Junkyard Find: 1988 Subaru Justy DL

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

You can’t talk about the miserable econoboxes of the 1980s without talking about perhaps the most miserable of them all: the irresistibly cheap, irredeemably terrible, front-wheel-drive Subaru Justy (the all-wheel-drive Justy could be a lot of fun, of course).

You won’t see many of these cars today, but I was able to find this 28-year-old survivor in a Silicon Valley U-Wrench-It yard.

How many miles on the clock? We’ll never know, because Subaru followed Detroit’s lead and held onto five-digit odometers for these cars, long after nearly all the other Japanese manufacturers went to a full six digits.

Catalytic converters had become fairly sophisticated and trouble-free by this time, at least compared to their predecessors of a decade earlier, but a choke-equipped carburetor coupled with yen-pinching components meant that Justy owners could still recreate the middle 1970s with exhaust-system fires.

What is this, some kind of cruel joke?

Sixty-six horses came out of this 1.2-liter, three-cylinder engine. That’s a lot better than the Chevrolet Sprint‘s 48 horsepower three-banger.

At least this car has the 5-speed manual transmission, rather than the nightmarish CVT that went in many of these cars. Hateful as many 2016 CVTs might be, they’re incredibly sophisticated next to the slippy, random-ratio-selecting, yowling 1980s Subaru version.

This car even had air conditioning!

In Japan, the Justy was depicted as the kind of car a dog would drive around Los Angeles, while making statements learned in first-year English classes. Good morning! How are you? Hey, come on!

In the United States, Subaru pitched the Justy as a cheap-as-hell car that you could abuse — which, as it turned out, was fairly accurate.

[Images: © 2016 Murilee Martin/The Truth About Cars]

Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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  • Joe K Joe K on May 19, 2016

    I have a 1989 CVT Justy sitting in front of the house right ow, it's my city car. Its fun to drive, I dont mind the cvt below 50 mph. You just have to let the transmission do all the work instead of the engine. Its a simpe transmission, if driven as it should be will last a long long time.

  • Hector Hector on May 21, 2016

    I've owned a couple of these, both 1.2i manual 4WDs (no FWD Justys were available in the UK). They're very lightly built but feel relatively solid, handle well and more than keep up with traffic. I don't know why they get such a bashing whenever they're mentioned on here.

  • Lou_BC Another way to look at this is the upgrading of hardware and software. ...............The average length of car ownership is 10 - 12 years ....................The average lifetime ownership of a cell phone is 2.5 years. ................................................................... My phone will remain up to date, my vehicle won't. Especially if you buy a new "end of run" model.
  • TheEndlessEnigma "...we could be seeing a foundational shift in how Americans and car buyers see Stellantis products." yeah, I view Stellantis products as being off the cross-shop list. Stellantis is doing an excellent job of killing the Chrysler and Dodge brands and turning Jeep into something it isn't.
  • 2manyvettes 495 hp in a base C8 is more than enough. 800+ hp in a ZR1 is not worth the extra $60k (plus dealer markups). Unless the buyer is going for bragging rights. I remember when the C7 Grand Sport came out, and a reviewer got his hands on one and put it on the track at Lime Rock. His conclusion? Save yourself $15k and skip the Z06 and get a Grand Sport.
  • MaintenanceCosts Last year, I rented a closely related Audi A3. The overwhelming impression was of cheap build quality, although the drive wasn't bad. It had ~45,000 miles and the sunroof sunshade and passenger side power window were already not working correctly. Lots of rattles, too.
  • Lou_BC As others have pointed out, some "in car" apps aren't good or you pay for upgrades. My truck did not come with navigation. It was an expensive option. There's a lame GM maps app that you need to subscribe to "in-car" data. The map does not give you navigation other than to tell you where restaurants and gas stations are located. I'd want Android auto since I already pay for the phone.