By on May 6, 2010

That Subaru is still thriving is in itself a minor miracle. The small Japanese car makers have either imploded (Isuzu), are threatening to (Mitsubishi), or have sought shelter (even Subaru is now 20% owned by Toyota). Subaru did have its own near-death experience in the early nineties. But in a long string of wild bets, Subaru’s final card in the US was a big gamble on AWD, and the timing couldn’t have been better. And like most successful gamblers, there have been losses along the way (see above). But perhaps because of the bumpy ride, Subaru is still alive and kicking.

Fuji Heavy Industries was a consolidation of four firms in 1953, and decided to get in the nascent car business. The first car, the 1500 (above) of 1954, was a conventional sedan. But the market for such a relatively large car was very limited, so the next design was for the newly established kei car class, then limited to 360 cc engines. The Subaru 360 became the firm’s main product, but that it would be its first product exported to the US probably surprised themselves as much as anyone. And that it would somehow take off is one of the more unlikely success stories.

The 360 was clearly inspired by the VW Beetle, but it made the Volkswagen look enormous by comparison. A noisy and stinky little 2 cylinder two-stroke engine pushed the the silly little car around, but not in the way Americans were used to. Enter one small-time entrepreneur, Malcolm Bricklin.  He had the idea to import the 360, probably(and not surprisingly), it was the only Japanese maker without any export plans to the US. How he sort of pulled it off is a minor miracle, but lets just say that in the land where pet rocks can make you a multi-millionaire, why not create a fad for a totally unsuitable (and unsafe) car. Americans’ gullibility is infinite.

Consumer Reports (rightfully) branded the 360 “The Most Unsafe Car In America”, and sales quickly petered out. But Subaru had a very advanced new car in the wings, which appeared just in time to bail out Bricklin and Subaru of America. He sold it to Subaru a few years later for big bucks, and went on to his many other notorious failures and successes (Bricklin SV-1, Bertone Fiats, Yugo, Chery, etc.).

In an example of how what goes around comes around, here’s a Subaru 100mpg experimental based on the 360 from the early seventies that looks ready for the X Prize contest going on currently.

The Subaru 1000 of 1966 was an extremely advanced design for the times, even by European standards. The ill-fated Lloyd Arabella of 1959 had a similar layout, but was never properly developed and crashed along with Borgward. By conservative Japanese standards, it was a breakthrough; the first mass-produced FWD car. A true clean-sheet approach resulted in what almost every engineer would favor if not constrained by other factors: a very compact boxer four mounted low just ahead of the driven front wheels.

The intrinsic balance of a boxer four make it smooth running (if not always so in its exhaust sound), and its location create an optimal low center of gravity. FWD resulted in an unusually roomy little car, offering better space utilization compared to its competitors, the RWD Corolla and Datsun Cherry.The original 1000 became the Star in 1969, and was imported to the US beginning about that time.

One of the unusual aspects about the 1000 was that it had no heater core, but rather it had two small radiators, one of which was used to like a heater core to heat the interior. And like many early FWD cars, the 1000 used inboard drum brakes at the front to reduce unsprung weight.

How Subaru came to be so heavily associated with 4 wheel drive was, like so many things, an accident, and not the result of market research or focus groups. In 1970, the Tohoku Electric Power Company asked Subaru to build them some four wheel drive versions of the 1000 wagon, to replace their elderly Jeeps. Given the configuration of the Subaru, it lent itself very readily to the conversion (see Subaru GL Wagon CC). One of the original handful of converted wagons has been restored and is on display (above). Little did Subaru know what a pioneering vehicle it had on its hands.

In 1971, the new Leone (DL/GL in US) series replaced the 1000/FF-1/Star. Strictly an evolution, it maintained the 1000’s basic configuration in a larger and more rationalized form: gone were the inboard brakes and weird heater setup. Styling was eccentric, which  has been said to be influenced by Nissan, which bought a 20% share of Subaru in 1968. There’s no doubt that the Leone was somewhat similar to the Datsun F-10, and reflects one of the less desirable Japanese styling trends.

There was even a hardtop coupe in the Leone/DL-GL series. But the practical wagons and sedans were the mainstay of the Subaru lineup.

The 4WD wagon was first put in production in 1972, but introduced to the US in 1975. It is a major automotive milestone, as the first mass production popular priced 4WD passenger car. It spawned a revolution of the mass adoption of 4WD and AWD cars and crossovers.

A couple of years later, Subaru launched another innovative vehicle, the BRAT. Obviously influenced by the passenger car-based El Camino and Ranchero, the BRAT was the first of its kind in two significant ways: compact size and 4WD.

In order to get around the US “chicken tax” on imported pickups, Subaru mounted two rear facing seats in the bed to qualify it as a passenger vehicle. Ironic, given the lengths manufacturers have gone to get their cars certified as trucks under the EPA rules. Whether the BRAT was a toy or practical little trucklet depended on its buyers, but it launched a whole category that was rather short lived, with the VW pickup and the Dodge Rampage.

In 1979, a new generation of Subarus was unveiled. As always, wider, larger, and roomier; they moved on from the narrow-body that had tax advantages in Japan. A larger 1.8 engine powered most of the US bound versions, and for 1983, a turbocharged 1.8 with MPFI. Available only with an automatic, it also used Subaru’s firstfull-time all-wheel drive system, a forerunner of the more advanced recent systems. This was a substantial move to position Subaru upmarket, against the growing influx of all-wheel drive cars like the Audi 4000/80 quattro.

In case it wasn’t clear, Subaru expanded available 4WD to all of its models, including the coupe and hatchback. Although FWD Subarus were also being sold, Subaru was clearly leveraging its 4WD capabilities.

Subaru’s new Leone line for 1985 was another significant incremental step away from the Corolla class and into the Camry/Accord class. In the process, the scrappy little Billy Goat image was ever more falling by the wayside, which would come back to bite. A new OHC 1.8 engine powered this family of cars also known as the GL or Loyale in the US.

Subaru also branched out into the sporty coupe sector, with their (inevitably) individualistically designed XT Coupe. Available with four wheel drive or FWD, and a variety of engines including a turbo four and in the last years, the flat H6 engine that would reappear in the SVX. Aerodynamics were an excellent Cd .29.

Unlike most automakers, Subaru always realized the significant role wagons played in its lineup, and showed several concept cars on that theme, including this SRD1 from 1990.

In 1989, Subaru introduced the Legacy, a clear attempt to take the brand a small notch upscale. Its predecessor, the Loyale, was retained as a lower cost  alternative. But although Subaru’s now well developed full-time AWD system was of course available, one couldn’t tell by looking. The old Subaru 4WD wagon’s jacked up ride height and tough demeanor was now lost in a soft and genteel low rider that was chasing the Camry and Accord, and rather futilely at that.

Sales trended downward precipitously during this period, and there were questions raised whether Subaru would survive in the most competitive market in the world. The fact that numerous competitors also were offering AWD variants of their cars hurt, and badly.

It was in response to input from Subaru USA that the Outback was created in 1995. The SUV boom was in full bloom, and this was Subaru’s last chance. The Outback jacked up the Legacy and threw some bigger tires and SUVish cladding for one of the most successful makeovers ever. It totally saved Subaru’s bacon in the US.

We’re running out of time and space to give Subaru’s more recent history full justice (including the little Justy, which we’ll cover in a CC soon). The Impreza of 1995 was a significant expansion of Subaru’s line up, but it didn’t really find its full potential until the brilliant WRX and its STI offshoots. Finally, Subaru was able to capitalize on its Rally success with a pocket rocket that put gave serious street cred to the mark of the Pleiades.

With the Forester’s appearance in 1998, Subaru once again had a more compact and tall wagon without the Outback’s affectations to appeal to the Subaru loyalists as well as compete successfully against the cute utes from Honda, Toyota and others. It’s car-like agility and excellent power for the times (essentially the same 2.5 L 170hp boxer still powering today’s Subies) made it a hit that is still going strong with the recent redesign.

Subaru’s only miss in recent years has been the Tribeca, which was too bloated, weak chested and weak kneed to make a mark for itself in the crowded mid-size CUV market.

Whether Subaru can maintain its momentum in the changing demands of the market and EPA regs that disadvantage AWD vehicles remains to be seen. Hybrids are on the way, and if they can properly blend and enhance with Subaru’s other qualities, Subaru may buck the trend and forge ahead. But to assume that that the road ahead for Subaru won’t be bumpy would be unrealistic, AWD or not.

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69 Comments on “The Scrappiest Car Maker Ever? A Brief Illustrated History Of Subaru...”

  • avatar

    First Japanese car I ever drove was an ’89 (maybe ’90?) Legacy rental. It put the Detroit metal I’d been driving to shame.

  • avatar

    The most terrifying ride I have ever taken was in the jump seat of a Brat. The shell over the bed did nothing to quell the incredible noise and vibration. The seat was molded from the hardest plastic known to man and was less supportive than that of a Cozy Coupe. I spent the entire ride hanging on for dear life and alternating between wishing the driver would slow down to make it less frightening and wishing he would speed up so it would be over sooner.

    • 0 avatar

      i have a 1968 beattle 1600cc air cooled engine would it work in a older bratt coupe?

    • 0 avatar

      Well, yes it would fit. You could make it work. Something to consider is that the VW crowd installs Subbie engines in aircooled VWs as an upgrade. So from that standpoint you would be putting a lesser engine into a Subbie. Don’t get me wrong – I like VW engines – I have a half dozen aircooled engines but I’ll concede the Subbie engine is more modern with watercooling than the VW aircooled engine.
      What would it take? You’d have to do some sheetmetal work to seal the VW engine to the Subbie engine bay so the aircooling fan did not recycle dirty, heated air from under the car. Don’t want to blow all sorts of dirt and grime all over the cylinders and heads.
      You’d have to build a custom exhaust. Not too difficult.
      Here is the hard part. You’d have to mate the engine to the Subbie transmission. It’s been done the other way around – Subbie to VW transmission. Kennedy Transmission in CA can do this. It is a custom part. $$$. It would be worthwhile to compare rpm/torque between the stock VW transmission and the Subbie transmission. Is the engine going to spin fast enough that the VW fan will cool the engine? Don’t want to lug it.
      So yeah – you can do it but it’s not going to be a strictly bolt in affair.
      The Subbie engines are popular in VW Vanagons from the 80s. The factory engine was a watercooled falt four like the Subbie but had an overcomplicated cooling system that eventually leaks. The head gaskets had problems too. The VW crowd then takes the more powerful Subbie engine (even the flat six!) and puts it into the VW relatively painlessly and gains power and reliability.

  • avatar

    Ah the Tribeca…..aka the Flying V

  • avatar

    The 360 seems more original Fiat 500 inspired to me.

    It seems the only beautiful Japanese coupe from the 60-70’s is the Isuzu 117 Coupe.

    The engine posted look very compact and advanced.

  • avatar

    Fun article! I’d forgotten those old Subies.

    “…the Datsun F-10…reflects one of the less desirable Japanese styling trends…” perhaps best characterized as “Atomic cockroach.”

  • avatar

    My wife and I bought a new ’77 Subaru wagon when we lived in upstate New York. Our house was at the top of a hill, on a steep grade road, and the car never failed to get us up and down that hill. We also had a VW beetle and between these two cars, we were able to get home, no matter how much snow came down. The local Subaru dealer was one of those kinda sketchy places that was located in a falling down building, also selling Saab. In 1980, an elderly driver swerved and hit our Sub head on, and that was all for the car. We made the biggest mistake possible and bought a Chevy Citation, traded it for a VW Golf and never owned another Citation or Subaru. But the Sub was sturdy, a great northern snow car except that its carb was mounted so high on the engine that in cold highway driving, it would freeze up and the car would quit en route. A subaru plastic heat shield fixed that problem. The car did us fine. Good memories. But not for the Citation—GM should have been cited for making that car.

  • avatar
    Jack Denver

    “One of the unusual aspects about the 1000 was that it had no heater core, but rather it had two small radiators, one of which was used to like a heater core to heat the interior. ”

    I’m not following this at all. A heater core IS a small radiator.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      It wasn’t a separate unit, but just one of the radiators. That is different than most cars, no?

    • 0 avatar
      N Number

      I’m assuming you could shut off the flow of coolant so that the heat wasn’t always on.

      For what it’s worth,

    • 0 avatar
      N Number

      I’m assuming you could shut off the flow of coolant so that the heat wasn’t always on.

      For what it’s worth,

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I’m pretty sure it was a matter of deflecting the air that passed through it either into the passenger compartment, or not.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      So where was radiator #2 located? Was it up front with the other one? Then you would have to have some kind of shroud around it and giant hot air duct snaking thru the engine compartment (with the chance of picking up fumes). Or if it was in the usual place (in the vicinity of the firewall/ down near your feet)? Then I suppose you could have some kind of air damper where the heater core was “always on” but sometimes the hot air flowed into the passenger compartment and sometimes was dumped outside. This would allow you to make the main radiator smaller because there would never be a time when 100% of the cooling load was on it, whereas in normal cars (where the valve to the heater core is completely closed when the heat is off) you have to size the main radiator to do just that. But you would also have to have run electric fan on for radiator #2 all the time whereas in a “normal” setup you can (though modern cars often have electric fans anyway) use the belt driven fan plus the air flow from movement.

  • avatar

    Wonder why Subaru has made such a splash in America, but has never really gained traction elsewhere. Think the 4×4 thing is what saved its bacon in America, but burdened it everywhere else. Just the gas penalty of carrying all that extra hardware.

    Shame though. I think they make some unusually appealing cars, though I think the most recent ones appear a little boring.

  • avatar

    One complaint about the review…no mention of the absolute lack of wagons available to the US market. People today can cross shop Subaru, Audi and Volvo. Obviously Subaru is cheaper. I think the AWD thing had some traction in the mid-90’s, but today, not so much. Remember in the mid-to-late 90’s the Accord, Camry and Taurus wagons were all dropped.

    Recent personal experience, a friend just traded in their Outback because, of all things, a rear facing child seat would not fit in the back seat without touching the front seats. Seems odd that Subaru wouldn’t have right sized their vehicles for Americans over 5′-8″.

    While the Camcord’s were mega sizing themselves in recent years Subaru didn’t keep up. Something I would compliment if Subaru were ever able to get the anthropometrics of their interiors down. It’s asinie that a child seat can fit in a Civic with a grown man seated up front, while the much larger Outback could not.

    They also fail miserably at making their wagons acheive Camcord style fuel economy. Then again people might argue that the Outback, or say any AWD subaru is really competing against SUV’s and CUV’s. In reality everyone I’ve ever known to own a Subaru did so only because the utter lack of wagons in the American car market. It’s an epic fail that a much larger and powerful V6 Camry can get such superior fuel economy. Face reality, few people take these things off road and a fuel stealing AWD system isn’t needed by all.

    Subaru is smart to corner the market on wagons, but their vehicles need refinement if they want to capture a wide audience.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re right about Camcord and Taurus dropping their wagons — but also Corolla, Ford Focus and other models, too. It was all part of a manufacturer strategy beginning in the late 1990s to move customers into bloated SUVs costing $10-20k more.

      Maybe a Subaru is too small to fit a child seat (which themselves, btw, seem to have assumed gargantuan proportions), but my 97 Subaru Legacy Wagon (not Outback) was just a nice car. Dead reliable, handled well, good traction, decent (not great) mileage (to be expected in an AWD setup). It really tore me up when my kid destroyed it in an acident.

      About the only real compact wagon left that doesn’t cost over 30 thou(by contrast, the 2010 iteration of the Outback is styled like a pseudo-SUV) is the Jetta wagon. I’m wondering if the fuel economy of the diesel variant is worth potential diesel servicing issues, plus VW’s traditional craptastic dealer maintenance.

    • 0 avatar

      You have evidentally not checked out the 2010 Outback.

    • 0 avatar

      Well stated…from the perspective of a flatlander who doesn’t know the pearils of snow driving. People in real snow country choose a Jeep, and Explorer, or a Subaru. Period. And after time the Subaru is a tool that keeps on ticking. Tahoe-Reno, Denver, Salt Lake City and the mountains of California (623 inches of snow 2 seasons ago…only 375 inches last year…) dictate a proper car. It isn’t styling, it isn’t to impress, it is to get the job done.
      Subaru has carved itself a reputation as the last unique American built, (Legacy-Outbacks are 85% Amreican content, while the Chevy and Ford pickups are down to 65% American content) safe, and reliable AWD.
      Once you and your family discover that the Subaru is the one vehicle that simply never gets stuck… you soon realize how serious the issue is when the snow really starts falling. An 18 inch snowfall here is a joke, we regularly get 40-50 inches at a time. For people in mild or no-snow areas Subaru is just another car to compare to others on the market. Not here. Its life or death in deep snow. Once you have been stuck in a heavyer Jeep or bigger 4wd SUV you begine to appretiate the well thought out Subaru design. And I just love the “reviewers” who claim that the Subaru isn’t a serious “off-roader”… wanna bet?

  • avatar

    My brother and sister both have Subie wagons. Bro has two – a 1990 Legacy wagon with over 250K miles on it, his beater car, and a newer 2007 Outback wagon. My sister has a 2003 Outback with the Eddie Bauer interior. They’re very rugged and stand up well to many years of driving.

    There’s a lot of them in the Pacific Northwest – particularly Portland, OR. I’ll bet you can find lots of them in the Eugene area, too.

  • avatar

    I learned to drive on my dad’s old 1986 Subaru Justy. It was dead reliable, first brand new car my parent’s bought for a whopping $6500. They bought it after their orange subaru was totaled in a crash (don’t even remember what model it was?). By the time I learned on it, the clutch was shot, shocks were dead, and the LCD on the radio was hard to read (what can you expect after 10 years and over 200k miles), but it ran great, the AC worked, and tires were $100 for four. It was a great car for our family, I have nothing but good memories of that car growing up. Living in Texas you didn’t see many Subarus back then, my dad was dedicated to them though. After he died my mom sold it to a Hispanic family. They actually called her last year asking what mechanic we had used for it because they wanted to take it back there, so that car is actually still on the road after 25 years. Not too bad for a 3 cylinder econo box.

    My dad asked me once when I was a little older if it ever embarrassed me riding to school in such a little junky car, because the area we lived in actually was a pretty affluent community. It never bothered me though, I used to enjoy riding home from baseball practice with the hatch open and seats folded down taking everyone home (not a big town, field was close to most people’s houses). It was fun to a kid. It was kinda funny to me to think about looking back, people can have good memories of just about any kind of car, not just the sexy sports cars, but just the one’s important to us.

  • avatar

    I remember seeing the 360 at the Chicago Auto Show when I was just a little kid. Even at that age, my brother and I laughed ourselves silly at that kiddy car. We took brochures home just to show family and friends how laughable it was.

    • 0 avatar

      I found a Subbie 360 last week here in small town, TN. Am considering restoring it. Had tons of fun in the original Fiat 500 when I was stationed in Italy. I’d rather have another Fiat 500 b/c I like the styling better.

  • avatar

    Legacy GT Wagon, turbocharged boxer engine, AWD, with a stick.

    A real shame it’s still not sold to all 5 of us who’d want such a thing.

  • avatar

    I still remember seeing my first Subaru 360’s in Erie, PA in 1969. The dealership was located in a residential city neighorhood that was originally a restaurant. The cars were so small that the owner was able to fit six in the dining room.

    Other early memory: The first advertising campaign for the Star – “It’s not a Japanese beetle.”

    And let’s not forget the great double-barreled comeback of 1995: The Subaru Outback and Paul Hogan’s career.

    • 0 avatar

      greetings from “Down Under!”

      Australia is definately all wheel drive Subaru country, due to the rough terrain of 80% of the uninhabital land mass, of this huge pacific Island!

      My first encounter with Subaru, was through a mechanic pal of mine, he paid $200 for his 1986 Leone AWD Wagon, which was taken on frequent trips to the Coober Pedy desert, he used to see complicated late model
      vehicles along the road side, broken down en route. He said that the L series Subaru’s(sold in Australia from 1985-94) as one the best cars ever, despite their tinny constuction, they make up for that thru mechanical toughness & reliability.

      My inlaws bought one of the last model Leone wagons’s, a 1993 model, that they let my wife & I drive, when we visited in 2001, they live in the harsh, punishing off road country of Southern Queensland, I was so impressed with their Subaru, that I bought one myself, best $350 I’ve ever spent, with nearly 400,000 km’s on the odo, mine just keeps going, & going.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    Tell us more about Isuzu imploding. I thought they were killed off by GM after the General bought into the company. In the 80’s a private company started importing the diesel Aska (“J” car) into Ireland and they sold like hot cakes . GM wouldn’t allow any petrol models to be imported , because that would have killed Opel sales. Eventually they started fitting Isuzu diesel engines into Opels , and the Isuzu cars were killed off. Even today you can see secondhand Opels being advertised as having Isuzu engines , because everyone knows Opel diesels are rubbish.

  • avatar

    I always felt is was a mistake to only offer AWD cars, as I don’t want it. It certainly ruled out a Subaru for me, and I like wagons.

    • 0 avatar

      As I mentioned above, I think the real thrust to Subaru in the late 90’s was the death of the Accord, Camry and Taurus wagons. All those buyers were basically forced into Subuarus. If Honda/Toyota want to bring back a decent wagon I think Subaru would be marginalized to some niche markets.

    • 0 avatar

      Indeed, I think I’d rather have a FWD Subaru wagon than a Mazda wagon, but my top choice would be an Accord wagon.

  • avatar

    My very first car was an ’82 Subaru GL sedan. 1800cc, 5spd, A/C, but no power steering, windows or locks, all that was an option package. Given to me by my Grandparents in ’86. FWD, 5spd. I couldn’t kill it, no matter how hard I tried. Sold it to my college roommate in favor of the first of several VW Jettas.

    We were very much a Subaru family for a few years in the early 80’s, my Grandfather bought one of the very first of those “new for ’80” re-designed cars. It was a lemon-yellow DL hatchback. 5spd, AM radio, 1600cc engine. Dead reliable, near 40mpg, but man-o-man what a rustbucket that car was! Needed the sills replaced at the tender age of 3! Ended up traded-in on an ’85 Oldsmobarge 98 in late ’84. It was not likely to pass inspection without additional serious wleding, and Grandfather had retired and wanted to treat himself to a lux-o-barge. When they bought the ’82 they had it “rust-proofed” (Rusty Jones, IIRC) – it’s rear suspension went through the trunk floor at age 8 or 9. In the extended family we had ~10 Subarus in this era, not one made it to it’s 10th birthday here in Maine. A few family members stayed with Subaru into the early Legacy era, those all rotted out and failed inspection within 10 years too.

    A couple points – even here in Maine the AWD Subarus were rare in the ’80s, people thought it expensive and unnecessary. For those ’80-84 cars AWD was mostly only available with a 4spd stick. No 5spd, no automatic until ’84 when the AWD sedan debuted. Also, the 1600cc engine was pretty common, as it was used in all the DL trim cars for most of that era. I think that for a few years you could get 1600cc GLs too, with the 1800 being an extra cost option. Those extra 200ccs made a HUGE difference though – the ’82 was a missile compared to the ’80, even though the sedan was a lot heavier than the hatch.

  • avatar

    My brother and his wife living in Colorado and being trendy bought an Outback in 1999 for driving to the ski resorts. At the time I had noticed that at least in Colorado, Outbacks seemed to often be driven by lesbians. After hearing me say this, my sister-in-law ended up selling the car as she realized I had a point. At the time she had really short hair. LOL

  • avatar
    fred schumacher

    At last count, one of my brothers had 44 Subarus in his yard. This is in Colorado, where Subarus are very common. He had planned to rebuild them, but… you know how that goes.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that the pre-2000 Subarus rusted like crazy. I rebuilt the bottom pan and unitbody rails once on my 1986 wagon but then parked it when a rear seat belt popped out and I could look down at the tire. That’s probably why they’re not common in the Northern Minnesota Rust Belt, in spite of the AWD benefit.

    I recently bought a 2000 Forester after hitting a deer at 70 mph and totaling my Mopar minivan. I was going to get another van, but with my wife having to commute 140 miles in the Southern Minnesota Slop Belt three times a week, I thought AWD would be worth it. Ironically, in the much drier snow and colder conditions of Northern Minnesota and North Dakota, a minivan gets such good traction that AWD isn’t needed.

  • avatar

    ugly little beasts – from the start to the finish.

    Fugly, its what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.

  • avatar

    I wanna’ Outback so I can be mistaken for a uhhhhhh you know.

  • avatar

    I am a little confused by the dislike towards Subaru. Yes, they offer a niche product and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. I bought my 07 Outback (2.5l 5MT) because I always enjoyed wagons or hatches, and living in Idaho it had a drivetrain that was suited to the roads (or lack thereof) in the intermountain west and pacific northwest. Not just for the full-time AWD, but plenty of room for 2 adults and 1 toddler (never had an issue with the carseat and know a family with 3 carseats across), outstanding reliability (percieved from several co-workers and Boise citizens), ground clearance, 2 locking differentials, and nothing that hangs down. I added some Geolander AT-S tires and it is great in snow, gravel, mud, and dry tarmac. If I was still in Texas, no way would I have considered a Subaru as I have no need for one. Of course, I wouldn’t have as many wagons to choose from except the Euros so I would have probably gone with a Ford product (as we always did in the past).

    No one else offers a full-time AWD wagon with a stick that is under $25k. Add in some standard features that are sure nice (heated mirrors, heated seats) and without bundling it with all the unneccessary crap (NAV). It’s very much a workhorse vehicle, as Subarus have been designed per this brief history. And you can add that workhorse design with some performance through the GT/XT/STi models.

    When it came down the Outback, it was either this or an Explorer (seriously). I’m not too worried about fuel mileage, it’s part of living in the western US and driving great distances to get somewhere.

    When we replace the 1984 Volvo, it might be with another used Outback, Legacy, or maybe a Fusion. All manual, all the time.

  • avatar

    A Brat and a 1st gen XT (the second lost the appeal for me). On my eBay hunt list perpetually.

  • avatar

    Why would you buy a car named the ‘Brat’? Is it in the middle between the low-trimline Dweeb and the big-engined Asshole?

    ‘Brat’ has to be one of the only car names I’ve seen that’s worse than ‘B9 Tribeca’. What the hell does B9 even mean? Some kind of horribly screwed up engine configuration? And Tribeca? Why not just call it the ‘Bistro Latte’ and be done with it?


  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    “By conservative Japanese standards, it was a breakthrough; the first mass-produced FWD car.”

    Huh? Citroen? DKW?

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Whillickers!. I saw a worn but surprisingly intact Brat this afternoon, on the way home. First, I have seen in a looong time. It had VT plates and its driver looked 5 yrs younger than the Brat.

  • avatar
    N Number

    It’s funny how things can be timely. I live in Denver and see a lot of Subarus, but I haven’t seen a Brat since I lived in Laramie a few years ago. This morning, the day after reading this piece, I was driving right next to one on the way to work. I wasn’t able to see if the seats were still installed in the cargo box.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the history. We bought our first Subie (’10 Forester 2.5 Premium) last year. Was glad to have it for one of the worst winters in recent history and record snowfall for a February. We were looking for a small SUV and the Forester won out over all the others. The Equinox was just about tied with it but the wife said “No Chevy!” (and I was very much against any Gov. Motors vehicle), so Subie it was.

  • avatar

    “Fuji Heavy Industries was a consolidation of four firms in 1953, and decided to get in the nascent car business.”

    Actually Subaru’s parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, was created from Nakajima aircraft corporation, which was Japan’s second most important plane manufacturer after Mitsubishi in World War II. The company was founded in 1917 by Chikuhei Nakajima. They actually built more total warplanes than Mistsubishi, including license production of Mitsubishi’s Zero fighter. Some examples of their aircraft that you can google are:

    Ki-43 air force fighter
    Ki-44 air force fighter
    Ki-84 air force fighter
    Ki-49 air force bomber
    J1N1 navy twin engined fighter/night fighter
    B5N navy torpedo and level bomber (used at Pearl Harbor and dropped the bomb that destroyed the USS Arizona)
    B6N navy torpedo bomber
    C6N navy recon
    G5N navy land based bomber similar to our B-29 Superfortress but not put into mass production
    G10N navy land based bomber with 6 engines and extreme range to bomb the US mainland, paper project only
    Kikka navy attack/fighter, Japan’s first jet aircraft, first flight took place on Aug 7th, 1945, a week before the end of the war (for those interested, here is a link to a pic of the front and back cover of a 1947 report for the US government by Chrysler, itself a large industrial corporation like Nakajima/Fuji, on the Kikka’s jet engines, now in the possesion of the Tokyo Science Museum:

    Notice the Chrysler Corp seal (this is before the Pentastar was created) in the lower left of the cover page – the same as the most recent Chrysler brand logo.

    Nakajima also built aircraft engines that powered their own planes as well as those of other aircraft makers.

    After the war, Nakajima Aircraft was dissolved by order of GHQ into more than 15 companies. Five of those companies later merged into one company known as Fugi Heavy Industries. I don’t why they were semi broken up and had their name changed whereas Mitsubishi and Kawasaki were not.

  • avatar

    Nitpick: The Impreza dates back to the ’93 model year; there was a fairly significant refresh in ’97 that gave it a sharper front end. It was actually based on the Legacy platform, but shortened — which made for a wider track. My ’97 OBS is still fairly narrow inside, though, and I wouldn’t dream of putting three adults in the back seat.

    ‘Brat’ has to be one of the only car names I’ve seen that’s worse than ‘B9 Tribeca’.
    Technically, it’s an acronym: Bi-drive Recreation All-terrain Transporter, hence ‘BRAT.’

    I didn’t realize that Subaru was such a polarizing brand (and then based mostly on looks — the 1st gen Impreza hatch could have been a modernized Pacer); I was sold, growing up in Spokane, watching the little Soob wagons sure-footedly crossing parking lots I had trouble walking on.

  • avatar

    As a kid growing up in Great Falls, Montana I became a big Subaru fan. My dad got rid of his gas-hungry Ford Supercab pickup and bought a brand new 1988 Subaru GL wagon. It had a 5-speed and 4-wheel drive with a low range. We went everywhere in that car and the low range came in handy on our weekend adventures on the mountain passes and old mining roads. I remember the bright red Subie crawling over some pretty nasty boulders and even fording a few mountain streams. It would get taken on hunting trips on private ranches and hold its own on the rutted jeep trails that stretch across these rugged and scenic properties. It would return with a couple mule deer or antelope lashed to the roof rack. Snow was never a problem either. We moved to Wisconsin and sold that uniquely beautiful, rust-free car before I ever got a chance to drive it, because we needed something bigger. I am sure that it served the next owner well during the few Wisconsin winters that it probably lasted. Old Subarus don’t die in Wisconsin, they just rust away.

  • avatar

    Since you have a picture of the XT, I have to dust off Car & Driver’s explanation of it’s styling ” the designer sat down, finished the front end of the car and then the peyote from lunch kicked in”

  • avatar

    I owned Audis for over 20 years, putting up with horrendous repair bills, smugly and egotistically confident that I was driving a great car(s). I used to quip: “Subaru — inexpensive and built to stay that way!” as I motored on in my German machine, replete with AWD in the last two of five in a row.

    In a day I won’t forget, when we were about to set off on the 800 mile run to the Newport Folk Festival in 1993, I smelled gas from my ’88 4000 Quattro as we drove along to pick the rest of the crew up. Stopped, opened the hood, and gas was spraying from the Bosch fuel distributor. I was in a rage. Drove it directly to the Audi dealer, who luckily was not busy that morning. If it had caught on fire, I didn’t care, we’d just bail. $1600 for a new fuel distributor, a week to get one.

    The best mechanic I ever met and who worked for Audi took the thing apart, saw that several copper gaskets had for some reason failed, and in less than two hours, handmade new ones from sheet copper. We got to Newport on time. The fuel distributor never failed again.

    I was silly enough to lease a ’94 Quattro 90, which repaid the favor by stalling for no reason, had extra rattling bolts in the armrests and rode like a buckboard anyway. The V6 was soft and drank gas.

    Come late 1996, after the lease was up, I decided to get a winter beater, and for 3 grand got an ’88 Subaru GL Turbo wagon, from the aforementioned Audi/Subaru dealer. Air suspension, the lot. Worked great for a couple of years, then the fuel pump failed at 167,000 km. Cost was over a grand to get a new one, so I decided to buy a new Impreza. I got several offers for the old one, bad fuel pump and all.

    The mechanic had switched from Audi to Subaru at the same dealership in the interim, and told me how much better Subies were made than Audis. Rusty screws actually came undone without a hassle, and the electrics were easily 10 times better. That car made it through ten Nova Scotia winters for a total of $760 in unexpected repairs. A winner.

    The mechanic won the Subaru Canada competition for best mechanic for 3 years, then was disqualified for having won too much! Then Subaru sent him to Japan for the world finals in 2004 (I think). The Japanese mechanic won, and my mechanic came third, I believe. He felt the Japanese mechanic had been given all the answers before the contest! As a very, very calm individual, I tended to believe him.

    Anyway, he could take apart a boxer engine and rebuild the thing in a very short time, and would show me all the problems with the 2.5 SOHC engine (which was indeed a dog for several years – 2001 to 2003 mainly, I believe). I had the the 2.2 with the same head design as the 2.5, dating from the ’99 model year. The 2.5 had head gasket problems, and also sticking ring problems. He showed me the parts on my infrequent visits for service. He was concerned that my car might have the sticking ring problem, and made me monitor oil consumption, but it never used any.

    The WRX 2 liter and later 2.5 liter DOHC engines never had these problems. They got blown up by young folks buying chip boost upgrades instead!

    The mechanic left the dealership when a better job came along, and now looks after the local city police car repair facility.

    I now drive an ’08 Legacy GT. I refuse to buy boring cars, so always want AWD at minimum. Also, I wouldn’t buy any of the uglier Subies just because of the styling. Not any choice these days, unfortunately.

    When I take the Sube in for routine service, I go down to the Audi area where there are free papers and good coffee, and silent desperate owners awaiting news of the big bill about to come, and internally laugh my head off. Nobody waits in the Subie area unless it’s just for a tire change, and I’ve never heard an argument there between outraged owners and the service manager. Been involved in a few in the other area myself. $1100 for a muffler for the ’88 Quattro every 18 months?

    Sorry. I’ll stick to Subies. Mechanically off the beaten path, and interesting. However, the newer ones seem dumbed right down and really ugly, so hopefully in five to eight years they’ll improve that way. But, I’m not holding my breath – just continually looking for an interesting machine. Haven’t driven a newer Prius, but if it drives OK, and when my senior citizen years are upon me in 2016 or so, maybe that’ll be interesting enough to purchase. How it makes me “look” I couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about.

    No car is perfect, there’s always a feature here and there that could be improved, but generally, considering how small Fuji is on the world scene, I think they make a pretty good off-beat car for not obscene prices, and have been well-satisfied.

    • 0 avatar

      You know, consider yourself lucky. The Subaru Ownership experience for my Forester involved endless slow dealer service, frequent repairs (wheel bearings on end) , numerous electronic gremlins. I would stop short of calling the car a lemon because often it was hard to determine if things were even working properly to begin with (like the stereo system…)

      What’s funny is every Subaru dealer I know of (not just in the area) seems to have a 3-4 day minimum wait to even schedule routine maintenance. When pulling up the service bays always seem to be full of one WRX getting a new transmission or engine.

  • avatar

    I owned a 1983 DL 2wd Wagon and loved it. The one thing I’ll never forget is the sheet metal and overall other items of the car were overbuilt to the nth degree. The glovebox door was made of metal if I remember correctly. The car was simply indestructible. It’s only problem was rust, but mine, bought used, had the full Ziebart treatment and looked like new. Overbuilt was the norm on the car. Subaru figured if one screw might be adequate, they might use instead six bolts. Mine also, with removal of all smog equipment, would run down the road at 70MPH and get 37MPG. Also, since mine was 2wd, the back end was jacked up but there was NOTHING hanging down to snag snow. With that, 4wd was not really needed. Two winters in Chicago, numerous trips to California and back.

    I traded the car for a 1989 S-10 pickup, probably my biggest bonehead automotive move ever.

  • avatar

    Something I haven;t seen to much of in the comments is the question of how Toyota will influence upcoming Subies. Already we have the bloated thing that is the current version of the Forester, and the next refresh for the Legacy/Outback could also be interesting.

    On a different note, I loved driving a legacy in Massachusetts in the winter. While I had a Civic with its front wheel drive was okay, the Subie simply felt more sold and confident on the same streets half covered in snow. But, it was the girlfriend’s car, and it was bought used, right before many things succumbed to age/salt and needed a long list of repairs, which soured her on Subies from then on out.

  • avatar

    My 89 Subaru XT was a poor man’s Lancia Stratos…after a quarter million miles the windshield wiper mechanism crapped out and the air suspension made it list to the side but damn if it didn’t get 36 mpg on a regular basis. With a touch of a button it was in 4wd and it could go anywhere, even with 4 bald tires. The 50:50 weight distribution made it hard to come out of a spin, which I discovered by accident while trying to execute a throttle on turn in 4wd on wet pavement in decreasing radius turn..oops.. spun around like a top till it the middle of the highway. In the dunes, snow and ice or on logging roads, it was unstopable..even without a low range..which meant the clutch probably aged a bit. Only 100 hp but a blast to drive. The muffler couldn’t hide the 4 banger and I think foundly of that engine banging along like an old biplane. I think I paid $9500 for it in late ’89….and drove it for 10 years.

  • avatar

    My wife is on her second Subaru (thanks to me) and I had 2 prior ones dating back to 1978 and a 4WD wagon we bought new. Subarus…once you have one, you have to fight pretty hard to resist buying another. They run forever, are easy to work on the rare times you have to, go anywhere, and hold their value very well. Additionally, they are one of the few Asian cars that actually have some personality. We are saddened by the softening of the cars overall and the blandness of the designs they have now, but if history repeats itself Subaru will right the wrongs in a few years and get back to it’s core. Subies are like puppies: reliable in a man’s best friend sort of way, always eager for an adventure and rarely tire.

  • avatar

    For the fact that I grew up in a GM family I seemed to have a lot of contact with Subarus over the years.

    – A couple of my neighbors had them, including one that the kid next door purchased as his first car before finding out exactly how rusted out Subarus can get (you don’t see any of those early to mid-80’s Subarus in Connecticut).

    – When I was in technical school in the late 80’s, I learned the importance of build dates when it came to ordering parts for one of these cars. Being used to GM cars and a part be the same from year to year the concept of a car bring built in July having a different gasket design from a car built in September was, well, foreign to me.

    – When we were looking for a car for my wife late last year we cross-shopped the Outback wagon with a Passat wagon and a Saab 9-3 Aero. We ended up with the Passat because it felt familiar (we have other VWs) and the Subaru felt a bit tinny, with the interior having the look of an 80’s vintage electronics device (lots of silver paint).

    – I wasn’t a fan of the current Impreza until I saw an STI up close at a dealership recently. I don’t know that I’d spend the money on one, but it looks much better in person than in photographs, especially in the maroon.

  • avatar

    Ah, Subarus! My heart tells me to get a third Audi—I had a 2001 A6 4.2 and a 2004 allroad 4.2—but my head tells me to get my fifth Subaru, not to mention the five I’ve gotten for my business. Other than my 1992 SVX, all of the Subarus have been especially reliable and cheap to run. I really, really want to get a 2011 Audi S4 to replace my 2007 Subaru Legacy spec.B, but I wish that the 2011 Subaru offered a similar car. Sad to say, Subaru doesn’t and there are no rumors of a quick, agile Subaru like the S4. Subaru’s ad slogan used to be, “Cheap and built to stay that way.” That’s been my experience.

  • avatar

    All child seats are not the same worldwide. Europeans have to carry children in their mini cars too. What I found when I did some searching was that if you wanted to buy a European (or Rest of the World) child seat then you’d be able to fit it into any car AND still be safe. I looked for child seats that would pass European safety inspections because their standards were not that different than the American standards – just different.

    The American baby seats seem to be stuck in the same rut as the American vehicles – the idea that big and chunky equals safe. Not always so. Doesn’t have to be that way.

    A family of four might do just fine in a Subaru wagon but a person might have to search further than the local big-box retailer for a baby seat that fits the car best.

    I’d like to drive another Subaru sometime. The one wagon that I drove seemed to be best suited for adults of Asian proportions. The driver’s seat would not go back far enough for me. I tried to adjust it back further several times that day but it was all the way back. My 13 yr old VW has a seat that goes TOO far back (I’m 5’11”) and I can’t push the pedals all the way to the floor. Even with the seat all the way back in our VW my 10 yr old son can still sit reasonably well in the backseat for short distances. With the seat forward where I like it, my son is good for 100 miles easily. The tough period was when he was a little guy and his knees did not reach the edge of the seat so his feet stuck straight out against the back of the seat. Back then we’d just take our other larger car (1st gen CR-V).

    We’re shopping for a wagon next time and right now we’re seriously considering a Jetta Sportwagon TDI or maybe a CR-V again. I’ll look at the Subarus b/c they generally look good to me and I like the driveline. Don’t necessarily need AWD. It’s been handy on our CR-V many times but not regularly.

  • avatar

    It seems Subaru has been taken over by unemployed executives from Detroit. They killed off the Legacy wagon and both the Forester and Outback have been embiggened, possibly because the Tribeca is suffering from low self esteem. Then Subaru Canada decided my dealer’s building looked too shabby. They told him to build a new glass box like the Toyota and Honda dealers or else lose his franchise. He pointed out he had 2% market share in a city of 100,000, and didn’t think he could drop a couple million bucks on a new building while the economy was tanking. So now I have no Subaru dealer within 100km of home. The former dealer is still authorized to service Subarus because nobody else has stepped in to take over the franchise. I wonder why? I won’t be buying another Subaru partly because Subaru Canada screws over their dealers and customers, and partly because the present lineup makes my ass look fat.

  • avatar

    The BRRAT was an Automotive Iconoclast brought to you from the creator of the New Brunswick built Bricklin and the man responsible for bringing Yugo to North America and currently fighting for the right to give us ‘cherry bombs’ ; Malcolm Bricklin.

    Launched in 1977, the Subaru BRAT was designed for the American hippie/yuppie/preppie market and became symbolic in New England and the Northwest United States. Brat stands for Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter.

    The Cars were exceptional in snow, mud, sand and water and have earned a loyal following. I used to see tons of them when traveling in New England and always thought it ironic that the man who could build a car in Canada, wouldn’t import one. The subsequent Legacy based Gen II Brat was too far from its original simplistic transportation motif to be successful.

    Its most promising design feature were two hard plastic seats in the back, designed for your Labradors/and or noisy kids to have a spot to lie down or be in time out.

  • avatar

    Once upon a time I had a 2000 Subaru Legacy L Wagon. It was a 5 speed, purchased new. I had been used to Toyota Corollas and was relieved at the handling and even the mileage similarities. But the Suby was better at turning. With it, all 4 wheels tried to help keep the wagon roadbound. For a time everything was great. But then it started to break. The front sway bar. The first gear syncros. The clutch when cold- chatter, rough etc. I enjoyed the handling and was satisfied with the interior, styling, and general usefulness- but this breaking stuff was getting old. At 91k the spark plug tubes started to leak. The drivers side window motor controller gave it up earlier and then the death knell came. While up in the Mountains I made the mistake of asking a fellow suby wagon driver how he liked his car. He had a 99 legacy I think. He said he just spent thousands because his head gasket failed and coolant went somewhere bad. He said it pretty much lunched the motor innards. I checked this out and found that his motor and mine were different. Apparently, If my gaskets went south I might just have a coolant leak. At this point, the accumulation of these real and potential infirmities made me decide to sell the suby. I did tell the new owner everything plus what might occur but he still bought the car. Probably a tribute to his confidence in his own mechanical repair abilities. Note: Don’t know about later years, but my car had a timing belt, so I had to remember to change it often enough. Or you could just own the year Corollas that have timing chains instead of belts and have a much simpler drive train and better mileage. Your choice.

  • avatar

    Owned one of the first Subaru FF-1 1100 wagons in California when they were introduced here. Liked it so much I bought a 2nd one. They were good little cars, very dependable. No ac option at the time. Easy to service. Replaced the engine with a 1300 cc which made it a perfect combination. Later I owned two Brats which were also a lot of fun and dependable. Put a lot of miles on them. Upgraded one of them to an 1800 cc engine with dual range 4wd out of a later year. Made the Brat an even better vehicle. Was never disappointed by the Subaru’s I owned.

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