The RV is the latest addition to the Impreza GX, RX and WRX stable - and it's pitched squarely at buyers hankering after a smaller version of the Liberty Outback.
Subaru calls their new Impreza "the ultimate compact crossover vehicle". Distinguishing the RV over the base Impreza GX hatch is an Outback-esque two-tone colour scheme (applied to the wheel arches, door strips and lower sills), grey opal bumpers with round driving lights and RV decals. It all comes together with quite an aggressive look.
Other unique RV features include 16-inch alloy wheels with 205/55 Bridgestone Potenza RE92 tyres, standard air conditioning plus black and grey dashboard and door trims. Like its big brother Outback, the Impreza RV is offered only as a hatch (though we'd be more inclined to call it a wagon, due to its size and shape).
Potential buyers who weren't satisfied with the size of the previous Impreza need to approach the new model without any preconceptions. The current Impreza hatch offers abundant headroom (some 60mm more than the MY00!), exceptional cabin width and good all-round legroom. Rear passenger foot room, for example, is notably improved thanks to the front seats being mounted 15mm higher than in the previous model. The hatch's rear cargo area is also generous and flipping the 60/40 rear backrests forward can further increase its capacity.
In all, the MY01 Impreza feels like a next-category-up vehicle in internal dimensions.
And the RV packs plenty of functional gizmos into its newfound space - there's nothing of questionable form or function here. The RV is endowed with standard power windows and mirrors, cruise control (with stepper motor actuation), variable intermittent wipers, auto lights-off, dual LCD trip meters, 6-speaker Clarion single CD/tuner, remote central locking, immobiliser and an easy-to-use air conditioning system. Other standard features include a small storage compartment found just behind the rear backrest, space saver spare, removable centre rear headrest and a cargo blind.
So compared with other Impreza models, what doesn't the cabin of the RV offer? Only the top-line RX's Momo leather steering wheel and climate control!
We found the RV's driving position very comfortable - aided by adjustable driver cushion height and steering column angle. The pedals, steering wheel, handbrake and transmission selector controls are well laid out; the armrests are effective and the stalk switches have excellent tactile feel. Visibility is good right around the vehicle, except the centre rear headrest can hide some obstacles behind it - just as well you can slide it out.
Given the increased size of the new Impreza and all its standard fruit (such as all-wheel-drive and power windows), it's not surprising that its unladen mass is now around 1320kg. That's fine - but not so good is the fact that the RV is equipped with a 2-litre engine that develops less power than any other naturally aspirated 2-litre engine on the Australian market! Under the bonnet is an all-alloy SOHC, 16-valve, sequentially injected 2-litre flat-four generating 92kW at 5600 rpm and 184Nm at 3600. While the Subaru does claw back some credibility thanks to its comparatively strong torque - the RV delivering good performance when you're driving at low-to-mid rpm - it all falls into a heap when you want to quickly pull out to merge with traffic or overtake at country road speeds.
With the engine's combination of strong mid-range torque but low peak power, you can easily be seduced into thinking there's more overtaking performance left in reserve than there actually is. To make matters worse, the Impreza 4-speed auto is very reluctant to kick-down to allow maximum acceleration. By the time it has found the necessary (low) gear and you've realised there aren't many kilowatts to call upon, you can be part-way into a passing attempt. Load the vehicle up for a 'get away' weekend - a common scenario for a recreational machine such as the RV - and things could turn ugly.
On the happier side, however, the Impreza engine is very tractable, displays good throttle response and returns pretty reasonable fuel economy. We averaged 9 litres of ULP per 100km during our test.
Despite its non-sporting engine, the MY01 Impreza's carried-over viscous all-wheel-drive system continues to shine. During our mostly rained-out stint with the RV, we found it typically surefooted and un-flappable. Under the front guards you'll find MacPherson struts and a swaybar, while the rear uses struts, multi-links and another swaybar. Spring and damper rates are progressive - giving a smooth ride over small irregularities, but an increasingly firmer movement as bumps grow. At all times the MY01 Impreza chassis feels vastly more rigid than the previous MY00 - and it's also much quieter. Firing the RV through corners, the front 205/55 16 Bridgestone Potenza RE92s lose adhesion progressively - this mild understeer is characteristic of a viscous-coupled all-wheel-drive driveline.
At all road speeds, the standard-across-the-range rack and pinion power steering offers good feel and relatively light weight. Behind each alloy wheel is an ABS-controlled disc brake (ventilated at the front), delivering powerful and consistent stopping power as well as good pedal feel. From an off-roading point of view, the RV gives you 150mm of ground clearance to play with.
In addition to the safety benefits of constant all-wheel-drive and ABS, each new Impreza wagon boasts adjustable front seatbelt height, dual airbags, and a 3-point rear centre seat belt (which can be retracted into the rear quarter panel when not in use). And those eye-catching multi-reflector headlights are more than a styling feature - they provide a powerful spread of light on both low and high beam.
So how does the RV fare on the local new car market?
Well, let's first look at its pricing compared to other Impreza models. A basic GX auto hatch (without air) costs $28,290, the top-line automatic Impreza RX hatch will set you back $32,870 and the performance-oriented WRX hatch checks in at $44,250. Recognising the RV's trim levels, Subaru have cleverly marked their new baby at $31,980 - or $1990 less with a 5-speed manual (which would be our preference anyway). That's not bad value considering all the practical features you get. Furthermore, all models come backed by a Subaru 3 year/unlimited kilometre warranty. Build quality, inside and out, is to a very high standard.
Oddly enough, there is no direct competitor for the all-wheel-drive RV. Similarly sized - but only two-wheel-drive - hatches and wagons include the Alfa 156 Sportwagon ($51,500 with Selespeed 'auto'), Chrysler PT Cruiser Classic auto ($37,300), Citroen C5 SX Estate ($45,490 in auto form), Daewoo Nubira CDX auto wagon ($22, 990), Holden Vectra 2.2-litre CD 5-door ($32,190 auto), Hyundai Elantra GLS auto wagon ($23,980) and Nissan Pulsar 1.8-litre ST 5-door ($23,590 auto). In concept, the Volvo V70 Cross Country auto is probably the Impreza RV's nearest rival; but with 147kW and a $67,950 price tag, this vehicle is entering the scene from another league.
So, given its uncontested niche, the Impreza RV's reasonable pricing seems even more attractive. It's a practical, honest vehicle - even though it is underpowered for some of its likely roles.
Of course, that's where the Forester GT and Impreza WRX hatch come in...