It may not be an obvious choice for most buyers, but this four-wheel-drive, sub-£20k hatch does have merit

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This is the new Subaru Impreza hatchbackIt’s the same car that was launched in Japan at the end of 2012, but hasn’t pitched up here until now as the UK importer has been battling unfavourable exchange rates. 

The Yen vs sterling situation is now sorted, though, and so here is the more humdrum hatch. Two versions are available, both using the same 112bhp 1.6-litre flat-four engine but equipped with either a five-speed manual transmission or a CVT, dubbed Lineartronic.

The Impreza has some appealing aspects but it's hard to justify it over the more mainstream choices, like the Ford Focus

Subaru hasn’t forgotten about the WRX STI, which is now a standalone model.

Prices start at a commendable £17,495 for the Impreza RC in manual form, rising to £18,995 for the CVT, which has slightly more favourable CO2 emissions and better official fuel economy at 140g/km and 46.3mpg respectively versus the manual’s 147g/km and 44.1mpg. The one trim level is pretty well appointed, with dual-zone climate control, auto wipers, cruise control, Bluetooth, rear parking camera, seven airbags and heated front seats all part of the package. 

It's the CVT version we've tested here. A lack of other engine choices means the Impreza immediately appears hobbled compared to the choices available on direct rivals such as the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Volkswagen Golf.

Yet it does go into battle with some traditional Subaru signatures. For example, its petrol engine sends its power to all four wheels – a rather exotic attribute for a sub-£20k hatchback. 

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On start-up it sounds like a mildly muted version of the STi’s turbocharged flat-four, which is either pleasing or a little unwelcome depending on your personal taste.

It settles down to a rather refined note for a flat-four though. The trouble is that is needs a lot of stirring in order to extract any overtaking urge, and if you need to get up to cruising speeds quickly you need to be quite brutal with the throttle. 

In truth, the optional CVT seems mostly to blame. It’s one of those infuriating examples of the breed where engine speeds rise faster than road speeds; a sort of slipping clutch reaction every time you put your foot down. Yes, the ‘box makes small positive difference to mpg and CO2 emissions but the manual instinctively feels like the one to order. 

Predictably, grip and traction are good, though we only sampled this Impreza on dry roads. Even so, the chassis doesn’t feel like it’s going to be trouble by the 1.6’s power and torque. It’s comfortable too. There is some road noise and a slightly stiff-legged town ride but it settles down at 40-50mph and stays pliant. 

One common flaw of Subaru cabins is that they lack the design flair and quality of the best of the breed. The Impreza’s, true to form, doesn’t have the same lustre as you’ll get from, say a Volkswagen Golf or Peugeot 308, especially when you cast your eyes downward. Yet most of the bits that you see and touch are of decent quality.

The controls too are the nice’n’simple variety - chunky rotary knobs for the heating and the like. They're easy to use but look rather dated. Comfort is good though, thanks to a flat, supportive seat and good adjustment, while fore and aft visibility is better than in most. Space for you, your three passengers and luggage is good without being exceptional.

In fact, good without being exceptional is the lasting impression of the Impreza. Like for like, you’d be unwise to consider this instead of a Golf, Focus, or nearly any other mainstream hatch. And there’s no doubt that for a good sway of company funded buyers not having a diesel is a huge drawback. 

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Yet, there’s no doubt that having four-wheel drive for this price is an attraction in some parts of the country and that combined with Subaru’s reputation for making hardy, hard-wearing cars is a compelling choice. So if it’s for you it’s for you. It’s just not the first (or second) choice for most of us. 

There’s no word yet on whether the new Impreza, unveiled at the 2016 New York auto show, will come to the UK. It’s expected in five-door hatch form, but is still officially under consideration for Europe, says Subaru.

Subaru Impreza 2017-2020 First drives