As with so many 'evolutionary' models, the latest generation Impreza range emerges as a better car, although perhaps not quite so exciting as the previous model. It certainly feels a more mature proposition. The interior does at least appear to be built to a far more acceptable standard of quality. The seats will feel slightly narrow for some tastes, but offer great support. In the WRX variant, the leather-trimmed Momo steering wheel and drilled aluminium pedal set certainly complete the sporting picture. The fascia has been livened up with splashes of silver and chrome, and the effect, whilst unlikely to give Audi sleepless nights, is a vast improvement on the old model. Some details still grate, however. The cupholders jam in their slots and there's some untidy finishing, but the interior no longer feels like a cheap and cheerful Korean shopping hatch.
Introduced at the 2001 Frankfurt Show, the STi is powered by a 265bhp 2.0-litre flat four engine, but don't be fooled into thinking that it's merely a case of plugging in a more aggressive engine management chip or a bucket-sized turbocharger. Nearly 80% of the STi's all-alloy powerplant is unique. Two versions are offered for the UK market - the standard STi and the special edition STi Prodrive Style with custom spoilers, grille and front bumper. This with/without styling accessories option is a path already trodden by Subaru with the UK300 special edition. Both STi models get smoked glass projector headlamps, cavernous bonnet intakes and a massive exhaust pipe.
All Imprezas are surprisingly practical propositions given their explosive performance. The five-door wagon is especially well suited to trail driving/ski resort duties.
A few things to consider. Unless you're genuinely strapped, avoid the 1.6TS model and stretch to the 2.0GX. Avoid Imprezas fitted with automatic gearboxes like the plague as you'll find them difficult to sell on. Inspect the WRX model carefully to ensure it hasn't been stolen/recovered, thrashed or crashed. A service history is essential and air conditioning desirable; watch for non-standard parts, resprays, kerbed alloys, spongy brakes and worn clutches. Parts are expensive, so tread carefully. If you're looking at a UK300, remember that there were two versions, one with a flashy bodykit and a bog standard 215bhp, the other with a flashy bodykit and a wickedly non-standard 242bhp and the difference between these two versions when new was £1,500. Don't make the mistake of bidding 242bhp money for a 215bhp version. You can try to convince a seller that his 242bhp is only worth the same as 'this one you've seen here in the FreeAds' but Impreza owners are, by and large, an informed bunch.
The fact that the Impreza regularly comes at or near the pinnacle of the J D Power surveys is testament to its almost metronomic reliability. Jump from an Audi S3 into an Impreza WRX and your first impression would be that the Impreza would be lucky to last all the way to the bottom of your drive, but the Subaru trounces the Audi in terms of actual reliability. The cheap fascia plastics and the exposed wiring in the boot may look like corner cutting, but the bits that matter have had millions of yen of development budget thrown at them.
(2.0 WRX approx.) Subaru parts have a deserved reputation for being expensive. A clutch assembly is around £200. Front brake pads are around £80, and a new alternator is over £400 new. A headlamp is £240 while a cam belt is just over £100. Even a humble fuel filter is £33.
Once on the move, the picture varies according to which model is chosen. The £13,950 1.6TS is something of a dull outing, the modest power unit unable to exploit the inherent excellence of the Impreza's chassis. Surprisingly, the 2.0-litre GX models emerge as possibly the pick of the range. Whilst they are obviously a fair degree tardier than the Impreza WRX, the saving of nearly £6,000 more than makes up for this. Drive one hard and you'll realise you've got 80% of the WRX's abilities in a far more affordable package. For those buyers looking for something a little different to the usual family hatchback, the 2.0GX certainly merits further investigation.
With power steering, air conditioning, CD player, twin airbags, a hill holder clutch, spoiler kit and 15" alloy wheels, the GX certainly doesn't want for standard equipment. Factor in a Category One remote alarm and immobiliser, sports seats and four-channel anti-lock brakes, and the GX looks good value.
After the impressive showing of the GX, the WRX at first seems something of a disappointment. The WRX doesn't feel anything like as vivid as the old Impreza Turbo. With the same power, 70kg of extra weight to haul around and a turbo response tuned for torque rather than explosive mid-range punch, this may not be surprising. Like so many other aspects of this latest model, however, if you give it time you'll come round to its reasoning. Take the steering for example. It doesn't possess anything like the feedback of the previous car's but when hammering along a narrow, rutted B-road, you'll be able to carry far more speed with far more composure, as the wheel will now feel calm, direct and perfectly weighted. If you want more power, Subaru can assuage that need with the 265bhp STi.
STi owners will certainly have enough performance to be able to blow most other road users into the undergrowth with a rest to sixty figure of 5.2 seconds and a top speed of 148mph on the cards. These figures err on the conservative side, and give no hint as to the sheer otherworldliness of the Impreza's cornering abilities. Even the 'standard' WRX model can despatch the sprint to 60mph in 5.9 seconds en route to a top speed of 143mph for the saloon and 140 for the estate. The brakes have been improved over the old Turbo, with ventilated discs all round giving an impressively fade-free performance.
Although it took time to win our affections, the second generation Impreza is now looking like one of the better buys on the used market. Slightly undervalued, brilliant to drive, practical and tough as old boots they barely put a foot wrong. Despite the manic zeal of the WRX, the 2.0GX is very much the 'sleeper' of the range. The stratospheric brand loyalty demonstrates Subaru's ability to get what's important very right. Cult cars usually come with considerable caveats. Not so the Impreza.