Subaru Impreza review & buyer's guide
The Subaru Impreza can push back against the Mazda3. It can certainly take the fight to the new Hyundai i30. Let’s find out if it’s the right new car for you
Download: official Subaru Impreza specifications >>
Subaru Impreza is slogging it out in one of the most price-sensitive and hotly contested segments in the car industry: The so-called 'small car' category.
And, yeah - I know they're not actually that small. (It's just what they're called in the trade.)
In a sense, Impreza is fighting with one hand tied behind its back (at least on price) because all model variants feature Symmetrical all-wheel drive (and those extra driveline parts aren't cheap). And most model grades feature the awesome EyeSight safety system, and none of that tech is free, either.
These factors pump up the price - but they also make the car a compelling ownership proposition.
Unique advantages: Five-year warranty with unlimited kilometres. Offers both a diesel engine and a more potent (than Impreza's 2.0 and Mazda's 2.5) 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine (in SR and SR Premium variants). Hatch only body style.
More on Hyundai i30 >>
Unique advantages: Offers a more potent 2.5-litre atmo petrol engine in three model variants (SP25, SP25 GT and Astina). Hatch and sedan body styles. Conventional epicyclic auto transmission refinement.
More on Mazda3 >>
Unique advantages: Offers Symmetrical AWD for improved tractive effort when grip is compromised (rain, ice, snow, mud, unsealed roads). Brilliant EyeSight safety system includes adaptive cruise control and pedestrian detection (on three of the four model variants). Hatch and sedan body styles.
Subaru Impreza review
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If you're shopping for an Impreza-sized car:
I spent two weeks driving Impreza: the sedan and the hatch (a week in each - that's just the way the car industry rolls with evaluation vehicles) and I’ve got to say it’s ‘up there’ in this class of notionally 'small' car.
(That's a piece of industry jargon - they're not really that small. There's a whole class of car below, which the industry refers to as 'compact'. Go figure.)
Mangling the language - it's what they do...
If you're shopping around for a car this size, there is an astounding choice when it comes to these so-called small cars. There are 30(ish) cars this size available today, incredibly enough. (How many can you name?)
So, instead of saying to yourself: ‘oh, I like that one, I might buy it’, which in my view, is the worse way to do this.
The best way to do it, is to look at the features and the unique points of difference offered by the various competitors, and make your selection, at least in part, based on those objective criteria.
Let’s run through that with Impreza.
Points of difference
The two major points of difference with an Impreza, compared with most cars in the rest of the market, are the EyeSight® safety system and Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. So let’s deal with both of those.
EyeSight® is a brilliant camera-based system. There’s two cameras (they’re just up here), they’re stereoscopic; they look at the road ahead. This gives you a bunch of safety features, like, forward collision mitigation so the car will warn you if it thinks you are about to crash into a car that’s stopped ahead. That’s brilliant. It’ll also stop for pedestrians at low speeds.
EyeSight also delivers adaptive cruise control (ACC), and this is a huge plus for ordinary driving (even when you're not about to crash).
If you haven't driven a car with adaptive cruise control, you really should give it a go. Unlike conventional cruise control, ACC uses those EyeSight cameras to sense the traffic ahead. Let’s say you set the cruise to 110km/h on the freeway and you encounter some slow-moving congestion ahead. Perhaps a couple of trucks are doing 80km/h (a common scenario).
The car with ACC will automatically come up behind the congestion; it will identify this problem and then it will just adapt by slowing down and maintaining a safe following distance. Then, when the congestion evaporates, you’ll just automatically speed up again at 110km/h. This will happen seamlessly, without you doing anything. It's a major benefit.
The news flash for the Subaru Impreza, of course, is that you get this adaptive cruise control functionality built-in with EyeSight® at about $25k plus on-road costs. If you want adaptive cruise with a Mazda3, you have to buy the SP25 Astina which is going to cost you, at least, $10k more.
For potential Impreza buyers that’s an amazing value proposition if you plan on doing a lot of freeway driving in your new small car.
Symmetrical AWD is a huge advantage on the tractive effort front every time there’s a reduction in the amount of grip under foot. When it rains, or you go to the snow, you’ve got to cross some ice or frost, wet grass, mud or unsealed road, you’ve got the same amount of drive being transmitted to the road but it’s divided by four wheels instead of two. So, effectively, the grip level can drop by half and you can still keep going.
Many vehicles with AWD, notionally, are actually just front-drive most of the time and they wait for wheelspin to engage the AWD system. That’s so-called on-demand AWD, and while it’s an okay system, it’s really always playing catch-up because it has to wait for wheelspin before it does its thing.
The other thing about symmetrical AWD is: it’s pretty hard to find a car this size with AWD at these prices. So essentially you get the benefits of the AWD that you would have in a big bulky SUV but you're paying something like $15k less - which is a major advantage.
You don’t get the bulk and the heft either so there’s a fuel economy benefit as well.
Subaru took the bold decision (at the time, several years ago now) to make their cars 5-star safety across the range. They were one of the first carmakers to do this. They knew how important that would be to ordinary consumers, and it has certainly paid off. They’ve continued that with Impreza. It’s a 5-star car on active safety and crashworthiness criteria. You add it to the EyeSight system (above), and it’s a brilliant, class-leading vehicle in terms of the safety systems on offer.
Reduced service costs
I’ve been quite critical of Subaru’s service interval for some time. For may years now it’s been stuck at six months/ 10,000km… whichever comes first and thankfully they’ve turned that around with the new Impreza. It’s now twelve months and 12,500km, whichever comes first. That’s a huge plus especially for you, if you don’t drive that far every year. You’ll be able to go back to the dealership once a year instead of twice a year, and Subaru tells me that over the first three years of ownership, they’ve cut just over $900 off servicing cost compared with the previous model.
Platform & dynamics
This Impreza is an all-new car. It’s built on a new platform; Subaru’s global architecture. You can tell straight away that it’s very rigid. It’s an engaging, direct sort of drive experience. It’s not disengaged from the road and sumptuous in the way perhaps a Lexus is or even a Corolla in that ‘I’m not really driving’ driving experience.
When most people test drive a car for the first time, they don’t spend their time really evaluating the car because, let’s face it, most people spend their lives routinely driving one or two cars at a time. The same cars, every day, in and out, for several years. Then when you get in a new car, it feels very different. The control feedback is different and the whole experience is different. There’s different technology if your car is substantially old as well.
So there’s a lot of 'accommodation' taking place for most people, and the cognitive demands are high, and frankly, there's not a great deal of actual robust evaluation taking place. (Especially in a drive that's really just an extended 'around the block' exercise at the dealership.
So what I can tell you about the Impreza is that Subaru is really good at ergonomics. That would be all of the engineering factors that have to do with human interaction with the vehicle. It includes things like where are the controls placed and how they work and how instinctively they operate. The feedback do they give you about the driving process; Do they tell you what’s going on?
In the Impreza's case - yes. They do. It’s all quite intuitive.
You’ve got your two central instrument displays in the cluster and then there’s the centre stack and a secondary information display above that. All of that information is quite instinctive and you can accommodate that almost straight away. So that’s really good.
Nobody’s going to accuse Impreza of being the most beautiful car you’ll ever see, either externally or here, in the interior. But certainly it’s ergonomic integration is absolutely brilliant.
The steering wheel, for example, feels fantastic. You grab it and you go: ‘Yeah, WRX’s little brother… I can see that’. You’ve got the paddle shifters, if you want to drive the CVT as a manual and you’ve got umpteen buttons on that wheel … I haven’t bothered counting them. There’s probably twenty… and it’s going to take you quite a while before you figure out what all of those do. When you can get to the point where you can play that wheel like a Stradivarius, it’s probably quite practical. It’s going to take a while though.
The top two spec levels of Impreza come standard with GPS and the news flash there is: it’s TomTom. Thank heavens for that because in-house GPSs designed in a bespoke way by carmakers are all typically so awful. TomTom only does GPS; they know what they're doing, they do it very well. You get TomTom with Impreza… that’s a plus.
Stay updated on the Impreza's full specs and features here >>
Engine & driveline
Unlike the Mazda3, for example, which has a choice of two different engines and two different transmissions. With Impreza, one engine, one transmission. A 2.0-litre Boxer petrol engine and a CVT. Now, on this CVT front, if you're in the market seriously considering Impreza, you're going to be watching 50 thousand different on-line reviews and a lot of those reviewers, I’m tipping, are going to be pretty critical of the CVT.
I think that’s unjustified.
Early CVTs tended to drone on quite a lot, and they weren’t that engaging to drive but I think Subaru’s done a great job tuning this CVT and, on objective criteria, you’d have to say that this CVT is as good as a good conventional automatic.
I didn’t say, it’s the same as a conventional auto, because it’s a different drive experience. There are different things about it. It’s got different strengths and different weaknesses, but overall, if you put all those factors in a blender and see what runs out at the end, the smoothie coming out of that blender is going to say: ‘tastes about the same in terms of drive quality as a conventional automatic transmission’.
Most reviewers suffer from a weapons-grade dose of confirmation bias when they assess CVTs. They look for reasons to hate the CVT and in this case, it’s completely unjustified.
If you are confused about CVTs and even DCTs and DSGs (and all this nouveaux transmission terminology and technology generally) I demystified it here >>
Engine performance is kind of important as well. You can basically have any engine you want as long as the only engine you want is a 2.0-litre direct-injected Boxer petrol engine. The advantage is low centre of gravity because the pistons are operating horizontally. It's a Subaru thing; the boxer engine is one of the foundations of the brand.
The outputs are up there, compared with other leading 2.0-litre engines from competitors. It develops peaks of 115kW at 6000rpm and 196Nm at 4000rpm and it’ll run on 91 Octane standard unleaded fuel. (You don’t have to tip the expensive premium stuff into it.) It’ll go better than and drink less fuel than any engine with the old style multi-point injection. If you're worried about keeping up with the Joneses, don’t be.
Obviously, though, it does not compete with the likes of Mazda's 2.5-litre engine in the upmarket versions of the Mazda3 (the SP25, SP25 GT and Astina). Nor does the Subaru 2.0 keep up with the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine in the Hyundai i30 SR and SR Premium.
Impreza's engine performance: does it measure up?
After posting the review at the top of this page I got quite a lot of comments on YouTube about the Impreza's straight line performance.
Comments like this:
"You briefly fairly glanced through the engine performance [in your review] :( Many reviewers commented a lack of power on highway or going uphill. That's the part I was looking forward to. You mentioned to test drive Kia Cerato, Hyundai i30 & Mazda3 as well, how come you didn't mention Corolla? Corolla is the hottest selling car in Australia." - Bernie J.
As for Corolla and why I don’t recommend it - it might be the best seller, but if you take out the sales to the rental fleets and other boring fleet sales, and to the blue rinse set who are on their 12th Corollas and just drive them down the street once a week for a perm and a Pimms, I think you'll find for the rest of us, Corolla is the automotive equivalent of a benzodiazepine thick shake.
As for Impreza's performance, there are two operant factors at play. One: Can you trust the reviews? And two: What do the numbers say? What are the objective facts about Impreza performance?
It’s interesting, because the internet has completely changed the nature of research. Things were different when I was a kid at university, of course, studying engineering, 66 million years ago, shortly after that gianormous asteroid hit the earth in the Gulf of Mexico and killed all the dinosaurs with a force of 10 billion Hiroshima A-bombs. I still remember it. Interesting day. We all got the day off school.
Anyway … research. In the olden days the challenge was procuring the data. We had these places. Libraries, they were called, if memory serves. It was a chore and a half to post information in a library - but you could be pretty sure that information was accurate once it got there, given the hoops the author had to jump through to get it there.
Today, though … not so much. The challenge today is: we’re drowning in data, but we definitely each need an upgraded filtration system in the modern world - because there’s just so much uninformed bullshit to wade through, between you and the facts.
Let’s do a thought experiment in which you’re a car reviewer driving an Impreza and you say to yourself:
‘Seems a bit sluggish on the highway and uphill.’
It is of course OK to think this, but is that the end of the issue or the start of it? For most car reviewers it’s the end. However, if you don’t want to be a dipshit about this, I’d suggest it should be the start. Time to investigate. Because physics does not lie. It can support or refute your impression.
It takes kilowatts and Newton-metres to move kilos of metal against its own inertia and against gravity. And the relationship between those things is so simple a politician could almost understand it.
So is there any evidence beyond your finely calibrated dynamometer of a car reviewing arse that supports your perception of this alleged Impreza sluggishness? And just how bad is this alleged performance deficit, quantifiably?
Impreza has a 2.0-litre engine with peak outputs of 115 kilowatts at 6000rpm and 196 Newton Metres at 4000rpm. This is line ball with Mazda’s 2.0-litre engine. There’s less than one per cent in it on peak power (Impreza’s way) and there’s two per cent in it in torque (Mazda’s way). Hyundai i30 2.0-litre: it makes four per cent more peak power, but slightly higher in revs, and four per cent more peak torque, but at a lot more revs.
In fact - the Subaru 2.0 boxer engine is absolutely up there with all other atmo 2.0-litre direct injection engines. And the only conclusion you can draw from this is: whatever perception you’ve formed, it can’t be a consequence of engine performance. It really can’t.
But the Subaru does have all-wheel drive, and that requires a transfer case/centre diff to get the drive to the rear, plus a rear prop shaft, a rear diff and drive shafts. And they’ve got to weigh a bit. So maybe it’s that. Extra weight.
When you look at the power to weight ratios - which is something a lazy-arsed car reviewer would never do because it would mean interpreting actual numbers - you see the Subaru is at a slight disadvantage because of that additional mass.
A 2.0-litre i30 is about five per cent ahead of an Impreza on power to weight, and the Mazda3 is about 10 per cent ahead. So there’s that. It’s a small but real deficit.
But I put it to you that this criticism of Impreza’s performance is mainly a kind of cognitive dissonance on behalf of the reviewer. Impreza has a CVT. A continuously variable transmission. CVTs don’t sound or feel like conventional transmissions.
Click for an explanation of the significant differences between manuals, autos, dual-clutches and CVTs >>
When you ask a CVT to perform on the highway, it holds the engine at the optimal revs for that performance - somewhere between peak power and peak torque, most probably, which would be north of 4000rpm in the Impreza.
The engine remains at those optimal revs, and the gearing changes as the speed increases. This is the exact opposite of all other transmissions. Revs increase as speed increases in all other transmissions. The engine gets louder.
We make the following mental bookmark: louder, higher-pitched revs = shit happens. And the reverse: no change in noise = shit not happening. And I’d suggest that this completely subjective determination is responsible for 90 per cent of the criticisms of Impreza’s highway and uphill performance.
It’s that plus confirmation bias. If you start reviewing a car on the foundational belief that CVTs are crap, you have to upend your belief system if you discover the Impreza is actually a pretty good car - and for most people, upending a belief system is kind of a big deal.
We tend to hang onto our beliefs even if the facts don’t support them.
I’m not apologising for Subaru - the absolute performance against a stopwatch is likely to be five-ish per cent slower than an i30 or Mazda3.
You’ll get more grip in the wet, in ice and snow, on unsealed roads, as a result of the all-wheel drive. This is a direct benefit traded off against the additional mass of those drivetrain components.
Plus, you have to bear in mind that this is maximum possible performance - if you don’t drive at high revs with the throttle hard against the firewall … then you’re not exploiting maximum performance, and in that case they’re all going to do exactly the same job.
The other thing Subaru doesn’t do - because of its obsession with modularity and simplifying the logistic complexity of models ranges - is: It declines to offer you a more powerful drivetrain in the higher spec model grades of Impreza.
Perhaps the view internally is: We’ve got WRX and Levorg if you want that. Which I guess is fair enough.
However, on my world it’d be nice to see the 2.5-litre atmo engine (or the 1.6 turbo from Levorg) in the premium grades of Impreza, because that would, in my view, represent more of a level playing field against the likes of Mazda3 SP25 and i30 SR.
This would be a step into the middle ground between Impreza as it currently stands, and WRX, which is firmly in the performance enthusiast domain.
The criticisms of Impreza’s performance you read in reviews are mostly, overwhelmingly, bullshit. For drivers who want a car that’s capable and delivers more than adequate but less than gobsmacking performance, then Impreza is a great car.
Because there’s no such thing as the perfect car, there are of course criticisms.
AUTOMATIC ENGINE STOP/START
First and foremost among them: the automated engine stop-start feature. This is the system that shuts the engine down automatically in traffic: You get to a red light, you stop moving, then the engine automatically shuts down, allegedly to save fuel but really just so the carmaker can cook the books on the official fuel consumption tests.
This system does not really save you any money, appreciably, but it costs you a lot in refinement. The restart, in particular, is horrible. It’s almost not production-ready in my view. The engine decides to restart when it feels a reduction in the brake-line pressure. What happens is, you start lifting off the brake when the lights goes green, or the traffic moves again and then the engine control computer says: ’Hey, time to restart’ - which is all fine and dandy. However, the restart is quite severe, and that means there’s a significant, inertial jolt forward that’s quite unrefined.
So I’d rather that was not a feature of the Impreza. I'm not a huge fan of auto engine stop/start. Here's why >>
You can actually turn the stop/start system off. There’s button, and you just nudge it. A warning light comes up on the information display. It tells you you’ve turned it off, which is fine. The problem with that is, at least the way I experienced it, every time when you get back in the car to go driving, it’s active once again. So if you don’t like it, you have to turn it off every single time you drive the car.
Imagine if the lights in your house worked this way. I don’t think you’d be very happy. I just think that’s a minor inconvenience and an annoyance to the right or wrong sort of person.
SPACE-SAVER SPARE TYRE
Subaru’s done a fantastic job building this vehicle with these additional features like EyeSight with adaptive cruise that make the vehicle fantastic for driving on the highway. You got symmetrical AWD which is awesome if you’ve got to deal with compromised traction situations like dirt roads, dirt roads in the rain, or ice and snow, if you want to go skiing several times a year.
So you get a flat tyre, you put on the space-saver and, let’s say, it’s the middle of the night, you're on the freeway and it’s raining. Worst-case scenario. You will be limited to 80km/h, and in my view that’s a bit dangerous with the traffic potentially closing on you from behind 30km/h faster than you're allowed to drive.
Space-saver spare tyres also do not grip the road as well as a conventional, full-sized spare tyre.
Final criticism here is the driveline refinement itself. This is a negative feature of the CVT. In dithering situations in traffic, when the traffic’s speeding up, slowing down, you're on the gas, you're off the gas… at times, and it does not last for more than a few seconds, there’s a bit of to-ing and fro-ing longitudinally. It's a slight vibrational feedback in the transmission that is absolutely a product of the CVT and the way it operates. It’s not a deal breaker but it is not as refined as a conventional automatic transmission or a well-driven manual.
(CVTs are all about fuel efficiency - so the benefit, compared with conventional auto, is lower fuel consumption. The tradeoff is a slight reduction in refinement.)
There’s no manual transmission available and I guess that’s only going to affect you if you want to teach a young kid to drive here in Australia. (Manual licences require experience in manual transmission cars. You can’t have that in an Impreza. It’s CVT only so you either suck that up or buy something else, I guess. Frankly, though, the manual transmission is nearly dead - in commercial terms; hardly anyone wants to buy one.)
Not having a manual is going to be a commercial challenge for Subaru because the manual transmission is often inserted into the range towards the bottom so that they can drive the entry-level price down. Subaru can’t do that and they are already a little bit hamstrung with the equipment level because Symmetrical AWD means there’s a viscous coupling in the centre as well as drive components to the rear that you don’t have to fund if you're a manufacturer of, say, a Hyundai i30 or a Mazda3.
Then, of course, there’s EyeSight in three of the four specification grades, which adds another $1500 or so to the manufacturing cost. So when you factor all of these things in, if you're looking at the price and you say to yourself, ‘Impreza’s a little bit more expensive than [whatever], I’d suggest you look at this stuff on an objective basis and say to yourself: ’It’s not just about the money, it’s what I’m getting in exchange for it, so if I’m getting adaptive cruise, AWD and EyeSight. Maybe I should be paying a little bit more for those extremely useful features’.
Just to break this down and make it really simple, if you're in the market for a small car, Impreza is not perfect but absolutely up there. If I was you, what I would do, is put i30, Mazda3, Impreza and Kia Cerato on a short list and then go out and drive those ones at the price point you're thinking about spending. Compare them directly like that and write down a list of the features that are really important to you and see which one of those four cars ticks most of those boxes. If you haven’t driven adaptive cruise and tried EyeSight, I strongly suggest you go and taste test those because they are a real plus.
More on Impreza at Subaru's website >> including the Subaru recommended drive-away pricing calculator >>