Subaru Impreza: King of the sub-$30k club

Three months into the year, we’ve tested what will surely be remembered as the best-value sub-$30k car of 2017.


For: Engaging chassis, attractive specification, roomy, massive value.

Against: Could do with more verve, hard to fully warm to CVT, no air vents for rear of cabin.

INSTALLING the Impreza in our market is just act one of a big play for Subaru.

This car is but the first of many to roll out on the brand’s latest stiffer, lower and altogether smarter new platform.

Next to benefit is the new generation XV; it recently premiered at the Geneva motor show so conceivably could be here some time around mid-year. Also hitting the road in 2017 is a large seven seater sports utility, unfortunately not for us. It’s being built in the United States and is solely for North America.

Over 2018 and 2019 will likely come a new generation of the BRZ sports coupe, the next generation WRX and WRX STi, replacements for the Legacy and Outback and, phew, a facelift for the Impreza.

So a lot to look forward to. And given what Subaru has already done with the Impreza, there’s every reason for having high expectation about the quality and character of what else is to come.

From first meeting, late last year, it was apparent that this key model represents a huge step up over the old version. So much so that we were genuinely stunned when the brand announced carry-over pricing of $29,990 for the Sport model.

A car of this quality for the same money as the predecessor seemed a heck of a deal. A car of this quality and size for the same money as a Hyundai i20? Simply remarkable!

In a way it seems a pity that we see this model in just one specification and format, a hatchback with an updated 2.0-litre naturally aspirated ‘boxer’ four-cylinder petrol, all-wheel-drive and Lineartronic constantly variable transmission. 

For now, though, the only catch seems to be the limited availability. Subaru NZ reckons it can lay hands on just 350 units in 2017. That would seem a lot if we were talking about the old car because it was a bit of a bore.

However, the week spent with the new model simply reinforced perception that this one is much more of a winner, so we wouldn’t be surprised if demand already outstripped supply. Indeed, at time of test, the dealership from which we retrieved Subaru NZ’s presser was reporting that it had orders for cars that weren’t expected to arrive for some months. Export markets might also feel the pinch from it having also won Japan car of the year – the title holds great home turf kudos.


The first of many positives arrive with the exterior styling. It’s a bit different – which, let’s face, is a Subaru hallmark – but also heading in a better direction; if falling short f being a design classic like the Outback.

Even so, the chiselled lines and more purposeul stance present a far more positive first impression than the slightly gawky, cheap-looking old car ever did.

The new headlights give the front of the car a real hawk-like look shared with Levorg. Some have suggested that in profile especially, it looks a little bit like a Peugeot 308. Hmmm. The Subaru, to me, looks more aggressive and less plump. Maybe it’s that crease line running along the flank. Intended to mimic the sort of flourish you see in Japanese calligraphy, it’s a simple but effective signature.

It could with larger wheels, but only to improve the visual aspect. Those 17-inch alloys, clad with 205/50 Bridgestones, just make the car look a bit too Mattel-like.

Most Subarus these look best in white of shades of grey, so dark metallic blue seemed a risk. Yet, as the days passed by, the car started to look better and better. Also, you also know how much Subaru build quality has stepped up. Those panel gaps are very precise.

You’d say the same about the cabin. An area that was a significant disappointment previously is utterly transformed Now it’s the best you can find in the Fuji Heavy Industries’ family; outdoing my past favourite, the Outback.

The layout is crisp and modern, the fascia dominated by an 8.0-inch touchscreen, bright and clear and running the latest version of Starlink, topped by the type-standard dash-top trip computer with menus that show things such as your song choice, outside temperature and the all-wheel-drive system’s behaviour.

Though it’s called Impreza Sport, this model is not intended to bump off the WRX – it’s far more mainstream that that. Yet that hasn’t kept Subaru from implementing a slightly racy ambience. The thick-rimmed and small diameter steering wheel is a great start; you’d think it had been lifted from the BRZ couple.

Aside from being sportier, the cabin is also much swisher. For sure, you can still find hard budget plastics, but at least now they’re not in your face as was previously the case. Rather, all the major touch (and visual) points are rendered from quality materials make operating the car feel a bit more special. The soft-touch contact points, especially, reminds of how Volkswagen does it – surely no coincidence, as Subaru readily agrees the Golf was a developmental barometer.

The vaguely Germanic look, and feel, of the seats suggests the Japanese gauged more than just plastic qualities. It’s still a very functional environment, but much more pleasing.

The standard equipment for the price is hard to find too much fault with, too.

The previous Impreza was what those in the game tend to call an ‘honest’ offer. Provisioning the marque’s all-paw ability for less than $30k seemed at the cost of everything else.

This generation car seems the complete opposite. There’s not only far more kit, but it’s also of appreciably higher quality, including high-end luxury car levels of crash-prevention tech.

NZ is denied the full safety package of blind spot monitoring, lane change assist, rear cross traffic alert and an active torque vectoring system, but simply provisioning Impreza with the latest, third generation of the impressive stereo camera EyeSight – primarily a collision avoidance system – seems a big plus, because you generally don’t get an assist as sophisticated as that in this price band.

All Imprezas also have a system called Vehicle Dynamics Control that brakes the inside front wheel to improve turn-in

There’s no in-built sat nav but it’s not needed, because you get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto phone mirroring capability, which allows projection of your smartphone’s maps on the 8.0-inch touchscreen. This is a better way, I’m starting to feel, because the mapping is invariably more up to date and you can also tie in phone numbers with addresses to make calls. The screen also doubles as a wide-field review camera with far better picture quality than found with any previous Subaru screen. The function has been subject to recall due to the picture ‘freezing’ but that wasn’t an issue we encountered on test and, if a fault does occur, it’s easily remedied.

You also get seven airbags, an updated driver information display, electric-folding mirrors, front foglights with integrated daytime running lights, four USB points/two 12V inputs, Bluetooth, soft-closing power windows and dual-zone climate control.


Under the bonnet is a 2.0-litre engine the company calls 80 percent new, but which nonetheless feels very familiar.

As well it should. Beyond all the finessing is the same heart that beat in the previous car. Only now it lighter and has direct injection.

The latter alone should make a big change to how it operate – it has and it hasn’t. The engine has a smoother note and seems to rev more freely and cleanly, yet the cited outputs from this horizontal naturally aspirated unit remain modest. Power climbs by just 5kw to 115kW of power at 6000rpm and while torque hasn’t altered, at 196Nm at 4000rpm. Is that enough?

Japan is not wholly wed to constantly variable transmissions, but the brands that haven’t employed gearless gearboxes are now few. Lineartronic is now very much the name of the game for Subaru. It’s the CVT automatic programmed with seven artificial pseudo-ratios and a manual mode with paddle-shifters, developed specifically for use in all-wheel drive vehicles with boxer engines. Hence why it combines a torque converter with lockup damper.


When a car carries a Sport badge is also carries a certain weight of expectation. No-one anticipates track-readiness, but you will hold hope for a touch of sparkle and verve.

Sorry, it doesn’t really evidence here. For sure, Subaru’s engine is smooth and it even sounds interesting – though the flat four burble of old seems now to be consigned to history – yet it doesn’t take too much research to discover you’ll find rival cars of the same, or even smaller, capacity with more oomph.

It’s not that the Impreza feels eminently under-powered; it’s more that you sense pretty quickly that it doesn’t have the easy-going urge you might wish for. The responses are quite measured.

In general daily driving usage it is perfectly okay, but wewek to press on and you’ll find it is not an engine that gives as much as it could. The lack of low-end torque in any quantity is an issue, not least when a kerb weight of 1417kg makes the power-to-weight ratio middling at best. If you’re looking for a car that punches up hills and out of corners … well, keep looking. A turbocharger would be a quick fix.

To be fair, a CVT – even one furnished with paddle shifters – is always going to take the edge off any kind of performance sting. It’s not the worst CVT out there, but in terms of driver engagement it falls short. It’s fine for urban use, again, the decisiveness of a good torque-converter transmission is lacking. The 0-100kmh time of 10.2 seconds says so much.

Urban legend about boxer engines being heavy drinkers has largely been quashed. At the same token, Subaru’s estimate of this one giving an optimal 6.6 litres per 100km on the combined cycle also seems a stretch. It might it drank diesel. Our week returned an average 8.4L/100km. Take note that this version doesn’t require expensive high-cotance brew. It’ll happily consume RON.

Even though the performance isn’t flashy, it’s still a nice car to drive. Claim that this latest platform is 70 percent stiffer is no marketing hoo-haa; it really does feel that way. No creaks, squeaks or rattles, as in the old car. It really feels solidly hewn, now, and that pays dividends on the dynamic side.

But it is also a quieter car – in addition to being better constructed, Subaru has clearly added lots of insulating material - and feels incredibly well engineered. Again, you could call it Germanic in this respect. The refinement is miles better than in the old car. Not only is engine noise well suppressed but so tool the usual wind and, even on coarse chip, tyre roar.

While the performance is more serene than sizzling, it knows how to go around corners with rock-solid confidence. It’s a different kind of driving than you get from the Outback and a better driver’s car than the Levorg; it’s a rare case of a smaller car feeling ‘bigger’.

The stiffer chassis allows greater positive effect from the all-round independent suspension, with stabiliser bars at either end (struts at the front, double-wishbones at the back), and a new electric-assisted steering system, and – of course – the trademark all wheel drive to ensure there’s always plenty of grip and purchase.

The springs are quite soft, giving the car a loping ride, but the dampers help the body recover positively from rut and ripple strikes, so it feels well-sorted and quite confident, if lacking pukka sporting sharpness. But that’s why Subaru has a WRX.

As you’d expect, the AWD system comes into its own on gravel – where the steering setup irons out rack-rattle – or worse and the stability control intrusion seems sensible; it’s not a skid ‘em up car but neither will the aides go to full security alert at the slightest hint of traction loss. The all-round ventilated discs stop the car well, too.

As a family wagon, its compact without being overly cramped. In terms of dimensions, the Impreza is bordering on entering mid-sized vehicle territory, with similar length, width, height and wheelbase as the fourth-generation Legacy sedan.

The rear seats offer reasonable legroom, though headroom for anyone over 180cm gets tight. There are ISOFIX points and a flip-down armrest, but on hot days you’ll potentially ne annoyed by the lack of rear air vents.

The boot has a high load floor which compromises boot space. Rated at 345 litres it is large enough for a week’s shopping (there are handy bag hooks, and tie-down points too) but the dogs won’t like it. It expands to 795 litres with the 60:40 split-fold rear seat backs flipped down. A light in the boot is a nice touch.

I really like the new cabin – and the driving position (thanks, Subaru, for a steering column that offers telescopic adjustment) – but the tech that really sets it above the pack is that EyeSight system. Subaru’s determination to go with an active driver assist that uses stereo cameras saves cost, but is no less effective than setups that employ cameras with radar and microwaves.

While the Impreza system isn’t the full monty, but it does employ the latest, high contrast camera to improve performance in poor conditions also recognises brake lights ahead of it while active cruise is in use. The latter also allows the car to stop to zero, then take-off by again by pressing the cruise button on the wheel. Also in the functionality are lane-assist and autonomous braking with pedestrian detection.


So there are flaws, but even the worst seems trifling when measured against all those plus points, starting with a great chassis – we cannot wait to try more fare off this platform – and continuing to the car’s size, specification and excellent value.

I kept reminding myself this is a car that I and a lot of colleagues were certain had to land with a $34,000-ish price tag. It is genuinely incredible that it instead continues with the same sticker than applied to its predecessor.

If there is a better sub-$30k car on the New Zealand market I have yet to try it. There are also a number of more expensive rivals – the Corolla, Focus, Astra, Cerato, i30, the Mazda3 – that are seriously shown up by this model in so many ways.