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The latest Impreza is both polished and polarising...

Given the sheer variety of metal out there, brand loyalty can be a fickle thing in today’s automotive market. But there’s always an exception. Subaru owners hang onto their cars for around 10 years, roughly twice as long as the average span of other brand-ownership stretches. But, while loyalty is a virtue, it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to opening doors in a highly competitive global market.

Enter the fourth-generation Impreza. Sporting an all-new platform, but retaining such Subaru staples as symmetrical all-wheel drive and horizontally opposed powerplants, the latest iteration of the firm’s compact sedan melds old and new in a package that renders it a popular choice in markets where ice and mud are regular fixtures in the daily drive. However, can the new Impreza thrive in an environment where climate-linked considerations are few and far between?

Underpinning the latest Impreza is Subaru’s new global platform that, in addition to increasing structural rigidity by upwards of 70%, sees the car grow by 45 mm in length and 35 mm in the beam. In addition, this rigid but lightweight platform also forms the anchor for a suspension setup that serves up an impressively resolved ride. Subaru’s engineers have gone to great lengths to shave mass from the new Impreza. Revisions to the 2,0-litre boxer engine see it shed 12 kg and the CVT is 7,3 kg lighter than that of the outgoing car. Even so, the new car still has that chunky, substantial feel that’s been a feature of the Impreza for a couple of generations now.

Crazily liveried rally specials aside, Subaru’s cars tend not to stand out in the crowd and the new Impreza continues in the same vein. Granted, there are few genuinely attention-grabbing compact sedans in the market, and the Impreza is by no means a bad-looking car, but it sits squarely in the neatly-executed-but-somewhat-safe camp.

The interior, however, is a different story. Whereas the previous car’s cabin fixtures were generally well screwed together, the materials used were of the cheap, flimsy kind and the design was more utilitarian than chic. The new Impreza’s cabin, however, is a leap forward, with plenty of slush-moulded surfaces, stitching in the facia contours and heavier-gauge plastics throughout. This good level of perceived quality furthers the Impreza’s substantial feel and contributes to a cockpit that’s well insulated from road noise.

There are a number of sporty touches present, too: a chunky steering wheel, hooded instrument binnacle and aluminium-skinned pedals. Although its wheelbase is a shade shorter than those of the Honda Civic and Mazda3 sedans, the Impreza’s interior packaging is generous. Rear knee-room stands at an impressive 678 mm, while the 344/928 litres of boot and utility space are among the best in the segment.

Much like the exterior styling, the new Impreza’s road manners are generally pleasing but err on the conservative side and it’s under the bonnet where this is most evident. A heavily revised version of Subaru’s long-serving 2,0-litre, horizontally opposed, four-cylinder engine now features direct fuel injection and a compression ratio that’s been bumped to 12,5:1. There’s precious little in the way of output gains over the previous unit, with power climbing from 110 to 115 kW and torque unchanged at 196 N.m.

Subaru has persevered with its Lineartronic CVT, a choice that, when coupled with modest outputs and a generally heavy AWD system, doesn’t appear to be a recipe for brisk progress. Despite revisions to the CVT that broaden the ratios and increase the level of responsiveness to throttle inputs, the 10,52-second average 0-100 km/h acceleration time we posted during performance testing place the Impreza’s performance in the leisurely bracket.

The powertrain is not completely bereft of charm, however. Although the signature offbeat burble at idle and moderate throttle inputs has been largely snuffed out, pinning the accelerator sees the engine spool up willingly and that hint of boxer snarl begins to permeate the otherwise well-insulated cabin. Our expectation that this powertrain combination would carry with it an unwelcome fuel-consumption penalty were pleasantly allayed when our mixed-use fuel run saw the boxer returning a respectable 7,3 L/100 km.

The mechanical smoothness for which Subaru’s boxer units are renowned is still present here and, along with a CVT that adapts better to the powerplant than many of its slippier-feeling peers, appears to contribute to the impression that the Impreza doesn’t feel especially brisk. The prodigious grip served up by Subaru’s symmetrical AWD system also endures and, in the case of the latest Impreza, it’s further augmented by a torque-vectoring system that apportions drive between the axles to brake the innermost wheels when cornering. The electrically assisted power steering’s ratio has been revised from 16:1 to 13:1, rendering it more direct and responsive than before.

Although the steering is pleasantly weighted, with a progressive self-centring action, and the torque-vectoring system counters some of the understeer that is naturally present in AWD setups, the Impreza’s handling characteristics err more to the neutral than the nimble. Given the car’s likely family-carrying proviso, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A glance at the features list shows that the new Impreza is a generously equipped proposition and its combination of solid build and extensive safety features have contributed to it earning a top ranking in both American and Japanese safety tests. Indeed, the first line of defence that is the 0-100 km/h stopping time saw the Impreza come to a halt in an impressive 2,74 seconds.

TEST SUMMARY

The Impreza is one of those rare cars that is as easy to recommend as it is to relegate. On the one hand, there's the feeling that, in an ideal market such as North America with its snow and ice, the Impreza's combination of practical packaging and AWD makes perfect sense. Yet, here in South Africa, with our lack of icy conditions and an audience that's shifted its focus from middle-tier sedans to compact SUVs and entry-level German sedans, this Japanese four-door is out of its element.

Conversely, the AWD's prodigious grip lends itself well to safety in any conditions, and the car's substantial feel, supple ride and generous standard specification are all feathers in its admittedly high-priced cap.

It's likely to elicit a positive response from dyed-in-the-wool Subaru fans, who will appreciate the marked improvements over the previous car. But, given that there are plenty of capable choices at lower price points (think Volkswagen Jetta, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla and the rivals mentioned above) available to those in the market for a comfy and capable compact sedan, and to whom FWD isn't a deal-breaker, the Impreza is a tougher sell.

*From the October 2017 issue of CAR magazine

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