By on June 23, 2020

2020 Subaru Forester green - Image: SubaruAfter a streak of 11 consecutive years of U.S. sales growth for Subaru, a period in which the brand doubled its market share to 4.1 percent, “We’ll start a new streak next year,” the brand’s U.S. CEO Tom Doll says of 2020.

At any other point in history, the declines reported by Subaru over the last few months would be calamitous. Yet Subaru’s year-over-year losses in 2020, a year torn to shreds by COVID-19, have not been as severe as anticipated. Moreover, bright spots have been more numerous than expected.

The company, as a result, is now planning for 2020 to end as the brand’s sixth-best on record. 

Tom Doll Subaru CEO LA Auto Show 2017 - Image: SubaruIn an interview with Automotive News, Doll was relatively transparent about Subaru’s current state of affairs and the automaker’s plans for recovery. Doll is in an unusual position in the industry – he began his tenure with Subaru in 1982, helping to craft four decades of history at one brand. Johan de Nysschen he is not. Doll has seen the company falter (fewer than 100,000 Subarus were sold in 1994 and again in 1995), he’s seen the company grow in the midst of turmoil (Subaru sales soared to a then record high in the midst of 2009’s economic collapse), and he’s seen his share of flops (Baja, Tribeca, Legacy SUS) and hits (Outback, Forester, Crosstrek).

That kind of perspective isn’t just useful in terms of Doll’s understanding of Subaru, but of the industry as a whole. It’s the kind of perspective that causes Doll to believe that government intervention would be better employed across the economy at large rather than targeting the auto industry in a Cash For Clunkers repeat.

“I think we’re probably in favor of really helping the overall economy get back,” Doll says, “because that’ll help everything: It’ll help used cars, new cars and other industries besides just autos.”

Economic prudence aside, it’s worth noting that Subaru is hardly in a position to take advantage in a Cash For Clunkers scenario. Inventory is low at Subaru — just 60 days’ supply overall and lower for some models such as the Outback, which is just the way the company likes it in normal circumstances. Given the limited stock, how much market share does Subaru potentially stand to lose if it doesn’t have the vehicles to sell during a period of artificially inflated demand? Doll doesn’t expect to see inventories rise to reasonable levels until mid-August. 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport - Image: SubaruAlthough plant shutdowns quite obviously limit inventory, the main reason Subaru was caught off guard heading into the summer was unexpectedly high demand through the spring. June, says Doll, is “going better than we thought.” That’s after March and April sales slid “just” 47 percent. Doll, who’s been the president and CEO for two years, says Subaru sold 8,000 more vehicles in April than the brand anticipated. Then in May, despite a 19-percent year-over-year decline, Subaru still sold nearly 52,000 vehicles. This comes from a brand that, up until August 2014, had never sold 50,000 vehicles in a single month, a brand that didn’t begin averaging more than 50,000 monthly sales until 2016.

No matter how good 2020 will look by the standards of not-so-ancient history, no brand that’s on an upward trajectory this steep plans for a rapid economic shutdown.

“It just came upon us so quickly that there really wasn’t much time to adjust,” Doll says, while also pointing out that the brand is in a markedly different position now compared to the recession of 11 years ago. “During these very good years we’ve had, particularly in the last five or six years, we were able to fortify our balance sheet in such a way that we can withstand this type of a situation.”Subaru USA sales chart 2008-2020 - Image: © TTACThis means that Subaru, which intended to sell 725,000 vehicles in 2020 – a modest 4-percent uptick – is now targeting 575,000 vehicles, an 18-percent year-over-year decline. In the bizarre world in which the auto industry finds itself, an 18-percent downturn is actually representative of cautious optimism.

Doll and Subaru certainly have reason for optimism. The brand’s No.1 best seller, the fifth-generation Forester, generated its highest-volume month in history in May: 17,859 sales. Subaru, a brand steeped in the tradition of limiting incentives, is temporarily hooked on 0-percent financing on 63-month terms in order to curry favor with consumers. It’s an especially tantalizing offer at Subaru precisely because it’s unexpected. According to ALG, the average Subaru was discounted by $1,848 in May 2020, 60 percent less than the industry average but 21 percent higher than Subaru incentives one year earlier.

In the current environment, Subaru can excuse its own out-of-character behavior. There are headwinds the likes of which no industry veteran has ever encountered. Through those headwinds, Doll just wants to maintain a level footing.

“Our goal is to maintain our share of the market, whatever the market is.”

Whatever the market is. Surely a fitting title for 2020.

[Images: Subaru]

Timothy Cain is a contributing analyst at The Truth About Cars and and the founder and former editor of Follow on Twitter @timcaincars and Instagram.

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20 Comments on “Subaru USA CEO Tom Doll Gets Specific About COVID and Post-COVID U.S. Sales Goals...”

  • avatar

    How about some quality goals? When sales took off, they took their eye off the ball. There are plenty of posts on Reddit’s justrolledintotheshop about recent Subaru problems, like head gaskets, oil leaks, timing belt problems, etc.

    • 0 avatar

      Head gaskets issues are old (10+ years), oil usage issues (not leaks but low-tension oil control ring leak-by) corrected since the 2014-2015 time period, the engines have been utilizing timing chains since the FA/FB engines arrived 6 or 7 years ago – only the WRX STI still uses a timing belt. I don’t believe that Reddit should be used as a reliable source for Subaru problems much less as a source for pretty much anything.

      • 0 avatar

        That Reddirt sub is technicians in dealers and indy shops. And there have been articles here about Subaru’s quality decline.

        • 0 avatar

          Goodness gracious. If dealer techs still think timing belts are an issue, not that I ever remember they were, they must have been dead since 2011 and pinned to their perches like the Norwegian Blue parrot in the Monty Python sketch. No wonder the service has been bad lately as techs search for timing belts on 2017s.
          “We got a problem here, Jake – Mike just spent a half-hour on this one and can’t find a timing belt anywhere!”

          Subaru sales didn’t increase steadily for a dozen years because the word was out that they were a load of rubbish quality-wise, no matter what the chinless wonder talking heads say. I owned a 2008 LGT, and didn’t buy a Subie last year, because the cars themselves are about as exciting as watching grass grow these days, seeing as WRX and STI are ancient now.

  • avatar

    Subaru: A fast-growing automotive OEM which understands its customer base and has experienced, reasonable management.

    Yeah, one of the giants needs to buy these guys [or some other tie-up] and shut them down [or accidentally on purpose wink wink mismanage them into oblivion] right away. /S

    Making us look bad…

  • avatar

    Toyota will buy them.

    Subaru is utter garbage >>>

    Best Resale- Kelley Blue book
    Most (percent of models) 5 Star Crash worthiness – IIHS
    Lowest Cost of ownership 5 years out -Kelley Blue Book
    Best Passive safety System – C&D Magazine 7 months ago
    #1 in Brand Loyalty – JD Power. Owners Buy second ones or third and …..

    Total utter garbage: Hold it. Wait a minute.
    Never mind

    • 0 avatar

      You offer data in support of your observations. Pfffft.

      In reply, I shall now offer a 30% relevant personal anecdote from 13.5 years ago with a sample size of one.

      Take that. :-)

  • avatar

    I hate PIG UPs as sized today.
    I ve listed my reasons.

    The Subaru hate on this site? I dont understand.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve been away for a while but what Subbie hate do you refer too?

      • 0 avatar

        Wait for the rest of the comments to come in and you’ll see… it’s like clockwork.

      • 0 avatar

        Generally speaking, I like their cars. I like boxer engines, and Subaru’s quirkiness. A long time ago, my younger brother owned an ’83 GL-10 with a 5-speed, and the digital dash, power windows locks, etc. It was quiry, and bulletproof.

        If they can be mainstream yet still a little quirky, and offer great quality, then I’m all for them.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      They aren’t my bag, but if you are in the “Car as an appliance” group than I wouldn’t fault anyone for buying them.

      my only fault would be with all of the wanna be drag racers that think their STIs are fast (they actually are, but the drivers…not so much) that talk mad smack and show up and run 16’s because they can’t launch or shift a manual worth a darned.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t get it either. My daughter bought an Impreza a few years ago. Is it sexy? No. But if you don’t care about performance, and you want AWD, it’s a lot of car for the money.

  • avatar

    Take their 3 core items, Crosstrek, Forester, Outback. They all have weaknesses but each fills out a portion of the Venn Diagram of needs for the buyers in that segment. The Global Platform architecture era has been a hit, the cars ride well, the interiors are upgraded, clean and modern.

    Basically every lasting sales renaissance is product driven and the lineup right now looks good. Subaru’s have their question marks, but you put a real-life family car buyer into one for a test drive, the experience is positive.

    Right now is about maintaining momentum. The type of Subaru buyer now used to drive Hondas and Toyotas when they were younger. Honda and Toyota are off creating zany designs right now, Subarus are like the classic 90’s era of Japanese cars; simple(r) design, good visibility, low torque. I know a lot of people who grew up on Civics and Corollas, and instead of going to Cam-cords, they went into Foresters instead.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Love my Outback. The only reason the Baja failed IMO was it’s looks. The concept of a smaller 4 door AWD trucklet is solid.

  • avatar

    I hate Subaru. I prefer cats. Communists are dogs, capitalists are cats.

  • avatar

    Wow, 18 comments and no mention of Subaru’s flannel wearing women who love dogs customer base, now that’s progress :)

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