Motoring: Asian tiger; The verdict

Awesome thrust, awful interior - Michael Booth and readers find you can't have everything with the Subaru Impreza Turbo

Mike Harvey, 42, hospital general manager from Chelmsford, Essex. Currently drives a Honda Accord Aerodeck

"I've always wanted to try one of these and I can now see why they're so successful as rally cars," enthused Mike. "It has inherently good roadholding. You can feel this car wants to go as soon as you touch the accelerator. It picks up unbelievably in every gear, but it needs a cruising gear. For somebody of my size these seats are too small - I literally wouldn't be able to use this car for a long drive. And I don't think much of the interior, but you're paying for the engine aren't you? There's tremendous feel around corners, but I might find the hard ride a bit wearing."

David Morgan, 55, highway engineer; Valerie Morgan, 54, bio-medical scientist, from Thundersley, Essex. Currently drive a Citroen 2CV and Morgan Plus 8

"This is very practical," said David. "I'd get all my boating gear in the back. The accelerator is very light, you can really feel that it wants to go, but it's still happy to potter. It doesn't have the torque of my Morgan and it doesn't like to be in the wrong gear. The interior is quite plain but that doesn't bother me, it's like a sports car in the way it changes direction and accelerates." Val disapproved of the seat covers: "They're just knitted nylon. I'm usually a bit cautious in a new car but I feel totally confident in this."

Jackie Hellen, 27, PA, currently between cars; and her dad Mike, 59, cost accountant, from Chelmsford, Essex. Currently drives a Nissan Sunny Being five foot, Jackie had to sit on a few coats to see over the dash but still found plenty to rave about: "I like the white dials and the seats are great - often I find the lumbar support is in the wrong place but this is fine. Compared to other cars I've driven this is fantastic - the performance is very impressive, it'll corner at any speed, but the interior reminds me of my dad's Sunny." Dad Mike applauded the Subaru's practicality: "There's plenty of room in the back, and I like the fact that it's so understated."

Mark Mockett, 31, BBC picture editor, from Ingatestone, Essex. Currently drives a VW Golf GT TDi

"Subaru have a fairly good reputation for reliability, so I wouldn't worry about it lasting, and their rally successes have really defined their image," said Mark. "This doesn't seem to have much turbo lag, it's very responsive in every gear, but my Golf beats it in 3rd and 4th. It has a sport suspension set-up, which you can feel. It sounds good but the cabin feels a bit plasticky. It's really just a standard Asian car inside - I'd expect air-conditioning for that sort of money. The styling of the estate rear is horrid, but I'm very impressed by the bulge in the bonnet."

very now and then a movie, a play or a CD comes from nowhere to achieve popular and critical acclaim. Sometimes, though more rarely, it happens with a car. The Subaru Impreza Turbo is one. Hardly a household name, Subaru has been plodding away for years building soggy saloons and iffy off-roaders, but in the Impreza Turbo it has created a genuine cult car in sheep's clothing.

The Impreza Turbo's brilliance has long been appreciated in rallying circles, hardly surprising since Subaru has won the World Rally Championship manufacturer's title for the last three years. The motoring press just love them too and, at last, the general public have finally begun to cotton on.

From a basis of the standard Impreza saloon, no slouch itself, Subaru has fashioned a practical, cheap, reliable sports saloon that combines the responsiveness of a Lotus Elise with the power of a Porsche but, sadly, the aesthetic appeal of a Breville sandwich toaster (but we'll come to that later).

The version we tested is the Impreza Turbo 2000 AWD five-door. A few minor improvements have been made to this '99 model, capable of 142mph and 0-60 in 5.5 seconds, but they are little more than tweeks. The car's trademark eager-to-please engine, reassuring chassis and nuclear-powered thrust remain to thrill and flatter any driver lucky enough to experience them.

I say flatter because one of the Impreza's finest qualities is that in combining effortlessly manageable supercar performance with thumping great brakes and wonderfully composed suspension it can make Colin McRaes of us all. You can abuse the Impreza with total impunity. No matter how jerky you are with your steering and pedal inputs or how recklessly you corner, the Subaru will see you safely through situations where even a 911 may flounder.

To supplement the arcade-game handling, the Impreza's four cylinder "boxer" engine is one of the most enthusiastic power plants I've ever experienced. The moment you feather the throttle it lets you know that vast power is immediately available which when called upon springs the car into action like a rocket-powered Zebedee.

That's the sales pitch, but why wouldn't I buy one? Well, despite offering very nearly the same thrills as many a sports car twice its price, the Impreza is no beauty. Family hatchback origins are impossible to conceal no matter how many dinner-plate-sized fog lamps you stick on the front of a car. More seriously, the Impreza's interior has about as much appeal as a dentist's waiting room. A black plastic bucket lined with scratchy nylon is not a place you want to spend your leisure time. The stereo sucks too, and extras are thin on the ground for a pounds 21,500 car.

But while it may not be a thing of beauty, the Impreza should at least be a joy for ever. Subaru make cars almost as well as its German rivals and it frequently ranks in the top five in customer satisfaction surveys. And for a go-faster family who want thrills without having to worry about rear seat spills, an Impreza Turbo five-door is certainly the most practical option I can think of

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.

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