October 20th, 2010

Driven: Subaru Impreza Type-UK

In the days before Bruce Willis came along to it give a lasting, Hollywood style impression, the word ‘diehard’ was true to its original definition, meaning ‘to fanatically oppose progress or reform’. This term can often be applied to music fans, who accuse acts of becoming ‘sell-outs’ when the melodies they so love become mainstream enough to, well, sell out venues. In the world of the automotive enthusiast however, you don’t need me to tell you that a fair chunk of the folks buying in to the Impreza legacy (no pun intended) are some of the ultimate 21st Century diehards when it comes to brand alliance.

With two previous generations and four facial expressions that arguably only a visually-impaired mother could love, it was seemingly with the utmost disregard for said fans that Subaru chose to release the third generation Impreza with a 5-door hatchback body as the core product; the first time since the 1993 launch.

We’ll gloss over the LEDer-than-thou tail lights for a second, and note that the Impreza has now become the most sensible shape to make best use of its footprint, and the design borders on the inoffensive yet without losing its muscular edge. In my subjective eyes at least, it is the most coherent and best-looking version to date. Combined with another raft of quality improvements, Subaru seemingly hopes that the new generation can retain its mighty performance car credentials whilst proudly offering viable family transport.

Much like tuning companies with their Stage 1, Stage 2 malarky that only eggs customers on for more, special edition-based nomenclature is usually pretty forthcoming in the Impreza camp, however as far as the new model goes it is all a bit restrained so far, and (Cosworth model excepted) the STi Type-UK is the pile-topper of genuine UK specifications.

Swing open what is surely the lightest door of any mid-sized car for sale (that a fridge magnet could stick to anyway) and you are greeted by a surprising interior experience, whether as a previous owner or an Impreza virgin. The Alcantara-lined front seats are bolstered and supportive, yet set new thresholds of comfort for a bucket-style seat; they are simply top notch and, dare I say it, luxurious. Although minor quibbles such as switch dampening and some plastics drop the interior a fair few steps behind the German pace, the dash design is pleasingly fresh, and the general interior ambiance defies the usual hidden-catch element that so often characterises a sensibly-priced Japanese performance car.

Place it back to back with a more conventional hatchback rival, and there is no doubt the ratio of interior space to exterior dimensions may seem a little on the small side. However lest us forget, unlike a warm sporting Astra or even Ford’s top level Focus RS500, the nicely-textured centre-console trim must still sit atop a propshaft, and the (still generous) boot floor is the donned mortar board of a limited slip differential. Downsides to some, but if you need to rationalise it as a sensible family purchase then simply remind yourself that such a 4WD system is a safety feature; allowing considerably less risky progress to be made whenever conditions are less than perfect.

When offering up 296bhp and 300lb-ft from the 2.5-litre turbocharged four, you don’t need me to whip my Casio out to inform you that this 1500kg hatch has an all-important ratio sufficient to scare exotica. The strange thing about the nature of the drive (especially at low speeds) however is that it somehow manages the contradictory combination of feeling both refined, yet rather agricultural at the same time. Tiny coarse elements poke through that serve to remind the driver of its utilitarian roots; not enough to frustrate and leagues ahead of the previous model, yet it almost feels like they didn’t quite dare to dial out too much in fear of losing some retrospective character.

The throw of the six-speed gearbox is almost sequentially-short and hugely satisfying to use as a result, however the boxer engine upfront never needs you to do much in the way of lever-stirring; it is entirely possible to just surf the wave of torque that seems to rip from unexpectedly low rpm for a forced induction powerplant. There is never quite the need to keep holding on for a spiralling redline either, as short-shifting along a B-road can easily bring on an eye-opening turn of speed for such gentle, easy-going inputs before the power tails off in each gear.

Although the gruff character and burble that is very much the boxer’s signature tune is available on tap, unless you have been reaching for the window switches it is not overly intrusive for a sporting Impreza. That said, Subaru obviously know that half the cars produced are only going to have them changed anyway.

Tyre roar and road noise on the other hand is a little more pronounced, and although the ride quality is rather firm and nuggety at lower speeds, it could rarely be described as uncomfortable and is almost incomparable to the rawness of a previous generation Type-UK. This does show up ever so slightly in the corners, where perhaps a little more roll than you might expect is evident, but the payoff is worth it and doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the Impreza’s redefinition of a friction co-efficient chart.

Steering feel has never been a prime ingredient in Subaru’s broth, and although this STi has enough to satisfy the keen driver, it is still feels a little on the light side, and the feedback is never going to set the fingertip nerves racing. The wider track (increased by 45mm and 40mm front and rear respectively) may seem like a downside in terms of available road positioning, yet combined with a longer wheelbase housed in a shorter overall length, the car is actually more able to work its extremities in an agile MINI kind-of a way.

Like many, I have huge respect for previous incarnations and their abilities, yet would never consider myself a potential Impreza buyer as such cars are very much an acquired taste. For the first time with this model though, I’m casting doubts and am pretty sure that there are other people in this ferryboat of temptation. The aesthetics are more grown-up, the cabin has now tipped over the fulcrum to ’acceptable’, the refinement is years ahead, yet the performance is still as ferocious as ever.

My initial fear was that the aforementioned diehards could feel alienated by the new model, allowing the Impreza to end up in some sort of performance car middle-ground, complete with passing tumbleweed formed from redundant aftermarket carbon fibres.

Subaru however appears to have already responded to the bodystyle issue by bringing a saloon over to the UK, where the two new ‘2011 WRX STi’ models will shortly be on sale at £32,995 (as opposed to this £24,995 2008-spec car), and looking at it rationally, the progression has been in entirely in the right direction. Making a rapidly quick performance car more extreme is easy, whereas trying to factor back in enough refinement to make a perfect all-rounder isn’t a simple DIY fix. To be precise, it took a team of Japanese engineers 15 years to get it just right.

James Winstanley

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