Compared to some of the Subaru Impreza models that have gone before, the new fourth-generation version doesn't look anything particularly out of the ordinary.
That hasn't been able to be said of some of the Imprezas seen thus far. When the car first arrived in the early 1990s, it immediately gained a strong reputation for both its looks and how it drove. Then we had the famous 'bug- eyed' version from around 2000 that soon had its headlights changed to the more acceptable 'hawk-eyed' look.
And then - naturally, I suppose - when the third-generation version arrived in 2007 it was criticised slightly for being rather too conventional in its bodyshell design.
Now we have a brand-new version, which has finally arrived in New Zealand after a long availability hiatus caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the immediate impression is that this Impreza is primarily an evolution of the previous model.
In fact, the 2.0i-SL sedan I've just been driving is so standard in its appearance that it looks rather like a downsized Legacy. And I suppose that's no bad thing, considering that not only is the model also available as a hatch, but it is also the basis of a distinctive crossover-style Subaru now on the Kiwi market called XV.
And it would be dangerous to associate conventional looks with any reduction in sheer ability - because this new Impreza continues the reputation developed during the past 20 years as one of the best small-medium drives on the market.
The real difference this time around is that it has all got a whole lot more sophisticated.
SUBARU IMPREZA 2.0I-SL
POWER PLANT: 2.0-litre DOHC normally aspirated boxer engine with active valve control, 110 kW at 6200 rpm, 196 Nm at 4200 rpm.
RUNNING GEAR: Full-time symmetrical all-wheel drive. Six- speed Lineartronic continually variable automatic transmission with paddle shift. MacPherson strut front suspension, double wishbones at the rear.
HOW BIG: Length 4580mm, width 1740mm, height 1465mm, wheelbase 2645mm.
HOW MUCH: $46,990
WHAT'S GOOD: Lighter, more rigid, better fuel efficiency.
WHAT'S NOT: Pretty conventional looks. Price is getting up there.
OUR VERDICT: Impreza might be more of a suit wearer - but underneath it all, still an Impreza.
On average, the new Impreza is 10 kg lighter than the model it replaces, but its bending rigidity - always important for sound ride and handling - is 25 per cent better than before.
The sedan's 2.0-litre boxer engine is not only a lot more fuel- efficient than before, and now has new-age technology including automatic stop-start, but performance benefits from installation of a new continuously variable automatic transmission that can be used as a six-speed manual.
Power steering is now electric, which always results in a quieter car, and our test car - the $46,990 top model in the Impreza fleet - was chock-full of specification that added to the sophisticated drive, including full leather upholstery, electric sunroof, and dual-zone climate-control air conditioning.
So the fourth-generation Impreza, particularly this 2.0i-SL model, is a very grown-up car with an equally grown-up drive.
It's quiet, with none of the distinctive boxer engine thrub that used to be such a part of Subaru product, and that CVT contributes in a big way to an orderly sort of motoring experience that you just know is now more fuel-efficient and cleaner. And that takes care of one of the traditional criticisms of this model - that it was a little too thirsty.
In fact, Subaru tells us automatic versions have improved their fuel efficiency by 22 per cent, with a claimed average fuel use of 6.8 litres per 100 kilometres, and associated CO2 emissions down to 157 grams per kilometre - which means it complies with the Euro 5 emissions standards.
What hasn't changed is the handling ability of this car. Even at the base model level, the Impreza has always been one of the best-riding small cars on the market, and the major reason for this has been its permanent all- wheel drive.
This time around, the ride feels a little softer than before (further proof that the car is getting all conventional and respectable), but it retains the ability to clean out the front-drive opposition if it really wants. And it carries all the electric ride and handling aids - including what the marque calls Vehicle Dynamics Control, which combines the safety benefits of stability control and traction control.
In the case of the 2.0i-SL that we had for road test, the car's CVT can also be operated manually using paddle shifters on the steering wheel, and just doing that helps make for an exciting drive. The car might be the most sophisticated and luxurious Impreza around, but it can still be a goer if the mood takes it.
And I think that is what I appreciate most of all about this latest-generation Subaru Impreza.
It has grown up both dimensionally and in looks, and it has addressed certain issues to allow it to be a relevant vehicle at a time when the pressure is going on to improve fuel consumption and exhaust emissions.
But underneath it all, the car remains an Impreza, through and through. There will be lots of people out there who will be breathing a sigh of relief about that.
- © Fairfax NZ News