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Subaru’s slogan says that “love” is what makes “a Subaru a Subaru.” You could just as easily say that it’s Subaru’s commitment to all-wheel drive (AWD) and the boxer engine that makes it stand out from the crowd. Subaru’s long history of making reliable, versatile cars has created a loyal fan-base who do indeed love their cars. Forbes has noted that Subaru has one of the best rates of repeat buyers with about 36% of Subaru drivers coming back for more. For a time, Subaru used the slogan “we built our reputation by building a better car,” and indeed Subaru carved out its niche with its dedication to engineering go-anywhere do-anything vehicles. In 2007, the Japanese Society of Automotive Engineers (JSAE) compiled a list of 240 landmark moments in Japanese cars. Subaru’s innovations earned it about 10 spots on the list.
The Fuji Heavy Industries
Subaru’s lineage can be traced back to Japan’s Nakajima Aircraft Company, which built the Japanese fighter planes—including the (in)famous Zero—during World War II. In the period prior to the war, the Japanese economy was driven by large conglomerates known as zaibatsu, of which Nakajima was one. Following the war, the zaibatsu were reorganized under direction of Allied forces. Nakajima then became a manufacturing company called Fuji Sangyo.
Without the need for warplanes, Fuji turned its attention to civilian transportation. Its breakout product was a motor scooter called the Fuji Rabbit. The Rabbit was a cheap and reliable mode of transportation for many Japanese people, and so it built up such a cult following that Rabbits are still collector’s items today among motor scooter aficionados. The Rabbit is so iconic that it has even appeared in Anime series including FLCL and Paranoia Agent.
In 1950, the Japanese government stepped in to further break down zaibatsu, and Fuji Sangyo was broken down into 12 smaller companies. In a slight reversal, though, four of those companies, and a new motor scooter company called Fuji Kogyo, formed together into Fuji Heavy Industries.
The First Subarus
Fuji Heavy Industries CEO Kenji Kita wanted the company to move into the automobile market. Fuji built a small, front-engine rear-wheel drive sedan using a 1.5 liter Peugeot engine. Kita named the car the Subaru 1500. The 1500 referred to the engine size in cubic centimeters. Subaru is the Japanese name for a cluster of stars also known as the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters. The six stars of the Subaru logo also refer to the Pleiades (the seventh star is not visible to the naked eye). Kita said that he had “been cherishing [the Subaru name] in his heart.”
In post-War Japan, light cars with low fuel demands were needed to mobilize the public. Fuji developed a kei car (or light car) called the Subaru 360. Much like the Volkswagen Beetle that was filling the same niche in post-War Germany, the Subaru 360 used a rear engine, rear wheel drive layout – very different from the layout Subaru would become famous for.
The 360 used a 356cc two-stroke, inline two cylinder engine, but with an aerodynamic bubble shape and a curb weight of 900 pounds, the tiny engine was enough to propel the car to 60 miles per hour. Never mind that, according to Consumer Reports, it took more than half a minute for the car to reach that speed.
Seeing a demand for inexpensive, fuel-saving cars, importers Malcolm Bricklin and Harvey Lamm brought the first Subarus to the United States. Bricklin and Lamm founded Subaru of America (SOA) in Philadelphia in 1968. SOA later moved to Pennsauken, New Jersey, and later Cherry Hill, New Jersey. SOA is still headquarted at Cherry Hill, where there is also a museum of artifacts from Subaru’s history.
Only a small number of 360s were sold in the United States, where advertisements emphasized its low cost of ownership and fuel economy while acknowledging that the car was “cheap and ugly.” Japanese drivers reacted more favorably to the car’s looks, nicknaming it the “ladybug.” The 360 was produced in Japan from 1958-1971.
Birth of the Boxer
Fuji’s next major car project was the Subaru 1000, a compact car available as a sedan or wagon. As you might have guessed, the 1000 used a 1000 cc engine. Unlike the engines in previous Subarus, though, this wasn’t an inline engine, but a horizontally opposed engine, sometimes called a flat or boxer engine, because the horizontal movement of the opposing pistons toward and then away from each other resembles boxers’ touching gloves before a fight. Fuji examined boxer engines from Porsche and the Chevy Corvair, as well as ones used in its aircraft before building its own. Today, boxer engines have become practically synonymous with Subarus and were used in almost all Subarus going forward.
The new Subaru also differed from its predecessors by being front-wheel drive. Most cars at that time were still rear-wheel drive, so the Subaru 1000 offered unique handling abilities. The 1000 used a transaxle, a front differential connected directly to the transmission and housed in the transmission housing. The development of the front differential and constant velocity joints for the front axles also paved the way for the all-wheel drive systems that would make Subaru famous.
Forward Thinking and Four-Wheel Drive
Front-wheel drive already made Subarus reliable all-weather cars, but putting power to all four wheels would work even better. An electric company of the northern Japanese Tohoku region recognized this. Tohoku Electric Power Company asked if Subaru could build a fleet of Four-wheel drive (4WD) Subaru 1000s. At the time, Tohoku Electric was using Jeeps, but the Jeeps were open topped, which made them less than pleasant to use in the winter. They figured a 4WD wagon would be ideal, and they figured that Subaru was the company best suited to build it.
Turning the 1000 into a 4WD car was a relatively straight-forward process. Subaru engineers added a rear driveshaft, differential, and axles. The driveshaft was connected to the transmission by a transfer case that the driver could switch on and off with a lever next to the shifter. This drivetrain layout of a front transaxle connected to a rear driveshaft is the basis for Subaru’s AWD system today.
That limited run of 1000s lead to the Leone, which was available in either front-wheel driver (FWD) or 4WD as a coupe, sedan, or wagon. The Leone’s 4WD also led to its inclusion on the JSAE’s list of automotive landmarks. The car also featured a unique dual circuit brake system. The left front and right rear brakes were activated by one set of hydraulics and the right front and rear left by another. If one set of lines should fail, there would still be evenly distributed braking (although with reduced stopping power). The Leone used a flat-four engine that US advertisements referred to as “quadrozontal.”
In 1972, the Winter Olympics were held in Sapporo, Japan. Subaru used this as an opportunity to introduce the Leone and advertise its all-weather capabilities. While it initially marketed the car to doctors and other professionals living in snowy regions, in those early years, the Leone proved to be popular in mountainous regions like Switzerland and Colorado.
Subaru continued to improve on the Leone throughout the car’s lifetime. The manually operated 4WD system was replaced, first with a push-button system, and then with a full-time AWD system. In the push-button system, the driver could push a button to electronically activate a multiplate clutch that connected the rear driveshaft to the transmission. Eventually, it would be replaced by a viscous coupling. The viscous coupling allows power to be sent to all four wheels as the default. A loss of traction at one set of wheels (front or rear), will cause movement in the fluid in the viscous coupling, which leads to more torque going to the gripping wheels. People often describe this system as sending power “from the wheels that slip to the wheels that grip.” Subaru still uses central viscous couplings in all its manual transmission cars today.
The Leone also saw the introduction of fuel injection and turbo charging to boost engine power and fuel efficiency. Subaru Rally Team Japan began running turbocharged Leones in the World Rally Championship (WRC) in 1980. The team had modest success throughout the 1980s, including a first in class finish at the 1986 Safari rally. The head engineer for the team was Noriyuki Koseki who would go on to found Subaru’s performance division Subaru Tecnica International (STI). A turbocharged Leone was also the winning car at the first Alcan 5000, a 5000 mile rally across Alaska, in 1986. This was the first of several Subaru wins at the Alcan and would lead to strong ties between Subaru and the event.
The Chicken Tax and the BRAT
One of Subaru’s quirkiest and most iconic models emerged as a response to the complications of international trade laws. In the 1960s, Germany and France had imposed high tariffs on cheap American chicken. In response, the US raised tariffs on many types of goods that were typically imported from Europe, including brandy, potatoes, and light trucks. Import trucks were taxed at 25% compared to 2.5% on imported passenger cars. The tax on trucks was aimed at curtailing sales of the Volkswagen Type 2 van, but also affected Japanese manufacturers. While the tariffs on other goods were eventually reduced or dropped altogether, the tax on light trucks remained.
If not for the financial difficulty of selling them, it would have made a great deal of sense for Subaru to try to sell a small truck. It already had an effective 4WD system for its cars. A small 4WD truck would separate Subaru from competitors like Toyota and Nissan. So the company developed the BRAT (short for Bi-drive Recreational All Terrain) in 1978. The BRAT was developed from the Leone station wagon and used the Leone’s manual 4WD system.
It also featured a clever workaround for the small truck tariff. Two rear-facing, plastic seats were mounted in the BRAT’s pickup bed. This officially made the BRAT a passenger car, and eligible for the lower tax rate. Some owners simply removed the seats to use the pickup bed, while others found them a fun accessory for adventurous driving. Subaru of America ads showed the BRAT driving on a beach with the rear-seat passengers enjoying the sun. The tagline read “Fun on Wheels.” Some people did use the BRAT as a work vehicle, though. Ronald Reagan, as just one example, had one that he kept on his ranch in Santa Barbara.
The ‘80s saw Subaru trying to branch out its product line beyond sturdy reliable sedans, wagons, and trucks. They tested two smaller models: a hatchback called the Justy and a sports coupe called the XT. They were both small and available in either FWD or 4WD, but in many ways they were opposites.
The Justy, introduced in 1984, used a 1-liter, and later a 1.2-liter inline three-cylinder engine. The small engine, mated to a continuously variable transmission, gave the car good fuel mileage. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) connects two pulleys with a belt. Each pulley is actually two cones facing each other. The cones can move closer together or farther apart to change the area that the belt rides on, effectively changing the size of each pulley. That makes it possible for the transmission to move smoothly through any gear ratio needed. Subaru started using a similar system again in its automatic transmission cars in 2014.
Where the Justy was practical and efficient, the XT was flashy and sporty. In addition to building a sports car, Subaru wanted to show off its aeronautic heritage from Fuji Heavy Industries. The XT, released in 1984, had a very pointed wedge-shape, allowed by the low height of its boxer engine. The car had an impressive 0.29 coefficient of drag, making it highly aerodynamic. The interior was inspired by airplane cockpits and included a digital gauge cluster and a pistol-grip shifter with a thumb button to activate 4WD. Over time, the engine was upgraded from a 1.8-liter flat-four to a turbocharged version of the same, and finally to a 2.7-liter flat-six. The push button 4WD was eventually replaced with full-time, viscous AWD.
The car was very striking in its time. A reviewer for the New York Times called it “the ultimate in jazzy design.” The car was featured in the Tom Hanks movie Big, and one was given to Jerry Rice as his award for being named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXIII. Ultimately, it seems that the XT was too out of step with Subaru’s brand image at the time. Sales were relatively weak and the model was replaced by the Alcyone SVX in 1991. The SVX was similar to the XT with a flat-six engine and available AWD. Japanese SVXs also came with four-wheel steering. A team in an SVX won the 1991 Alcan rally. An SVX also served as the pace car for Indy car for a couple seasons in the ‘90s, but, sadly, as with the XT, the SVX failed to find a big customer base.
SIA and Introducing Subaru's Modern Models
Although the BRAT had worked as a Tariff workaround, Subaru saw the benefits of manufacturing cars in the US. It entered into a joint venture with Isuzu, called Subaru-Isuzu Automotive (SIA), to build a manufacturing plant in Lafayette, Indiana. Isuzu and Subaru had both come under partial ownership by General Motors at that time. In 1988, the factory began producing the Subaru Legacy and the Isuzu pickup. SIA went on to build the Isuzu Trooper, which was rebadged as the Subaru Bighorn from 1990 to 1993.
The Legacy proved to be SIA’s first big success, though. The Legacy, released in 1989, took over from the Leone as Subaru’s flagship car. In its first generation, the car was available as a sedan or wagon with FWD or AWD. The second generation sold only with AWD in the US (although FWD was still available in Japan), and started Subaru’s move towards making most of its models AWD only.
The Legacy also kick started the era of Subaru’s success in the World Rally Championship (WRC). In 1990, a Legacy was one of only 10 cars (out of 59) to finish the grueling Safari Rally. In 1991, Marku Alen drove a Legacy to third place in the Swedish Rally. Subaru’s rally efforts really began to hit their stride in 1992 when Ari Vatanen and Colin McRae started racing for the Subaru World Rally Team. The team managed to take another third place at the Swedish Rally in 1993, and a one-two finish at the first leg of the Acropolis rally. McRae finally managed to take a race win at the 1993 Rally New Zealand. At that point, the Subaru World Rally Team was eager to change to the recently released Imprezza—but not before they got that crucial win with the Legacy.
The second generation of the Legacy, introduced in 1993, saw the introduction of two popular submodels. The Legacy GT Was a sporting version that came with a 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-4. The Legacy Outback was a lifted wagon made for light off-road driving, released in 1996. The Outback eventually branched off as its own model which is still in production today. Branded as “the world’s first sport utility wagon,” the Outback is beloved by outdoorsy types. Others may best remember for a series of TV commercials where Crocodile Dundee actor Paul Hogan drove the Outback through its namesake region in Australia.
The Impreza was introduced in 1992, just a year before the Legacy’s first update, as the Legacy’s smaller sibling. Like its big brother, it was available as a sedan or wagon and with FWD or AWD. The Imprezza used the same EJ boxer engine as the Legacy. Although the base Impreza was and is still known as practical little car beloved of college professors, it also has had great success with those seeking more thrills from their automobile.
Turbocharged Imprezas with stiffer chassis and suspensions were the car of choice for the Subaru World Rally Team throughout its most competitive WRC years. The Impreza reached the podium in its debut race in 1993. That same year, Colin McRae drove an Impreza to its first rally win in the Rally New Zealand. Subaru won three constructors’ championships in a row from 1995-1997. McRae won the drivers’ championship in 1995. Subaru drivers Richard Burns and Petter Solberg won the drivers’ championship in 2001 and 2003 respectively.
As the company’s racing efforts began to draw more attention, Subaru decided to release a performance version of the Impreza for the street. This turbocharged model was known as the Impreza WRX (for World Rally eXperimental). In 1994, STI introduced an even more performance-oriented model, the Impreza WRX STi (typically refererred to simply as the STI). At first, the WRX and STI were only available in the Japanese market. They first became available in the US when Subaru introduced the second generation of the Impreza in 2000. In 1994, the Impreza got a lifted wagon version called the Outback Sport. In Japan, the Outback Sport was also made available with the WRX’s turbo engine as a submodel called the Gravel Express.
1997 saw Subaru reach out another branch on its family tree of models. With the continued success of the two Outback models and growing consumer interest in SUVs, it made sense for Subaru to explore the possibility of building an SUV. The Forester was built on the Impreza platform, effectively replacing the Outback Sport. The Forester was different than the other SUVs on the market, though. It set the trend for small crossover SUVs still seen today. Subaru marketed the Forester as “SUV tough, car easy,” to emphasize its blend of ruggedness and convenience. The Forester and the Outback have been adopted as rescue vehicles by the National Ski Patrol (NSP). Subaru even built a special Forester for the NSP with a winch and a roof-mounted toboggan. Foresters and Outbacks are also popular cars for officials and volunteers at the Alcan rally (while Imprezas and Legacys remain popular with competitors).
2003 saw the introduction of the Baja, a small pickup built on the Legacy/Outback platform that in some ways harkened back to the BRAT. Since the Baja was built in Indiana, it didn’t have to contend with the light truck tariff but it still had front and rear seats—only now they were all within the cabin, which had four doors. The visual styling was inspired by rally trucks raced in the Baja 1000 off-road race in Mexico. Subaru executives claimed they didn’t want the truck to look like anything else on the road. It didn’t, but customers weren’t so enthusiastic to stand out. Subaru only sold about 30,000 Bajas before the model was discontinued in 2006.
2003 also saw SIA hit an important landmark. In the previous year, Subaru ended its agreement with Isuzu and changed the name of SIA to Subaru of Indiana Automotive, retaining the SIA acronym. In 2003, the Indiana plant became a zero-landfill facility. All of the plant’s waste was reused or recycled in some form—none of it went to a landfill. SIA remains a zero-landfill facility today, as the company continues to find ways to reduce waste. For example, Subaru started using different paint and more precise equipment that allowed the use of less paint per car. It also installed a system that can recapture excess paint to be reused.
Some of Subaru’s biggest developments have occurred in recent years. These include technological advancements, new models, and many accolades. In 2007, at the Frankfurt motor show, Subaru announced plans for a diesel boxer engine. This was a nearly unprecedented idea. Volkswagen had made a prototype boxer diesel in the 1960s but ultimately abandoned the project. Diesel engines tend to have long cylinders, which when combined with the horizontal layout could result in an overly wide engine. Subaru turbocharged the engine to get more power out of its relatively small displacement. It also made the pistons out of a proprietary high strength material that can withstand high pressures, allowing the engine to produce good torque without an unnecessarily long stroke. It also had specially made shorter fuel injectors. In 2009, the engine became the first boxer diesel available in a production car, when diesel Legacys, Outbacks, and Foresters started selling in Europe.
2008 saw another big change for Subaru. That year, the company left the WRC. Under increasing financial demands due to the collapse of automotive markets that year, Subaru felt it could not sustain a worldwide racing program. However, an American team, Subaru Rally Team USA, established in Vermont in 2001, continued to race in Rally America, with drivers like X-Games Motocross champion Travis Pastrana and BMX athlete Dave Mirra. From 2006 to 2014, a Subaru Rally Team USA driver won the Rally America championship every year except 2010. The Impreza WRX STI is the single model with the most race wins in the series with 37. The Impreza WRX is in third place with 6, following the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X in second with 7.
The STI made another big mark in 2010. Former WRC driver Tommi Makinen (who had driven for longtime rival Mitsubishi) drove a record-breaking 7 minute 55 second lap of the Nürburgring Nordschleife race track in Germany. This set a new lap record for a four door car. The record was previously held by the Porshce Panamera with a 7 minute 56 second lap. Away from the track, Subaru was also working on more utilitarian vehicles. 2012 saw the introduction of the XV Crosstrek. The Crosstrek is a small crossover SUV built on the Impreza chassis. Its raised wagon design and nimble size have led it to repeat the sales success of the Outback Sport.
The Crosstrek is prototypical of the success Subaru has had with practical, reliable models. It was joined in 2012 by a model that diverged widely from the rest of Subaru’s lineup—the BRZ. The BRZ was jointly developed with Toyota which had bought a 16.5% share of Fuji Heavy Industries in 2008. Toyota was developing a new rear-wheel drive sports car. One of Toyota’s major goals in building the car was to keep it light weight with a very low center of gravity for better handling. Toyota realized that a boxer engine would help them achieve these goals, and approached Subaru with the idea of working together on the car. At first, Subaru executives balked at the idea. A rear-wheel drive sports coupe was about the farthest thing from Subaru’s standard model lineup. Eventually Subaru acquiesced to the deal, under the condition that it would handle the development and manufacture of the final product. The resulting car is sold (with slightly different body work) as the Subaru BRZ, the Scion FR-S and in Europe and Asia as the Toyota 86 or GT86.
The BRZ has proved to be a huge success with enthusiasts. Top Gear named the Toyota variant, the GT86, Car of the Year. Autocar named it Best Driver’s Car that year and Auto Express named it the best performance car. The boxer engine used in the BRZ was also named one of the 10 Best Engines by Ward’s in 2013.
Subaru has won a number of other accolades lately. In 2012, Forbes asked if Subarus were the best cars money could buy, noting that research shows that most Subaru buyers could afford a more expensive car if they wanted. In 2013, the International Institute for Highway Safety named each Subaru model as a top safety pick. That same year, Consumer Reports also listed Subaru as the most reliable brand overall, and ALG (formerly Auto Lease Guide) ranked Subarus highest among mainstream cars for retaining their value.
As one might expect, sales grew on the heels of all that praise. Subaru grew nearly twice as much as other automakers from 2012 to 2013, and has continued to grow at a rapid pace. Although the company is growing, it still remains a niche product. Toyota sells almost as many Corollas as Subaru sells cars in total.
Subaru’s success hasn’t come from huge sales numbers, but rather from being the best at what it does. Subaru drivers know that whether they’re driving a rally across Canada, on a track, or just to pick the kids up from school that they can count on their car to get them there. That versatility and reliability is what has won Subaru such a loyal fan base.
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