Subaru’s Lasting Crossover Appeal

Mj 618_348_quirky gets cool subarus

Subaru is kicking ass. For the seventh year in a row – including 2009, when the worldwide car market was in the toilet – Subaru has increased its U.S. sales. This past March was its best month ever. So what did Subaru do to deserve such success? Nothing. By which I mean nothing different. While it’s common for car companies to chase sales by grasping at image makeovers, this one did it simply by staying true to itself. Subaru didn’t find the market. The market found Subaru.

My parents bought a Subaru wagon in the early Eighties, and that humble vehicle was what we’d now call a crossover – a high-riding car with a dash of off-road machismo. It was four-wheel drive (including low range, like a truck) but got economy-car mileage and had room for kids and groceries. America didn’t understand it, because back then cars were cars and trucks were trucks.

That little wagon foretold the millions of Escapes, RAV4s, and, yes, Outbacks that now roam the land, but it arrived about 20 years too early. While Subarus gained cult popularity in certain northern enclaves, the automotive arm of Fuji Heavy Industries never seemed on top of the prevailing trends.

When minivans were popular, Subaru built crossovers. When SUVs were popular, Subaru built crossovers. Now, finally, crossovers are popular. And so are Subarus.

The refreshing thing about Subaru’s success is that it didn’t achieve it by diluting its cars’ endearing weirdness. Every Subaru still has a “flat” or horizontally opposed engine, like Porsche 911s, and every model but the BRZ (a sports car collaboration with Toyota) is all-wheel drive, which means that an $18,000 Impreza’s power train has more in common with a 911 Carrera 4 than it does with a Corolla.

Subarus are not as quirky as they once were, but when I recently climbed behind the wheel of a 2014 XV Crosstrek Hybrid, the immediate impression was of familiarity – this little wagon was a kindred spirit to the ’82 that I learned to drive on. Same slightly butch ride height, same raspy four-cylinder gurgle, same invincibility in the snow. And I did have occasion to try it in the snow, as I found myself driving the Crosstrek during a rare North Carolina blizzard.

For a New Englander, driving a Subaru in the snow is second nature. But the local Carolinians were mostly without winter-driving experience, so I brought a tow strap when I ventured out. It quickly became clear that I’d have no shortage of Good Samaritan projects. The little Crosstrek’s biggest trophy was a UPS truck that I dragged most of the way up a hill before unhooking to move a Grand Marquis that was in the way. The small crowd who witnessed that feat – a cop and a cluster of marooned drivers – were duly amazed that the little green Subaru had enough spare traction to get a delivery truck moving uphill.

As hybrids go, it’s not the greenest – its small battery and electric motor mostly serve to beef up low-end torque, which provides a bit of extra shove off the line. But the fact that this car exists speaks to Subaru’s understanding that it could sell more cars without selling its soul. People want all-wheel drive and people want hybrids, so why not build an all-wheel-drive hybrid? Done. The recent BRZ sports car is another example of Subaru trying something new while staying true to the budget-fun ideology established by the WRX. Which, by the way, just had its best month in the past 10 years. Right now Subaru is like the hot girl who’s just realizing that she’s hot. She’s gaining confidence but she’ll still return your call.

So where does Subaru go from here? Next up for a redesign is the Tribeca, a crossover that crammed three rows of seats into a vehicle that’s slightly shorter than a Ford Fusion. Three-row crossovers are hugely popular – I own one, as do both of my immediate neighbors – and Subaru has another, larger one in the works. If that one hits the mark, then maybe my kid will learn how to drive on a Subaru, too.

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