Subaru logo on grille but no brand name

Subaru logo on grille but no brand name

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Thanks to a greatly improved yen-sterling exchange rate, Subaru's UK importer is now bringing in the Impreza once more. It might be a little anonymous in the looks department but to drive, there's character aplenty.

This is a brand that now easily outsells Volkswagen in the US but in Britain, it’s a lot more niche. Very niche. The Forester, which in 2014 was Subaru’s best seller in the UK market, came in at position 187, its 1,232 registrations being six cars down on the Mercedes-Benz SL, but a fitting seven ahead of BMW’s largest saloon. The Impreza wasn’t available for the full 12 months, but even so, its sales total of 142 was somewhat embarrassing given that the Rolls-Royce Ghost bettered it (by one car).

Things have improved since 2014 became 2015. Subaru’s March sales reached 737 units, a 46% rise, and leaving it just 50 cars short of breaking into four figures for the year to date. It’s also still handily ahead of two other brands that have had very strong performances throughout 2015, namely MG (+57% to 859) and SsangYong (+45% to 622). With a new Outback soon to join the UK range and the Levorg to be added later in the year, what had been a fairly thin product range is now being filled out. The six-car line-up consists of the BRZ, Forester, Impreza, Outback, WRX STI and XV

One of the unusual things about this Impreza is the lack of a diesel engine. Such a unit exists but this 2.0-litre H4 appears only in the XV, Forester and Outback crossovers. Subaru isn’t likely to become a serious force in the European C-hatchback segment any time soon, so the region’s various national importers can hardly lobby Japan for a small-capacity diesel. The decision to offer just the one engine, a petrol 1.6, and here in Britain in a single 'RC' trim level, makes sense. Buyers may choose from a five-speed manual transmission or a chain-driven and Lineartronic-branded CVT. This automatic gearbox also has a six-ratio manual shift mode.

The Impreza is a likeable thing, and all the more so for being quite different to everything else in its class. The main interest is that flat-four engine. It’s never noisy but it does make a rather pleasant sound. Despite its inherently superior balance to inline fours, it feels underpowered, with only 84kW (114hp) and 150Nm to work with. In the city or on a motorway, there’s enough oomph for the 1,300kg kerb weight but you couldn’t say that about B-roads. Gearing is another issue - to build up enough pace up to pass a slow vehicle you must drop back to second. The trouble is the rev limit will then be close to being reached just when you don’t want it to, third being needed for mechanical salvation. Changing gears mid-overtake is not ideal. So for safety’s sake, it’s best to hang back and enjoy the scenery.

The official 0-60mph time is 12.3 seconds for the manual, with a top speed of 114mph. The Combined cycle fuel economy average is 44.1mpg and CO2 emissions are 147g/km, improving to 46.3mpg and 140g/km when fitted with Lineartronic.

When the weather gets nasty, the Impreza really comes into its own. This is the only C segment hatchback to be sold in the UK with standard all-wheel drive. Manual cars have a centre differential incorporating a viscous LSD, with a basic 50/50 front/rear torque split. To improve traction on low-grip surfaces, the system can detect any slippage from the front or rear tyres and it will adjust torque distribution accordingly.

Cars with Lineartronic have an electronically-controlled Multi-Plate Transfer clutch. This controls and distributes torque to the rear wheels. The front/rear split is 60/40 but this can be adjusted, with more torque sent to the rear axle if either of the front tyres begins to slip.

The Impreza isn’t cheap, being priced from GBP17,495 with manual transmission or from GBP18,995 as a Lineartronic. Against that, standard equipment includes automatic headlamps and rain-sensing windscreen wipers, front fog lamps, electrically-folding heated mirrors with LED turn signals, a de-icer system for the wipers, and 16-inch alloy wheels. There’s also dual-zone air-conditioning, rear passenger heating and ventilation ducts, heated front seats, 60/40 split-fold rear seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear knob, two 12V power outlets, USB and aux-in jacks, and a reversing camera.

If you’ve been a fan of previous generation Imprezas, you’ll notice the days of frameless doors are gone, which is a shame. Against that, they don’t clang, and feel reassuringly solid. The ignition key looks cheap but you soon forgive that as the little 1.6 whirs into life, emitting a sound like no other car in its segment. Everything you touch is more functional than designer-styled but Subaru owners tend to prefer their cars that way. It’s a lot like a Golf from a couple of generations back - you don't get a lot of squishy plastic but what you do get is clearly going to last and last.

Find a traffic-free single carriageway, and you’ll have a lot of fun, the lack of power not being that much of a problem in such circumstances. Roadholding is really very good indeed and it’s hard to get the Impreza out of line, even in the wet. It also feels well balanced, thanks to a lighter than average engine that’s mounted low in the chassis, combined with 50% of drive going to the back axle. You can easily see why the far more powerful WRX and STI are raved about, not only for their handling but their grip. 

It’s good to see Subaru on the up again in the UK. The Impreza 1.6 RC is an offbeat alternative in the C-hatchback class. And don't underestimate its importance as a global model. Subaru's owner, FHI, has commited to expanding production from the existing Gunma Main and Gunma Yajima plants in Japan, to the US. This will be at Lafayette (Indiana) on the line which presently builds the Toyota Camry. In May 2014, Toyota and FHI stated that Camry production at Lafayette would end "in the fall of 2016". This will be the first vehicle for SGP (Subaru Global Platform), its world premiere likely taking place at the 2016 New York auto show.