By on January 3, 2020

Back in early October, after Subaru’s 93-month streak of year-over-year sales increases came to an end for a variety of reasons, Subaru of America CEO Thomas J. Doll said the brand was still “on target to achieve our 700,000-vehicle sales goal for 2019, marking 12 consecutive years of sales increases.”

Despite a cooling new vehicle market, Subaru’s meteoric rise in the U.S. and its stable of all-wheel drive vehicles made the sales target appear an achievable goal. Turns out it was.

Subaru just barely cleared the bar, earning it another record.

As reported Friday, Subaru of America sold 700,117 vehicles in calendar year 2019, making it the best sales year in the brand’s U.S. history. A lot’s happened in the past decade, but one story that shouldn’t be overlooked is Subaru’s, um, ascent to mainstream automaker status.

Sure, it’s been around for decades, peddling a growing line of quirky AWD cars that no longer hide their spare tires under the hood, but in 2009 Subaru sold just 216,652 vehicles. Honda sold nearly 110,000 more Civics than that last year. Brand-wide volume growth of 223 percent for an already established automaker in the span of a decade is clearly proof of a successful product strategy. In that time, the brand’s market share doubled.

2019 Subaru Forester green - Image: Subaru

That strategy continued to pay off in 2019, as Subaru enjoyed a brandwide sales increase of 2.9 percent. Which shouldn’t imply that all of its models are on the upswing, as they aren’t. Only three Subaru models posted a volume gain for 2019: the revamped-for-2019 Forester, the redesigned-for-2020 Outback, and the new Ascent three-row crossover. The first two models stuck to their roots during their most recent overhaul, while the Ascent, first appearing on sales charts in June 2018, played it safe from the outset.

While we have a few quibbles with the Ascent, the hulking four-cylinder CUV is a Subaru through and through, and made to sell.

And without the Ascent, Subaru’s end-of-year celebration wouldn’t have been quite as jubilant. Subtracting Ascent volume from the overall brand tally, vanishing it completely from the company’s sales history, and Subaru volume drops 4 percent in 2019. The Ascent’s 81,958 U.S. sales last year handily outpaced the combined volume of the Impreza and BRZ. Put another way, it outsold the Legacy and WRX by a mile.

Subaru Ascent

Has Subaru not capitalized on the American public’s unquenchable thirst for large utility vehicles, its volume would have slipped from 643,925 sales in 2018 to 618,159 sales last year. A strategic product developed and introduced at just the right time kept the streak going.

Which begs the question: what next?

[Image: Subaru, Matthew Guy/TTAC]

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42 Comments on “Promise Kept: Subaru Climbs to New Heights in 2019...”


  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Subaru is a classic example of having the right product, compact AWD crossovers, at the right time. What next? Another stab at a small pick-up would be my guess

    • 0 avatar
      slavuta

      Subaru is another example that boredom sells. Camry was selling great for years, and now this is RAV4. Boring.

      • 0 avatar
        Slocum

        With Subarus, the excitement is where you can go with them. Make a list of crossovers whose owners would post this report:

        https://www.subaruoutback.org/threads/another-white-rim-trail-moab-utah-trip-report.414786/

        • 0 avatar
          3800FAN

          Mechanically you would never want to take a subaru off road for 1 simple reason. CVT. Put too much stress on that chain amd it will slip and it will lead to premature failure. All these subie owners are gonna have roasted CVT trannys by 60k and facing a 4k repair bill.

          Lastly theres nothing a subaru can do or can go you couldnt go in a honda toyota whatev crossover. Subaru owners just believe the marketing line but the fact is theres nothing superior about their awd system. Open diffs computer coltrolled wheel breaking to redistribute torque. Thats it. Honda meanwhile has active torque vectoring in the system itself amd doesnt use the brakes.

          • 0 avatar
            Dave M.

            My Outback has done just fine on light trails. 8.3” of clearance and AWD certainly helps. No problem with the CVT yet. Haven’t attempted any boulder crawling or Moab-level challenges, but I don’t think that is Subaru’s intention. A friend has jacked his up a bit and put much taller tires on….he successfully takes more challenging paths in the woods.

            My main reason for AWD and a taller chassis is of course our torrential downpours, during which my Outback is a beast.

          • 0 avatar
            Slocum

            The CVT based Outbacks have been around a full decade now — there doesn’t seem to have been any epidemic of ‘roasted’ transmissions.

            Would every ‘whatev’ crossover do as well in these scenarios?

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qe-jQqxbkVk

            I kind of doubt it (ground clearance alone would be an issue for many on the rocky trail) — but most ‘whatev’ crossover owners don’t even seem to want try this stuff and the manufacturers don’t encourage it. And yes, I agree the Honda AWD is capable (and the Passport finally has decent ground clearance), but there is a bit of an issue with the Honda AWD system overheating.

      • 0 avatar

        Did you ever try Impreza? I am not a fan but it is far from being Corolla clone.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Credit where it’s due – they’re the best at marketing.

    But the rust on my DIL’s 14 Legacy is a bit shocking – disintegrating brake shields, exhaust hole, underhood rust everywhere, even lug nuts. The dealer mal-adjusted the brake switch for a recall, and this killed the battery (it was due, anyway), so I had to properly adjust the thing. It’s not been a trouble-free car, but she loves it.

    Ironically, Subies aren’t the greenest or thriftiest cars, but the crowd who buys them would lap up an EV in a second. The trick would be how to produce ads showing an electric Subaru so far from paved roads and a charger.

    • 0 avatar

      you’re spot on, best marketing in the business, something GM will never understand.

      • 0 avatar
        Slocum

        What’s so amazing about Subaru’s marketing? They show fit, active people in outdoor settings. Often with their dogs. Where’s the genius in that that?

        GM’s problem is that its product offerings really don’t compete with Subaru. The Equinox/Blazer/Traverse really aren’t intended for off-roading at all (with low ground-clearance and meh 4wd systems). The Blazer is trying to be the Camaro of crossovers (with the flattened greenhouse to match), not a vehicle for outdoor enthusiasts. Same goes for the Ford Edge.

      • 0 avatar
        CaddyDaddy

        1989…. “not your Father’s Oldsmobile.”

        2020…. “not your crazy, never married Aunt’s Lesbaru.”

      • 0 avatar
        Peter Gazis

        Buickman

        But in 5 years GM fans will still be buying GM vehicles.
        Subaru fans will be buying Teslas

      • 0 avatar
        AdamOfAus

        Not in Australia. Lame ass ads about kids seeing butterflies through Subaru sunroofs.

    • 0 avatar
      ToolGuy

      + It seems like they have been consistent with their messaging and image for many years now (rather than flitting around like many).

      + As most real-world driving for most people turns to drudgery, their image has helped.

      + Their traditional customer base has been small enough and has kept relatively mum about any vehicle issues, so that ‘most’ people don’t hear many bad things about the product.

      + They seem to have focused more on gradual refinement rather than clean-sheet designs, meaning their products are more usable than most.

      What else are they doing right? The product itself clearly isn’t perfect, so there are definitely some lessons here for other OEM’s. How are the Subaru dealers?

  • avatar
    Unionwolf

    Why did you guys stop doing U.S. Auto sale articles???

  • avatar
    gottacook

    What I’d like to see is something with the Impreza/Crosstrek’s footprint but boxier and easier to see out of – in other words, what the Forester used to be before it started growing in the 2009 model year. (Of course I’d want a stick and the 2.5 engine in such a car, whereas the Impreza/Crosstrek offers the stick but only has a 2.0.)

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I wonder how many of those Ascent sales were conquest sales and how many decided to upgrade from Outback.

    Subaru should be a hybrid leader looking at the superior system available through their partnership with Toyota.

    A small pickup and compact minivan from them would be nice.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      I bet a pretty significant number of those Ascent buyers are moving up from another Subaru.

    • 0 avatar
      bullnuke

      It was interesting to see that the Ascent outsold the much ballyhooed Atlas (albeit, by only 450 sales). Perhaps a few conquest sales from VW. In other news, the also much ballyhooed Mazda CX-9, a “premium” three-row Zoom-Zoom turbo in the same category managed less that a third of the sales of either the Ascent or the Atlas.

  • avatar
    3800FAN

    A LOT of outback drivers i see in the MA area are elderly who buy it cuz of its raised ride height and nothing more.

    • 0 avatar
      conundrum

      There’s dozens of vehicles with raised ride height, but those elderly you focus on buy the Subaru anyway? Gotcha. In other words, you aren’t making an argument, you’re just flapping your gums about nothing.

  • avatar
    3800FAN

    I can say the ascent does appeal to from the styling/features standpoint. It does give you alot for the $ in the low trims but the cvt and turbo motor im sure will lead to more problems down the line which is why Id probably go AWD Pilot lx or ex. Hondas torque vectoring rear diff makes its awd superior to subarus.

  • avatar

    They sell very well to the group that wants the higher seat (I know an 80 y.o. who loves her Forester for that reason). AWD is a selling point here in the northeast. They look respectable without being trendy or flashy. The lack of any actual performance for most is not relevant, Subarus are usually driven moderately or stupidly, but never fast, save occasional wrx, a totally different group.

    I’ve had too many clients call me with horror stories of Subie ownership to go near one….those long conversations where you have to hear the story, but then disengage by saying you don’t handle Lemon law, and that you are NOT interested in suing the dealer over your $4500 repair bill….

    • 0 avatar
      3800FAN

      What reliability issues do they complain about besides head gasket failure?

    • 0 avatar
      Dan

      “They look respectable without being trendy or flashy.”

      They do, but it’s really telling to me that while you can’t throw a stick in that demographic around here without hitting a Subaru they’re ALL new ones. Quiet money keeps their quietly respectable Odysseys and Avalons and ES330s forever. The Bush era Outbacks have already been crushed.

      • 0 avatar
        Slocum

        The main reason you see so many more recent models Subarus than older ones is that their sales and market share have increased so dramatically. In 2000, Subaru sold 172K vehicles in the U.S. and in 2018 it was 680K (which is a 4X increase). Even between 2012 and 2018, Subaru’s U.S. sales doubled:

        http://carsalesbase.com/us-car-sales-data/subaru/

        Even if every Subaru made since 2000 was still on the road, you’d still see 4 times more from 2018 than 2000.

        • 0 avatar
          golden2husky

          Hence the misleading ads about 96% of Subarus sold in the last 10 years still being on the road. Technically correct but non critical thinkers will arrive at the incorrect conclusion that Subaru would like them to make.

        • 0 avatar
          Dan

          “Even if every Subaru made since 2000 was still on the road, you’d still see 4 times more from 2018 than 2000.”

          My business is in home services for the elderly and comfortable demographic. I’ve made a living at this for 20 years in which time I’ve seen exactly what comes and goes in their driveways. There aren’t a quarter as many old Subarus. There are zero. Just like there are also zero old VWs and zero old domestics.

          I’ll give you three guesses why that is and the first two don’t count.

          • 0 avatar
            Slocum

            Maybe those old Subarus all ended up in Colorado?

            https://www.thedrive.com/news/7439/subaru-obsessed-colorado-residents-wont-stop-asking-to-buy-this-outback

          • 0 avatar
            HuskyHawk

            I can tell you that if you go to Vermont, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an old Subaru. They are everywhere.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    I only know that allegedly people keep them all for 20 years and then give them to their kids who were conceived in the backseat, according to adverts. And they’re built in a no landfill factory. And love it’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.

    That, and the WRX twins are primarily snapped up by youths who drive inappropriately on public streets.

  • avatar
    bd2

    Back in the day – “sold” quite a few Foresters for Subaru, but nowadays there are numerous more compelling choices.

    Here, Subaru has definitely benefited from the increased view of AWD being a necessity, the rise of CUVs and the demise of Saab.

    But at the same time, Subaru is heavily dependent on the US market (Subie is not a big seller in Japan); in other markets like the EU, Australia, etc. – Mazda does better.

  • avatar
    JGlanton

    In spite of Subaru having such a bad navigation system that it makes me nostalgic for the days of holding a Thomas Guide on my lap and flipping pages between downshifts

  • avatar
    HuskyHawk

    Visited a Subaru dealer last Friday to drive the Outback. Talked to the sale rep who was an old timer. The key for them is that the Ascent is a hit and really doesn’t cannibalize any existing sales. Maybe a few Outback shoppers.

    The Outback is nice. It’s a much better platform than before, and road manners are excellent. Interior is better though I don’t like HVAC on the touch screen. It is however, not exciting. Superb value as an appliance though.

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