and gearboxes.
Quite a big problem, we're sure you'll agree, but it's made doubly exasperating once you sample the car's handling and general dynamic behaviour, because this is a corking new platform that gives the Impreza nigh-on unbreakable grip and traction, as well as cultured cruising manners. There's very little in the way of noticeable body roll, absolutely no understeer (in truth, you just don't have the power with the 1.6 to get it to wash wide either on the way into or out of a corner), really pleasing and communicative steering and impressive noise suppression that means, on a cruise, it's slightly too much tyre roar that you'll hear most readily of all. Indeed, the drivetrain is actually quite pleasantly muted, up to about 4,000rpm, so if you've already got it rolling at motorway speeds - which'll take some time, as we've already established - then the Impreza turns out to be quite a likeable machine. Especially as the firm-but-fair ride comfort levels are impressive for something with fixed-rate springs and dampers.
What you get for your Money:
There are two specifications for the Impreza in Ireland, which are S and SE. The former starts at €25,995 and comes with Subaru's EyeSight stereo cameras safety system incorporating six driver assist technologies (including adaptive cruise control), heated front seats, auto air conditioning, a 6.5-inch touchscreen Starlink infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto included and 16-inch alloy wheels. The SE, for €4,000 more, adds Subaru Rear Vehicle Detection (Blind Spot Detection, Rear Cross Traffic Alert and Lane Change Assist), high-beam assist with automatic LED steering headlights, bigger 17-inch wheels, keyless entry and go, privacy glass and a bigger eight-inch touchscreen for Starlink that allows for a rear-view parking camera.
The problem is, the Impreza's CO2 emissions figures mean it's not particularly cheap to run, the 1.6 SE turning in 145g/km and 44.1mpg; stick to the S and the CO2 figure drops to 140g/km, which does shift it down to Band B2, meaning €290 per annum. These running costs are partly because of the four-wheel-drive system the Impreza has as standard and, as no rivals save for the much more expensive Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A-Class offer four-wheel drive on their non-performance C-segment products, then the Subaru could be said to be something of a bargain, as it's a lot less money than anything German with five doors and a usable boot.
Some areas of the new Subaru Impreza, such as its equipment levels, its smashing interior, its fantastic chassis and its continuing unique (at a sort of affordable price) offering of AWD, make it looks like it's going to be easy to recommend. But, silky smooth as the 1.6-litre engine is, otherwise it is deeply flawed and the fact of the matter is the Impreza just doesn't have the right drivetrain to make it a strong contender in this class.
For a small percentage of the population who place safety, reliability and traction above all else, the Subaru is a sensible choice; for us, though, and for the new customers the company must attract if it is going to grow sales as it wants to, there has to be more to come from the new Impreza.