Going big by starting small: That's one way of describing the impact that the new Impreza will have on Subaru's fortunes. The model itself is off to a great start, being named Japan's car of the year at the end of 2016, but ultimately it's the underpinning for this entry to the brand that will make bigger impact.
A guest at the local preview of a car that goes on sale here in mid-February was in a good position to relate the full importance of Impreza's New Global chassis.
As a corporate executive vice-president and Fuji Heavy Industries director (which makes him the highest-ranked Subaru figure to come here) Takeshi Tachimori has a direct hand in charting his brand's direction.
New Global is a smart-thinking breakthrough for a brand that, even though it built one million units last year, is Japan's smallest carmaker.
A structure that is 70% to 100% more rigid than the current Impreza's makes the car more dynamic and safer, with much better crash energy absorption, and also introduces production efficiencies. The WRX, Forester and XV arriving over the next 18 months and the next-gen Legacy and Outback coming after that are on this single platform.
One-size-fits-all also applies to the Impreza. While the compact category in which it competes accounts for 20,000 units a year, most of those cars go to fleets and that's Toyota territory. Subaru prefers selling to private buyers, so represents, as previously, with a single hatchback Sport version from a large family.
What about holding the appealing $29,990 pricing of its predecessor? An upwards creep of at least a couple of thousand could have been justified on the basis that the new machine is bigger and has more tech, including the latest version of Subaru's EyeSight accident avoidance system (this one with ability to recognise pedestrians). However, some sharp negotiation between Subaru New Zealand and Japan means the new machine will carry the same $29,990 tag as the model it replaces.
The driving dynamics are better with this Impreza and it's very much improved in design, especially within the cabin, where hard, scratchy plastic is now all but gone, while attention to ergonomics and detail has improved. Just on the strength of this interior ambience, you can see why Subaru is suggesting this car can now be considered against the category's quality leaders, the Mazda3 and VW Golf.
The driving position is also good - reach and rake adjust on the steering column and a chunky seat with decent bolstering - and, though the rear-seat squab is a bit flat, this Impreza also offers something that was barely available in the old car: decent head and leg room when there's a tall driver. The cabin also feels wider than the 35mm improvement in that dimension suggests.
Stepping back, how about the exterior styling? That's a bit different, but also heading in a better direction. The new headlights give the front of the car a real hawk-like look shared with the Levorg and it looks sleeker in profile, an impression heightened by the 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.
The new engine is stronger for mid-range torque and quieter than the current car's. There didn't seem to be a huge amount of grunt, but the car we drove was basically brand-new, and boxer engines are never at their best in that state.
Subaru does gearless transmissions better than any other brand and this edition of its Lineartronic now mimics the CVT unit in the WRX and Levorg by offering a stepped speed control and a seven-speed manual mode. It's not the same transmission, but is smooth and responsive, not least when you're employing the paddle shifter. Also new to this car is a stop-start system.
Subaru apparently benchmarked this car against the Golf, with intent to outhandle the German barometer. I'm not sure if it has done that, though on the winding roads around the Clevedon area it felt very confident.
The new platform certainly feels a lot more rigid. Fixing the suspension more rigidly to the body reduces body flex in hard cornering, and the centre of gravity being 5mm lower than before translates to excellent body control. The steering has a pleasing meatiness and accuracy.
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