Subaru will be 67 years old on July 15th.
It built its reputation on boxer engines and AWD.
Subaru started out building aircraft before being founded in 1953.
Today’s Subaru is a car company that appeals to almost everyone. Dentists, street racers, parents, tuners, accountants, Rallye fans, conservationists, hooligans, chiropractors, and all of them straight or members of the LGBTQ community have affection for the brand.
Subaru of America was founded in 1968 following a deal with Malcolm Bricklin, yes, that Malcolm Bricklin, to import the Subaru 360. Few new cars were sold and delivered but by the time Subaru Canada was created in 1978, the small Japanese automaker was already making a name for itself thanks to its unusual product.
Doing things their way
Unusual because Subaru was the first mainstream automaker to offer 4WD and “quadrozontal” engine (before it earned the boxer name) as features in its mass-produced cars. The Leone/DL/GF/GL were not so unusual physically, when compared to the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic of the era with various body styles on offer. A coupe, sedan, and wagon were common but when the 1st generation Brat was introduced for 1978, we guess they more or less stood out.
In the late 70s and into the 80s, years that some of us at Motor Illustrated remember, Subaru took on a new dimension, especially when the third generation of the DL/GL, and Loyale hit the road. The 80s were crazy times for all however no other mainstream company “experimented” more with the wedge design craze than Subaru, or at least, took it as far as they did.
Taking it one step at a time
Admittedly, the Brat was and still is extremely cool (so was the less successful Baja) but no other car from the 80s is a better poster-car for the malaise era than the Subaru XT. Everything from the mad aerodynamics to the cockpit was completely out of left field but, for the most part, it left an indelible mark on car enthusiasts and buyers’ psyches. With a turbocharged engine and 4WD, it also opened Subaru up to a world of possibilities. Barely two years after the XT launched, the 1987 Subaru RX, a 3-door notchback performance compact arrived and, in our opinion, Subaru hit its stride.
The Subaru Legacy arrived in 1989 and this is when Subaru began carefully strategizing their path to sustained, intelligent success. As good and pretty as it was, it did not go on to crush sales records in North America. However, elsewhere in the world, the car, Prodrive, and guys like Markku Allen, Ari Vatanen, and some dude named Colin McRae were busy building Subaru’s lore.
Closer to home, Subaru was clearly again “experimenting” in the early 90s with leftovers from the 80s when they introduced the SVX, a 3-door GT. While it too was not quite the hero-car it could have been, Subaru doubled down and introduced the Impreza in 1992. At the time, the Legacy and Impreza were two of the best-kept secrets in the car industry. Only those who knew, knew that, with available AWD and the inherent low center of gravity provided by the boxer engine, and sedan and wagon body style, these cars were the best driving, most robust all-weather utility cars money could buy.
Creating and feeding its niche
At the time, Subaru was slowly building a following in the northeastern and northwestern States and Canada. The cars were proving to be almost as reliable as they were rust-prone but then, something happened in the mid-90s. This one happening, and its offshoot, elevated Subaru’s position in North America from 2nd-tier automaker to top tier: They launched the Outback. Yours truly will always remember the day when the then girlfriend’s father handed over the keys to his brand-new red 5-speed manual Outback for a test drive.
The Subaru Forester, one of the first-ever compact SUVs, arrived shortly thereafter. It could easily be argued that without these two vehicles, the Forester and Outback, there would be no Subaru today. These are the vehicles that appealed to the dentists, accountants, and the likes. Meanwhile, the other half of Subaru’s fanbase was busy gobbling up GC8 Imprezas, especially the Rallye-bred and inspired Impreza 2.5 RS, thanks in part to some other fellow named Richard Burns.
All Subaru owners get what they want
The 2000s were blessed with some extremely memorable cars and SUVs. The Forester was once available as an XT with a turbocharged engine however it was eventually determined that the compact SUV’s recipe and the clientele were best served without boost. Besides, across the showroom, enthusiasts were treated to the WRX, WRX STI as well as the Legacy and Legacy wagon XT and the Outback XT. By 2010 Subaru set aside turbocharged engines in its midsize products but unlike other brands such as Nissan that has all but completely discarded their fanbase, they’ve recently returned.
The beauty with Subaru’s way of doing business is that once these two factions were firmly established, the aficionados and the “normies”, they never completely abandoned either one. Although for most of the 2010s, Subaru buffs were stuck with less-than-attractive WRX and WRX STI, they were still offered. This decade also introduced the CVT transmission which is constantly improving. And now, as the 2020s begin, those who outgrow the WRX can comfortably settle into a Legacy GT or an Outback XT and enjoy the performance as well as a spacious well-conceived cabin.
Playing the smart game
Subaru has never been about massive volumes. Somehow, this approach has empowered them to make smart product decisions. The Outback, the Forester, and the Crosstrek have proven to be the perfect vehicles introduced at the right time. The same principle applies to the BRZ and Ascent (a far better attempt at a midsize SUV than the Tribeca) as both are appropriate for their respective segments, and highly treasured by those who know.
There’s an intangible honesty behind Subaru’s every product and those in the know understand and seek it out. We’re not saying that Subaru vehicles are without fault but somehow the fact that they’re not giant brands like GM, Hyundai, or Toyota, they are less intimidating to work with.
Looking ahead, Subaru’s growing affiliation with Toyota will without a doubt help sustain its approach. Niche vehicles, capability, AWD, and performance will continue to be part of Subaru’s DNA and with the help of Toyota, electrification will become an integral part of its future, and it will be far more convincing than the current Crosstrek PHEV.