Junkyard Find: 1988 Subaru Justy DL

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin
junkyard find 1988 subaru justy dl

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]

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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.

  • Brett Woods My 4-Runner had a manual with the 4-cylinder. It was acceptable but not really fun. I have thought before that auto with a six cylinder would have been smoother, more comfortable, and need less maintenance. Ditto my 4 banger manual Japanese pick-up. Nowhere near as nice as a GM with auto and six cylinders that I tried a bit later. Drove with a U.S. buddy who got one of the first C8s. He said he didn't even consider a manual. There was an article about how fewer than ten percent of buyers optioned a manual in the U.S. when they were available. Visited my English cousin who lived in a hilly suburb and she had a manual Range Rover and said she never even considered an automatic. That's culture for you.  Miata, Boxster, Mustang, Corvette and Camaro; I only want manual but I can see both sides of the argument for a Mustang, Camaro or Challenger. Once you get past a certain size and weight, cruising with automatic is a better dynamic. A dual clutch automatic is smoother, faster, probably more reliable, and still allows you to select and hold a gear. When you get these vehicles with a high performance envelope, dual-clutch automatic is what brings home the numbers. 
  • ToolGuy 2019 had better comments than 2023 😉
  • Inside Looking Out In June 1973, Leonid Brezhnev arrived in Washington for his second summit meeting with President Richard Nixon. Knowing of the Soviet leader’s fondness for luxury automobiles, Nixon gave him a shiny Lincoln Continental. Brezhnev was delighted with the present and insisted on taking a spin around Camp David, speeding through turns while the president nervously asked him to slow down. https://academic.oup.com/dh/article-abstract/42/4/548/5063004
  • Bobby D'Oppo Great sound and smooth power delivery in a heavier RWD or AWD vehicle is a nice blend, but current V8 pickup trucks deliver an unsophisticated driving experience. I think a modern full-size pickup could be very well suited to a manual transmission.In reality, old school, revvy atmo engines pair best with manual transmissions because it's so rewarding to keep them in the power band on a winding road. Modern turbo engines have flattened the torque curve and often make changing gears feel more like a chore.
  • Chuck Norton For those worried about a complex power train-What vehicle doesn't have one? I drive a twin turbo F-150 (3.5) Talk about complexity.. It seems reliability based on the number of F-150s sold is a non-issue. As with many other makes/models. I mean how many operations are handle by micro processors...in today's vehicles?