Expert Reviews

Road Trip: 2015 Subaru Impreza 5-door

Ten under in the corners, twenty over whenever there's a passing lane. It's verse one, chapter one of the Rental RV Bible; not so much “Do Unto Others…” as “Annoy Everyone Constantly”. Dawdle along in the curvy bits, sure, that's soaking in the scenery – but why must they all shout “Punch it Chewie!” and floor the throttle every time there's a chance to pass?

Regrettably, this is no WRX, but a humble Impreza hatchback.

If you've got plenty of poke under the hood, you can give them the steely staredown as you go past easily (not that it'll do any good, as none of these buffoons are paying any attention anyway). Regrettably, this is no WRX, but a humble Impreza hatchback with a modest 148 hp at 6,200 rpm and 145 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm from its 2.0L flat-four and a continuously variable transmission. A boxer engine it may be, but it's a bantamweight, and with the combined weight of four passengers and cargo for a week-long road trip, straight-line zip is no left cross.

Even so, by dint of careful planning and paying attention to when the short passing sections are coming, I manage to get out ahead of the behemoths and fill that big Subaru windshield with some spectacular landscape (also bugs). Vancouver to Calgary and back again, straight through the Rocky Mountains with a couple of detours, both planned and unplanned. Saddle up.

The first leg of our journey is but a stunted one, a simple get-out-of-town pass so that the following morning will be spent making distance rather than fighting traffic. Getting up earlier than everyone else is a given, but getting out the door before the masses descend is not: I have two daughters now – one just a couple of months old, the other nearly three – and morning time is basically the exact opposite of those slow-mo Folger's commercials. It's a bit like D-Day at Normandy, except with more poo.

So instead of starting off with the drive, let's discuss the car. All new back in 2013, the Subaru Impreza recently benefitted from a few mid-cycle updates to address a few complaints about the car. The new face is very slightly more stylish (or as close to stylish as you can get out of a Subaru), and this car is now fitted with the Eyesight suite of technologies – more on those once we're on the move.

There's also been some reprogramming of the CVT for behaviour that apes a conventional transmission, and the inclusion of a greater amount of sound-deadening material. A little more polish, you might say, to allow this quirky all-wheel-drive machine to make for a more-appealing choice when placed next to mainstream rivals.

However, all the things I initially like about this car are simple, practical stuff. For instance, when compared to the Ford Focus I most recently drove, the Impreza's rear trunk area is both larger and squarer, and the pull-top luggage cover is easier to remove (just compress one end and out it pops). While the child seat attachment points are these ill-covered holes in the seat foam that get instantly stretched out of shape, it's one of the easiest cars for installing a car seat. 

When loading up the car with everything from travel-bed to swimming gear, features like the extra-wide opening rear doors make putting little people and their stuff in extra easy. The large cubby below the infotainment panel is right-sized for a collection of necessaries: an iPod loaded with Raffi, phones, snacks, etc. Beneath the sliding armrest there's a couple of USB outlets and two divots to let you run cables forward into the cabin. The space is just big enough to fit my SLR, and the cupholders are large enough to fit my wife's coffee mug, which is the size of a propane cylinder.

The shakedown run passes without incident, and soon my eldest is running around my folks' place shouting “Moo!” at the neighbour's bemused cattle. Tomorrow, we'll actually see what the Subie's like to drive.

A bit of Subaru History: Subaru’s Canadian Legacy

Beyond Hope, the road rises by degrees, leaving the Fraser Valley's fertile flood plain behind as the coastal mountains beckon. At first, it's a slow, gradual climb, and at least one of the four of us is happily asleep.

Our plan of having got ahead of the herd has worked thus far, and traffic is relatively light. Even so, this being a weekday, the big rigs are out on the road, and moving right along.

The combination of CVT and a modestly powered naturally aspirated engine is not the sort of thing to get you fired up in the morning. Subaru's gotten a bit tricksy to make this engine seem peppier by programming in a very aggressive throttle tip-in, but when you ask the car to accelerate from 80 to 120 km/h (the newly raised speed limit on the Coquihalla), it takes its sweet time about it. Power is adequate, but not much more than that.

We roll into Merritt at just before noon, beating the lunch rush at the Bramble Cafe by about three minutes. The food's so good here we make a plan to stop again on our way back, and they've even got a miniature “kitchen” set up to one side for kids to play with. I have a turkey sandwich and daughter #1 makes invisible muffins.

From Merritt, I want to take the 5A heading North, and duck around Kamloops. It's a little longer route, but makes up for any added time with amazing scenery and very little traffic. One brief squirt of power is all it takes to get past a semi-trailer, and the road is open and filled with BC's grasslands.

We've swapped seats so I can fiddle with the Subaru's infotainment while we're on the move. As with the Outback, this is one of the biggest improvements for the new model, with a clear, bright 7.0-inch screen (base models get a 6.2-inch screen). Connecting phones is easier, as is scrolling through the menus and screens, and navigation features pinch-to-zoom and swipe technology. There's no one-touch button to mute the navi voiceover though.

Actually, navigation was a bit hilarious. Because I didn't want to drive through Kamloops and its ridiculous unsynchronized traffic lights, I looped south along Campbell road, a short section of gravel. Gravel! This should be any Subaru's preferred route. Heck, the navigation should insist on taking the least-paved route. However, our Impreza's screen got all nervous-nelly, lighting the path up red and repeatedly requesting that we turn back. We did not.

Between the gravel and the rutted, patched pavement that followed it, the Impreza showed slight improvements in ride and handling than the last version I drove. Most of the bumps were ironed right out, and even cattle-crossings didn't upset things too much. Grip on the loose stuff was confidence-boosting, just as you'd expect, and the steering is relatively quick – there's not a lot of feedback, but it does feel relatively sporty.

The more I drove, the madder I got. Why can't we have a WRX version of the hatchback again? Is it the Illuminati? Stonecutters? The Templars? No-Homers? Bah. After a massive feed of BBQ'd meat at the Naked Pig in Vernon, we're slow and sated.

We roll into the Little Green Ranch in Mara about five pm, just in time for a farm tour and a brief visit with Snowflake, the sheep that thinks she's a dog. As we air out the little cabin that needs to hold all four of us, the Impreza is already dusty from the road. It looks better that way.

Driving through Rockies is something every Canadian should experience. If you come at it from the east, it's a sudden upthrusting of rock that breaks the monotony of the flatlands. If you come at it from the west, you understand that the rolling hills you've been driving through are just that, hills. These are the real mountains.

The Impreza chugs up the steep bits on the way to Rogers' Pass, where we all pile out to pow-wow with the ground squirrels and conduct a massive four-person diaper-change/bathroom-break. The more time I spend behind the wheel, the more likeable the Subaru is, even with the constriction of the CVT and modestly powered four-cylinder.

It's enough, is what it is. As a usefully sized hatchback, the Impreza is big enough to carry all our stuff, but only just. It's capable enough on a gravel road, but a little too low for any real off-road activity. It's got just enough power to be able to effect a pass, but only just.

As a family adventure vehicle for a young family, it's entirely workable, and given that the Crosstrek is essentially the same thing just jacked up in the air, you can see why that particular crossover is so popular.

Just outside Calgary, road construction derails our carefully laid out timing, and both kids go to DEFCON One. Stopped dead in the middle of the road, my wife clambers into the back to dispense snacks and discipline (thanking her recent return to morning yoga, no doubt), and we're back on the way again.

The closer we get to the city, the more the Eyesight option on this car becomes handy. As a safety feature, Subaru's camera-based system includes automatic braking, collision warning, and a sensitive lane-departure warning system. More useful on an everyday basis is the adaptive cruise control, which works better than other radar-guided systems. It's smooth, slows properly to a full stop, and makes boring flatland highway less of a chore.

On the return from Calgary, punctuated by an overnight stay in Salmon Arm and another delicious sandwich at the Bramble cafe, we end up detouring far to the South through Manning Park. A motorcycle crash on the Coquihalla has closed the road, but we manage to get off a few exits before the tailback and take 5A southwards. Much like the section running North to Kamloops, the road is winding and rewarding and, if anything, even emptier and lonelier than in the Empire of Grass.

Two young kids asleep in the back, an empty curving road, the wild places of BC; if Subaru was to film a commercial showcasing the outdoorsy appeal of their brand, they'd shoot it here. Add in the PZEV (partial zero emissions) badge showing off this Impreza's clean-running status, and you've got a four-wheeled hiking shoe for the theoretically active young parent.

There is just one thing missing: more power for those who want it. The Impreza hatch is enough in almost all its aspects, but for this family, a little extra punch would go a long way. It doesn't need to go to plaid – it just needs to get past the slowpokes.

Pricing: 2015 Subaru Impreza Limited Tech
Base price: $30,295
Options: None
Freight: $1,595
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $31,990

3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance

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