Opinion: Subaru is Doing Everything Just About Right

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
opinion subaru is doing everything just about right

Tim asked the other day if I might work up an opinion piece on the current state of Subaru. “Sure,” I said, and immediately felt salty. In mind were many criticisms on how the smallish automaker is doing things currently. After that initial salty reaction, I got to thinking about Subaru’s current offerings and recent trajectory more critically. And I realized they’re doing most everything just as they should.

I can hear the criticisms emanating from fingertips right now as replies are prepared for the comments. The company lost the quirky nature it once had, it relies almost completely on CVTs to motivate its vehicles forward, they’re just making crossovers for normies, boring appliances, etc. How am I doing so far?

Those are the sort of criticisms I’d gathered in my initial brain scan about Subaru. But those are precisely the things they’re doing correctly, and have done for the past decade. It’s true that with offerings like the GL sedan/wagon and the XT in the Eighties, Subaru made weird design and engineering decisions. They were the offbeat, go-anywhere brand for people who didn’t want an AMC Eagle or a Jeep, or couldn’t afford a Volvo wagon. Their touring coupe XT was all over the place, complicated and expensive, and they didn’t really know who to market it to. Its successor, the SVX, was a stylish Giugiaro-designed automatic transmission sports coupe with crazy side windows that was slow and heavy, but priced like a twin-turbo 300ZX. So nobody bought it either. Around the 2009 period, Subaru pretty much quit producing weird things altogether. The Baja truck of 2006 was one of the last examples of Subaru off-the-wall stuff.

They added a three-row to the lineup in 2006, getting in on the larger crossover game with the B9 Tribeca. It didn’t really sell, but Subaru was making moves toward a crossover-centric brand. Circa 2009 the company began the switch to CVTs in place of traditional automatic transmissions. They started offering fewer things with manuals, and taking fewer risks. Of course with these “normalization” type changes their sales took right off, as evidenced by the chart below from Good Car Bad Car.

The brand was losing sales every year from 2006 through 2009. 2010 was the year of the redesigned Outback and Legacy (their volume models) with a CVT in tow and more crossover-y styling for the Outback in particular. A year earlier, the Forester adopted a more crossover-like shape and lost its boxy wagon look of the first two generations. It too switched to CVT in 2012. Crossover offerings expanded in 2017 with the addition of the Impreza-based Crosstrek XV, a competitor in the compact crossover segment. Journalists noticed the changes, but so did the average consumer. As the company headed toward the mainstream US sales have increased year over year, save for the mess which was 2020. The first competitive three-row CUV Subaru introduced, the Ascent, is selling like hotcakes.

There are still enthusiast corners at Subaru in the WRX, BRZ, and to a lesser extent, the XT performance trims. Those former two cars don’t really need much marketing effort. The WRX is the answer to a singular question for its faithful buyers; there’s no other option. There’s even a new one coming later this year (well overdue). The Toyota-Subaru jointly developed BRZ sports car is there for customers who prefer a Subaru badge over a Toyota one. That’s a new model too, and it enters production later this year. Subaru is showing commitment to its enthusiast models.

But the enthusiast niche is not their primary target and Subaru knows it. Their marketing is geared toward families: safety, driver assistance, all-wheel-drive security, dogs, camping. All the things crossover buyers envision doing with their cars but seldom do. Having said that, I’d bet good money that Subaru owners use their cars for more crossover activities than buyers at other brands. To that end, Subaru has expanded into a Wilderness trim line, which butches up the Outback (so far) in an attempt to capture the off-road enthusiast. The sort of Jeep or Bronco-Esque buyer who takes it a step past camping at the bottom of the hill. We’ll see how that goes. As an aside, the Wilderness trim is a bit much for yours truly, and reads “try hard.” But like you (probably), these cars are Not For Me. They’re for other people.

Think of it this way: In 2006 VW sold about 223,000 cars in the US, Mazda shifted 268,000, and Subaru sold 259,000. In 2019 (the most recent complete, normal year) VW moved 363,000, Mazda sold 279,000, and Subaru managed 700,000. That’s a 170 percent increase in 14 years, the calculator tells me. Subaru is right where they need to be.

[Images: Corey Lewis, Matthew Guy / TTAC, Good Car Bad Car]

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  • Cam59 Cam59 on Aug 05, 2021

    I would love to purchase a Subaru; however, their design is less like an SUV and nothing more than Station wagons that my father owned when I was a child, over 55 years ago. Hopefully, one day, they will design something more truck/car like, something more muscular. If they would take a clue from the BMW X6 or even the 2017 Mercedes GLA, which I had leased, that would push others who feel as I do, into their showrooms.

  • Stuntmonkey Stuntmonkey on Aug 07, 2021

    I left TTAC because of irresponsible articles like this. I came back to take a peak and this was what I found. What's the point? You have here some amateur on a car site that doesn't rank on any Google hits trying to pontificate about national public health policy. You can just go to r/cars and actually talk about cars with better educated people without the angsty male boomer vibe.

  • Jeff S Corey--We know but we still want to give our support to you and let TTAC know that your articles are excellent and better than what the typical articles are.
  • Jeff S A sport utility vehicle or SUV is a car classification that combines elements of road-going passenger cars with features from off-road vehicles, such as raised ground clearance and four-wheel drive.There is no commonly agreed-upon definition of an SUV and usage of the term varies between countries. Thus, it is "a loose term that traditionally covers a broad range of vehicles with four-wheel drive." Some definitions claim that an SUV must be built on a light truck chassis; however, broader definitions consider any vehicle with off-road design features to be an SUV. A [url=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossover_(automobile)]crossover SUV[/url] is often defined as an SUV built with a unibody construction (as with passenger cars), however, the designations are increasingly blurred because of the capabilities of the vehicles, the labelling by marketers, and electrification of new models.The predecessors to SUVs date back to military and low-volume models from the late 1930s, and the four-wheel drive station wagons and carryalls that began to be introduced in 1949. The 1984 [url=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeep_Cherokee_(XJ)]Jeep Cherokee (XJ)[/url] is considered to be the first SUV in the modern style. Some SUVs produced today use unibody construction; however, in the past, more SUVs used body-on-frame construction. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the popularity of SUVs greatly increased, often at the expense of the popularity of large [url=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sedan_(automobile)]sedans[/url] and station wagons.More recently, smaller SUVs, mid-size, and crossovers have become increasingly popular. SUVs are currently the world's largest automotive segment and accounted for 45.9% of the world's passenger car market in 2021. SUVs have been criticized for a variety of environmental and safety-related reasons. They generally have poorer fuel efficiency and require more resources to manufacture than smaller vehicles, contributing more to climate change and environmental degradation. Between 2010 and 2018 SUVs were the second largest contributor to the global increase in carbon emissions worldwide. Their higher center of gravity increases their risk of rollovers. Their larger mass increases their stopping distance, reduces visibility, and increases damage to other road users in collisions. Their higher front-end profile makes them at least twice as likely to kill pedestrians they hit. Additionally, the psychological sense of security they provide influences drivers to drive less cautiously. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sport_utility_vehicleWith the above definition of SUV any vehicle that is not a pickup truck if it is enclosed, doesn't have a trunk, and is jacked up with bigger tires. If the green activists adhere to this definition of what an SUV is there will be millions of vehicles with flat tires which include HRVs, Rav4s, CRVs, Ford Escapes, Buick Encores, and many of compact and subcompact vehicles. The green movement is going to have to recruit millions of new followers and will be busy flattening millions of tires in the US and across the globe. Might be easier to protest.
  • Sckid213 I actually do agree that most Nissans are ultimately junk. (I also think many BMWs are also). I was talking challenging the 3 in terms of driving dynamics. Agree all were failures in sales.
  • THX1136 More accurately said, we are seeing exponential growth in the manufacturing capabilities in this market. Unless, of course, all those vehicles are sold with customers waiting until more a produced so they can buy. Indeed, there are certainly more EVs being purchased now than back in 2016. Is demand outstripping manufacturing? Maybe or maybe not. I sincerely don't know which is why I ask.
  • ToolGuy The page here (linked in the writeup) is ridiculously stupid https://www.tyreextinguishers.com/how-to-spot-an-suvLike, seriously stupid, e.g., A) Not sure that particular Volvo is killing the planet as quickly as some other vehicles we might choose. B) A Juke is "huge"??? C) The last picture shows a RAV4 Hybrid?