Toyota, possibly more than any other automaker, epitomizes a major tradeoff inherent in mass-market success: mechanical and stylistic homogeneity. Subaru, on the other hand, traditionally occupies the other end of the spectrum, slinging mechanically unique but ultimately niche-oriented products. Since Toyota took a 16.5 percent stake in Subaru’s parent company Fuji Heavy Industries, observers have wondered how the relationship between two so different automakers would play out. And since Subaru had already cultivated a fiercely loyal following with its dedication to niche values, the outcome has largely been that Subaru fans have decried the perceived “Toyotafication” of Subaru. And now, if a new rumor from Motor Trend is anything to go by, the uproar is about to get a little bit louder.
Luckily for the fans, MT claims that closer cooperation between Subaru and Toyota will center around Subaru’s least-Subaru-like vehicle: the infamous Tribeca.
Toyota is studying how to more closely converge its products with Subaru, and might share its next-generation Highlander midsize crossover platform with the Tribeca. The two have similar dimensions, notes a source familiar with the tie-in.
As always with Subaru, the sticking point is how to share a platform that would use a longitudinally mounted boxer engine, in the case of the Tribeca, with a transverse-mounted engine, as in the Highlander. The platform also will have to accommodate a hybrid version of the Highlander, and it’s a good bet the system would be adapted to the pancake-engine Tribeca.
Of course Subaru’s use of boxer engines, a layout shared only by Porsche, catches MT’s attention, but there are more problem than just changing engines between Toyota and Subaru. The Subaru Legacy platform on which the Tribeca is based was designed from the ground-up as an all-wheel-drive platform, whereas the Highlander and Lexus RX are built on an AWD-capable modified Camry chassis. I’ll leave a reckoning of all the different challenges of aligning these two products to the Best and Brightest, but the following images of the Tribeca/Legacy chassis and a cutaway of a Lexus RX450h show just how different these two vehicles are (dimensions notwithstanding).
The solution to a similar problem might be instructive in this case: the “Toyobaru” sports coupe (aka FT-86, aka O86A) was developed on a Subaru platform, meaning Toyota’s version had the Subie-unique flat four. After all, fans complain more about a brand losing an element of its identity than sharing it with another automaker. And, as MT points out, Subaru has its own way of differentiating the Subaru-badged version of its jointly-developed sportscar.
Toyota tackles the problem with the upcoming FT-86 rear-wheel-drive sports coupe by going with a Subaru pancake engine — the STI’s 305-horsepower, 290 pound-foot version of the 2.5-liter turbo four, our source says… Subaru’s version of the 086A, as the project is known, is still scheduled for 2013 model year introduction and will likely be sold with all-wheel drive only, as part of its differentiation from the Toyota.
Since the RWD chassis derives from Subaru’s AWD system, Toyota’s version of the O86A will have less power and rear-drive, while Subaru simply adds a larger engine and keeps the front half-shafts from its original design. Bam, differentiation. But with a Tribeca/Highlander mash-up, the options aren’t as good. As a mass-market automaker, Toyota needs a volume nameplate like Highlander to get better mileage than a boxer-powered, full-time AWD (aka, Tribeca-based) model can achieve. A front-drive, boxer-powered workaround would be hard enough… adapting hybrid synergy drive to Subaru’s platform would be harder still.
MT’s conclusion that a jointly-developed Tribeca/Highlander would be “adapted to the pancake-engine Tribeca,” therefore, doesn’t add up especially well. In fact, it’s far more likely that Subaru will simply sell a full-time AWD adaptation of a transverse-mount, inline-engined Toyota chassis. After all, only hardcore Subaru fans will notice that the Tribeca no longer sports a boxer engine, and they’ve never been huge fans of the Tribeca (then again, is anyone?). Besides, those same Subaru fans have been the ones complaining while Subaru rides its “Toyotafication” to major sales success last year. Though Subaru would risk the soul of its brand on some level by abandoning its commitment to AWD and boxer engines in every model, if it wants to cooperate with Toyota on midsized crossovers, it will probably have to. And, like it or not, the Tribeca is the most logical vehicle to do it on.