Subaru Eyes Continuously-Variable Brand Destruction

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Subaru’s first US-market continuously-variable transmission (CVT) was a major factor in the 2010 Outback’s recent two-star TTAC review. Not in the “one niggling fault” way either. Think more along the lines of the “metaphor for myriad brand betrayals” kind of dislike. Subaru’s vehicles are getting heavier, their interiors are becoming more plasticky-gimmicky and much of the driving fun once available in say, a stock Impreza, has gone the way of quirky styling and rugged functionality. And guess what? Subaru’s mainstream trend-encies look to be here to stay.

Automotive News [sub] reports that Subaru is considering offering CVTs across their US lineup in a bid to boost fuel efficiency. We are thinking about it, but we don’t have an actual plan about which models,” says Masashi Uemura, a rep for Subaru parent company Fuji Heavy Industries. The Forester and Impreza are rumored to be the next in line for the stepless transmission.

The irony of this decision is, of course, that CVTs seek to address a negative trend (namely, added weight) while amplifying one of that trend’s worst symptoms (namely dull driving experience). Had Subaru not up-sized and up-weighted every vehicle in its US lineup, its efficiency averages would not be the pressing problem they are now.

Sure, Subaru’s commitment to all wheel drive puts it at a disadvantage vis-a-vis FWD competitors, but the unconventional boxer engine-AWD drivetrain is also Subie’s raison d’brand. The happy side-effects of Subaru’s unique drivetrain consistency has been do-anything utility and a modicum of driving pleasure in every model. Subaru gleefully tore through Volvo and Saab’s market share through the 1990s on the back of these traits, carving out one of the most unique niches in the US market.

But Subaru’s success is sowing the seeds of its own undoing. Subaru’s sales have never been better, but they’re coming at the outset of a deliberate campaign of mainstream-oriented brand dilution. The current crop of squidgy scoobs benefit from their recent past of intense brand focus while gaining weight and styling gimmickry which broaden their appeal. For now. When memories of the last several generations of Subarus fade, the brand will be little more than a Buick for the bicoastal crowd (not to mention the lesser Rocky Mountain liberal).

Chasing the junior-Audi market holds a lot of promise, and Subaru’s market-beating sales growth seems to vindicate the approach. And though aging elements of Subaru’s well-cultivated base may appreciate the softer rides and quieter cabins, Subaru is doing little to maintain its appeal to new generations of buyers.

Subaru has already ceded the bottom of the AWD hatchback market to Suzuki’s SX4, giving ground in what was once the core of its brand. Better to consolidate and expand the niche than go all-out for a campaign of mainstream-oriented bland engineering.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Harleyflhxi Harleyflhxi on Sep 09, 2009

    Hello, Joyce.

  • J.C. J.C. on Oct 20, 2009
    My Dear John letter to Subaru: Dear Outback, After bringing joy and love into my life for 30 plus years, I'm leaving you! You've let yourself go and now look like every other suburban jelly bean SUV in the 2010 line-up. You just don't care about me. Maybe you can find other lovers but you'll never find another me. For the best, J.C.
  • Mike Some Evs are hitting their 3 year lease residual values in 6 months.
  • Tassos Jong-iL I am just here for the beer! (did I say it right?)
  • El scotto Tim, to be tactful I think a great many of us would like a transcript of TTAC's podcast. 90 minutes is just too long for most of us to listen. -evil El Scotto kicking in- The blog at best provides amusement, 90 minutes is just too much. Way too much.
  • TooManyCars VoGhost; I was referring more to the Canadian context, but the same graft is occurring in the US of A and Europe. Political affiliation appears to be irrelevant.
  • The Oracle Going to see a lot of corporations migrating out of Delaware as the state of incorporation. Musk sets trends, he doesn’t follow them.