MM Write-Up: Why American-Market Subarus are so Popular

mmcartalk

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MM Write-Up: Why American-Market Subarus are so Popular
IN A NUTSHELL: Subarus, particularly the Crosstrek, make a LOT of sense, for a LOT of people.


















https://www.subaru.com/index.html




https://www.subaru.com/vehicles/crosstrek/index.html


https://www.subaru.com/vehicles/forester/index.html


https://www.subaru.com/vehicles/outback/index.html




This is not a traditional MM Review per se, but a general write-up. In it, my purpose is not to sound like a sales-rep for the company, or a stockholder looking for more company profits/dividends, or a company exec whose prestige is at stake. I just want to point out something I have noticed, more and more, over the years, why American-market Subarus have gotten so popular, and what I think is driving it (no pun intended).


Many auto historians (and I agree with them) credit the industry's first car-based AWD (all-wheel-drive) system, using a viscous-fluid center-differential that allowed all four wheels to rotate at different speeds simultaneously for hard-pavement use and cornering, to the American Motors (AMC) Eagle and Eagle SX-4 of 1980-81. Previous four-wheel-drive systems, mostly on trucks, Jeeps, and SUVs, locked up all four wheels at the same rotation-speed, which required a surface underneath the wheels that allowed the tires to have some slip. Slip on the road surface was required because, going around a corner, the outside tires on the vehicle naturally have to rotate slightly faster than the inside tires. That's because, all else equal, the radius of the curve itself is a little shorter for the inside wheels. Simple Geometry and arcs....most students learn that in High School, or even Middle School. So, on dry pavement cornering, or on a surface that is part wet/dry or part slick/non-slick, with 4WD engaged, one runs the risk of causing tire or powertrain damage from binds/lock-ups when the non-slip drivetrain meets conditions that must allow slip. These truck-based 4WD systems also included a separate low-range transfer-case, which provided very short gear-ratios for off-road torque-multiplication, which was rarely, if ever, needed or used on dry pavement. In addition, back then, the system usually drove the rear wheels by default, and, to engage or disengage 4WD, one had to stop the vehicle, get out, and physically rotate the front-hub-coupling/uncoupling by hand. Needless to say, this could be a PITA in bad weather or muddy/wet conditions.


The new AMC system, for the first time in automotive history, got rid of most of that problem with the uneven wheel-rotation cornering speeds, and, with the new center-differential, allowed the system to remain in permanent AWD without the driver having to be concerned in the least about what kind of surface was under the vehicle. When introduced, it was actually a good 15 years ahead of its time...the public was not too thrilled about it, at first, perhaps because of the reputation of AMC products for poor quality. But, with time, it went on to become one of the cardinal creeds of modern vehicle design, and, today, a huge part of the industry is based on it.


AMC, of course, folded in the 1980s, but two companies realized the potential of AMC's new system and, in different ways, went on to further develop and perfect it, first for their rally-vehicles and then for their production vehicles.....Subaru, with its Symmetrical AWD system, and Audi, with its famous Quattro system. The two differed in that the Audi system was more complex, asymmetrical, used more hardware, was not as efficient, and was more difficult to repair. The Subaru Symmetrical system was ingeniously simple...a flat-four (horizontally-opposed) engine, with the output-shaft running fore/aft, bolted to the transmission, front differential, driveshaft and center differential, rear differential, and axle-shafts to each wheel, with CV joints on the front wheels to allow steering and power to be applied at the same time. It was Symmetrical because the AWD hardware on the left side of the vehicle was the exact same as on the right, but in a reverse mirror-image. That, of course, helped allow more equal left-right weight-distribution, and the low center of gravity of the flat-four engines helped with the vehicle's handling and stability....a crucially important factor in rally-conditions.





All of this, of course, is not to say that Subarus were not without problems....or potential problems. For years, they had an inefficient parts-distribution system (long-since addressed). The flat-four engines, for years, sounded and felt like a grating machine when started and ran (the flat-sixes, less-so because they ran smoother and more refined)...much of that unrefinement has gradually been eliminated over the years. Some of the non-turbo four cylinders have had notable head-gasket problems, which persisted even in spite of attempts by the factory to deal with it....it took a while to get that addressed. Rear wheel bearings have been an issue on some models. Many Bread-and-Butter mainstream Subarus now use the CVT (Continuously-Variable Transmission)....some people (including me) don't particularly like the way that transmission operates. And, recently, up to about 2015 or 2016, some of the flat-fours had issues with defective piston rings and high oil-usage. As a whole, Subarus are considered average to better-than-average in reliability...decent, but not in the Toyota or Lexus range. And even Toyotas and Hondas, of course, have had some issues over the years.....there is no such thing as a vehicle totally without issues.


On the whole, Subaru sales really took off in the U.S. when the Outback was first introduced in 1995, and when Subaru eliminated the sale of FWD (front-drive) models from the American market. Symmetrical-AWD only became the new marketing standard for Subarus here in the U.S. Everything produced and sold here, since then, has had AWD, except for the joint Toyota/Subaru BRZ, which is a RWD (rear-drive) sports car, uses some Toyota hardware, and not really linked to the rest of the Subaru lineup. I owned a later (2006) Outback myself, for almost six years, and was extremely pleased with it, despite a lack of power...nothing in the winter could stop it, or, in most cases, even make the wheels spin.


Today, of course, despite the Japanese-Brand nameplate, Subaru has become an American institution, has some clever ads/marketing (far better than their lousy marketing of the 80s and early 90s), and, in my area (D.C. suburbs) sells like beer at Happy Hour. The Forester, Outback, and Crosstrek are especially popular, with the Forester and Outback being among the relatively few vehicles today where you can actually SEE out the side and rear windows. Subarus are also quite popular in harsh-climate areas like New England, the Great Lakes, High-Altitude Colorado, and the Northern Rockies, There is even a plant in Lafayette, IN (shared with Toyota) that produces some Subaru models for the American market....my Outback, for example, was built there. But it is the Impreza-based Crosstrek that really seems to be the rage here in the D.C. area. It is essentially a compact Impreza 5-door hatchback, on a raised suspension for added ground clearance, and some minor differences in trim and standard/optional equipment. Several of my neighbors own one, I shopped for one with an ex-co-worker of mine (he is well-pleased with it), and they seem to be multiplying like rabbits in this area. I suspect that the D.C. area is not unique, and that the Crosstrek is also quite popular in the other Subaru-friendly areas as well.


And, in a nutshell, it is easy to see why the Crosstrek is becoming one of the staples of suburban driving. Its relatively small size allows easy maneuverability/parking in tight mall and shopping-center lots. Its relatively light weight, particularly by AWD standards, allows good fuel-mileage numbers. it comes in some bright, eye-opening paint colors (and those colors sell in this area). Though not a luxury vehicle by any means, it is reasonably comfortable, inside and out, for a couple of persons or family with small kids. Its ride comfort is not the bounce-around harshness of some small SUVs or crossovers....it has reasonably compliant tires and suspension. The materials inside and out are generally of good quality....though with some evidence of cost-cutting here and there. Its raised-height allows easy clearance of speed bumps and concrete-stops in parking spaces. Best of all, the price, as also with the case of its brothers Forester and Impreza, won't break one's bank account...base Crosstreks start just under 22K. It, and the Impreza, make an excellent starter-vehicle gift for a college student who is going away to school in a harsh-climate area. And, for those who don't have a fortune to spend on a new vehicle, the Crosstrek seems to have appeal across the board...I see numerous people of all ages, both male and female, married and single, driving them every day.


The base 2019 Crosstrek 2.0i, as mentioned, starts at $21,895, the 2.0i Premium at $22,895, the 2.0i Limited at $27,195, and the gas/electric Hybrid at $34,995. As the name suggests, the non-hybrids come with a normally-aspirated 2.0L flat-four engine of 152 HP and 145 ft-lbs. of torque. In the base and Premium version, a 6-speed manual (yes, a real, traditional, three-pedal manual) transmission is standard, but most buyers in this area, because of the traffic, choose the optional CVT, which comes standard in the other versions. According to Subaru, though, supplies of the Hybrid model are limited, so local dealers may or may not have them in stock.


And, as Always, Happy Car-Shopping.



MM
 

mikeavelli

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Nice write-up and I know you have been a fan for sometime. The last Suburu I lusted after was the 1990s or so Legacy and maybe a WRX STi. I still don't get the popularity. It really hit me when I visited Portland/Seattle for the first time and every other car was a Suburu. Now they clog the fast lanes in Atlanta. They are all over, I think like 90 months of record sales or something like that. Quite an amazing story.
 

mmcartalk

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Nice write-up and I know you have been a fan for sometime. The last Suburu I lusted after was the 1990s or so Legacy and maybe a WRX STi. I still don't get the popularity. It really hit me when I visited Portland/Seattle for the first time and every other car was a Suburu. Now they clog the fast lanes in Atlanta. They are all over, I think like 90 months of record sales or something like that. Quite an amazing story.
Thanks. By the Legacy you "lusted" after, I assume it was the GT model? Unfortunately, Subaru no longer offers the Legacy GT in the American market, primarily from poor sales, even though, in some ways, it was looked upon by the auto press as the "WRX/STI for Grown-Ups".
 

Ian Schmidt

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1990s? Depends on where you were. The WRX was not introduced to the American market until 2001, though it had previously been introduced overseas. The Evo did not arrive here until 2003.
Wow, it seems like both of them were around earlier, particularly in Orlando. Then again, the late 90s and early 2000s kind of blur together now.

Subarus were kind of quirky and appealed to the fringes before becoming mainstream
Yeah, that was brilliant marketing.
 

CIF

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Sure, all these points make sense, but as popular as they are, there are some things about Subarus that are dealbreakers for a lot of people, myself included. They currently have a love affair with CVTs in almost all their regular models. No more automatics (manuals are a different category). That is a dealbreaker personally. Then there is the fact that most Subarus these days, while affordable, are slow and gutless. They're also not the most refined vehicles out there, nor are they quality, reliability or durability leaders as pointed out.

If ground clearance and AWD are top priorities above all else, then sure I can see why people buy Subarus. Beyond that, I really dont (STi models excluded).
 

mmcartalk

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Sure, all these points make sense, but as popular as they are, there are some things about Subarus that are dealbreakers for a lot of people, myself included. They currently have a love affair with CVTs in almost all their regular models. No more automatics (manuals are a different category). That is a dealbreaker personally. Then there is the fact that most Subarus these days, while affordable, are slow and gutless. They're also not the most refined vehicles out there, nor are they quality, reliability or durability leaders as pointed out.

If ground clearance and AWD are top priorities above all else, then sure I can see why people buy Subarus. Beyond that, I really dont (STi models excluded).

Except for the WRX/STI crowd (and possibly the BR-Z), most Subaru buyers are not interested in high power. That's why most of the turbo versions of the Outback and Legacy were pulled from the American market. Most of those who buy Subarus today are after one thing...reliable winter transportation that doesn't drive like a truck or SUV....and the company delivers.

As for the CVTs, more and more manufacturers (and vehicles) are turning to them as good compromises of power and economy. The new 2020 Corolla SE and XSE has a unique CVT with a starter-gear that eliminates much of the annoying motorboating and rubber-banding sensations that CVTs were plagued with starting up from rest. I suspect that other manufacturers will follow.

(I did a write-up/test-drive, BTW, on the new XSE and that transmission...it is posted here in the Garage section)
 
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