This is a comparison test between the Holden Astra R and Subaru Impreza 2.0i-L. While that much might be obvious, more importantly this is not a test involving a Mazda3, Hyundai i30, Toyota Corolla or Volkswagen Golf.
The Holden via Europe, and the Subaru from Japan, are both all-new entrants to the sub-$25,000 automatic-equipped small hatchback segment, and from different sides of the globe they join together with similarly high specification for the price.
Where the Mazda3 and Corolla are in the second half of their model lifecycles, the i30 will in a few months switch to a new generation, and the Golf will likewise cop a mid-life update, the Astra and Impreza (for now) shine as the new stars of the class.
We know their competitors very well; but how do these latest hatchbacks shape up?
Holden Astra R ($22,490 plus on-road costs)
Subaru Impreza 2.0i-L ($24,490 plus on-road costs)
We may have the Astra R on test, but the optioned-up Astra R+ is a better indication of spec comparison here. Holden recently lowered pricing of its new hatchback and that results in the ‘plus’ pack now being cheaper than the former base model was.
Priced from $23,740 plus on-road costs, the R+ adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel, forward collision alert with autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane-keep assistance, auto-dim rear-view mirror and auto-on/off wipers for $1250 over the R.
Those latter trio of features aren’t available on the $24,490 (plus orc) Impreza 2.0i-L, and even Holden’s base R further includes a digital radio, auto-on/off headlights and rear parking sensors with cross-traffic alert, all of which are missing from its rival.
Subaru then balances the ledger with dual-zone climate control, foglights, electric-fold door mirrors, a larger 8.0-inch (versus 7.0-inch) touchscreen, keyless auto-entry and active cruise control, all of which are unavailable in either R and R+.
That said, the R+ is $750 cheaper to begin with and in the long run – the Astra includes 15,000km servicing intervals at a cost of $687 over three years; the Impreza has 12,500km intervals but asks $1298 over the same initial trio of annual check-ups.
These five-door hatchbacks may coat their similarly shaped exteriors in identical bright red paint, but each contains vastly different styling cues inside.
As befitting of its European origins, the Astra masters clean and understated design with subtle silver and piano-black detailing. Some would say it’s bland and austere, but either way some lower plastics are scratchy and therefore aren’t Golf-grade.
And just like walking through Tokyo’s neon-lit Ginza district, the Impreza lights up with more colourful displays and many different buttons and materials competing for attention. Some would say it’s gauche and overdone, but either way ergonomic detail is lacking beyond the more nicely textured plastics and swathes of leather-look trim.
Following on from its ‘more is more’ cabin design philosophy, the Subaru hits home runs for big-ticket features and providing notably more rear legroom than its rival behind the front seats. If lanky teenagers require stretching space, then this is the winner by some margin.
True to interior styling form, however, the Holden proves that the devil is in the detail.
While its screen size is smaller, it includes a digital radio as well as the Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring connectivity that both share. Neither get integrated satellite navigation at this level, but the Astra offers a superb eight-speaker sound system that clearly outguns the six-speaker unit in its rival.
The 2.0i-L curiously lacks even auto-off headlights, which means hearing a lights-on warning buzzer each time you arrive home from work in the dark. It also includes only a backrest-adjust lever that for this tester never allowed the ideal angle for true comfort. Its rival gets auto on/off lights, plus an infinitely adjustable backrest dial.
The R also gets the most comfortable front seats, a rear bench that is heavily tilted to aid under-thigh support and compensate for its lesser legroom, and a larger 360-litre (versus 345L) boot volume.
Like two tennis professionals desperately running back and forth to clobber a ball back over the net, the Impreza aces cabin storage with a capacious tray beneath the climate controls and a huge centre bin to oust the limited equivalents of its foe.
But then it hit a fault – literally, because the touchscreen froze completely and refused to work for the remainder of the test.
Being unable to crank the tunes also revealed an issue with the active cruise control system, which ‘beeps’ each and every time the windscreen-mounted stereo camera detects a car ahead on the freeway, and ‘beeps’ again when the car moves out of your way. It’s one of the most infuriating features used in recent times.
In the case of the Astra, although we tested the R without the active safety tech of the R+, we were able to test the model with such features following this comparison.
Even then, active cruise control isn’t available but – in a sign of yet another small detail from the European model – the standard system does brake downhill to maintain your set speed. And even the lane-keep assistance doesn’t ‘beep’ at you, although the rear cross traffic-alert system thankfully does.
Subaru reserves both of those latter for the top-spec Impreza 2.0i-S, just as Holden keeps active cruise control for its flagship Astra RS-V. Either way, both manufacturers should be applauded for offering forward collision alerts with AEB standard on models available for less than $25K.
ON THE ROAD
Subaru and Holden both claim to have developed a brand new engine and chassis for these models, but on paper only one of them seems to have been successful.
The Astra is the first General Motors (GM) product in recent memory not to suffer from a weight problem. The 1304kg R is 111kg lighter than its Australian-made Cruze predecessor, despite using more complicated turbocharged plumbing for its all-new 1.4-litre petrol.
It makes 110kW of power and 240Nm of torque, whereas the old Cruze non-turbo 1.8-litre developed 104kW/176Nm.
The Impreza continues to be the only segment offering with all-wheel drive rather than sending power only to the front wheels, and that has an impact on kerb weight. The 1417kg 2.0i-L is 113kg – or two slender adults – heavier than its rival, which naturally could be offset with a higher-output engine.
Although its 115kW is competitive, the 2.0-litre non-turbo four-cylinder petrol makes only 196Nm and at a high 4000rpm (versus a 2000rpm to 4000rpm band in Astra).
The Japanese contender’s performance is better than you’d think but not as spritely as you’d hope. Refinement is actually a greater issue, because the ‘boxer’ flat four-cylinder is loud and coarse, with an automatic continuously-variable transmission (CVT) that chirps in with a whine to elicit the same response from driver and riders.
Compared with other pulley-style single-gear CVTs, the Subaru design is a decent one, however its rival relegates this drivetrain to a bygone era for performance, refinement and efficiency.
The Polish-built model’s turbo engine really is highly polished, with immediate response, little lag, a sweeping enthusiasm to rev and super-strong performance that betrays its mere ‘entry level engine’ status. It even sounds good, yet remains so much more refined than its rival in every instance.
A six-speed torque converter automatic clinches this convincing drivetrain victory, with intelligent and intuitive shift pattern that turns subtly aggressive in the alternate Sport mode. On-test fuel consumption of 7.2 litres per 100 kilometres was 1.0L/100km thriftier than its slower, noisier rival.
Initially at least, the R feels quite firm over most surfaces and the 2.0i-L seems plush. Scratch beyond the façades, however, and the former delivers a superbly level ride across most surfaces with only a hint of float when roads turn rough; while the latter can wobble around and cause head-toss, yet also thump through on larger impacts.
Although far superior to its Liberty medium-sized stablemate, the Impreza feels born from the same ideology of making the shock absorbers soft but the spring rate stiff. Its rival’s ride is simply more rounded.
The lighter Astra is also more fun, with the kind of bubbling verve akin to an Aperol Spritz. Its steering is excellent, with initially light weighting that gently firms up as lock is wound on, and a sharpness that matches the keen and agile chassis. It darts into corners and springs energetically through them.
Subaru’s chassis is more like a thickshake by comparison – still tasty, but thicker and slower to slurp up through curly straw-shaped roads. Its steering is heavier and dull, but consistently weighted and accurate, while the handling is planted and secure.
Grip levels are similar, given that both wear 17-inch Bridgestone Turanza tyres, and the 2.0i-L can be credited for its lack of bodyroll and impressive poise through bends. This is certainly the sharpest chassis the brand has offered since the rear-drive BRZ; but if only the damping matched it.
Partially offsetting the loud engine, it is also much quieter on coarse-chip surfaces than its rival, which suffered from some wind noise as well as road roar. Overall, though, it’s not quite enough to best the R on the road.
TMR VERDICT | Which Car Wins The Small Car War?
In undemanding conditions and with pragmatism front of mind, the Impreza can feel like the more mature and cohesive small car here. Its cabin scores more kit and flashier appointments, teamed with roomier and equally comfortable rear quarters.
However, the Subaru’s drivetrain sorely lets it down in terms of both refinement and performance, and especially so given the tubby kerb weight. It simply isn’t as much fun to drive, nor as polished in its suspension and steering beyond a superficial level. Equally, however, the 2.0i-L never plunders – it is a genuinely good, solid small car.
Price reductions have thankfully, quickly brought the Astra into contention not only for a victory here, but also for class honours. The R+ is much sweeter than the R driven here, with a great blend of technology, as well as a more upscale cabin.
Both entry grades lack the cabin class and road noise reduction measures of a Golf, and neither delivers the capacious rear seat and storage of that rival nor the Impreza here. Equally, however, the Holden delivers the drivetrain and dynamic verve to oust the Volkswagen, without the ergonomic weirdness of going French, but with the value of buying Japanese and the low servicing costs typical of this Australian brand.
In this head-to-head at least, it’s simply a winning blend.
Holden Astra R – 4.5 stars
Subaru Impreza 2.0i-L – 3.5 stars