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Subaru's 20 Million All-Wheel Drive Vehicle Legacy

Subaru Chassis Display at 2009 Canadian International AutoShow
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Car FYI Canada


Last month, Japanese auto brand Subaru reached a massive production milestone with a technology that transformed how motorists would see the Pleiades star cluster. The 20-millionth Subaru vehicle manufactured with all-wheel drive marks 49 years of evolution in styling and engineering resulting in the current 2021 product line.

Whether it was known as On-Demand 4WD, Full-Time 4WD or as Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, Subaru’s primary sense of motion for many decades appear in some familiar and unusual forms. With 20 million Subaru all-wheel drive models produced, let’s take a look at how the automaker used the technology to shape their vehicles and vice versa.


1972 Leone 4WD Estate Van

Photo Credit: Subaru Global

In 1972, Subaru became the first car maker in Japan to offer a mass-produced all-wheel drive for the general motoring public. The creation of the Subaru Leone 4WD Estate Van came as a result of necessity. Subaru constructed the vehicle when the Tohoku Electric Supply Company needed a reliable manner to reach areas where wintery conditions are an obstacle. Also known as the Subaru 4WD station wagon, the company’s first application of all-wheel drive began to lure eyes to the automaker that led to the arrival of the model in the United States in 1975.

According to information from an August 1976 copy of Petersen’s Pickup, Van & 4WD, the base price of the Subaru 4WD station wagon in the United States was $4,149 and was powered by an 83 cubic-inch four-cylinder engine linked to a four-speed manual gearbox. The article also explained that Subaru’s parent company Fiji Heavy Industries purchased the rear axle center sections.


1978 BRAT

1986 Subaru BRAT Pickup at Oblivion Exhibition at 2020 CIAS
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Car FYI Canada

In 1978, Subaru products were first sold officially in Canada. In the same year, the Japanese auto brand would introduce a special vehicle with the North American market in mind. Called the BRAT (an acronym for Bi-Drive, Recreational, All-Terrain Transporter), the pickup-style variant of the station wagon sold by Subaru.

At a time where compact trucks and utility vehicles were finding a growing niche in the United States, the Subaru BRAT came with standard four-wheel drive, a 65-brake-horsepower engine using a stratified charge for cleaner emissions as well as the handling of front MacPherson struts and a rear suspension using semi-trailing arms. Although appearing as a pickup truck, Subaru was required to compromise the design in North America due to import taxes. A pair of rear-facing plastic bucket seats as well as a carpeted cargo floor was installed in Subaru BRATs sold in the United States and Canada until 1987.

Subaru would revisit the notion of a pickup version of one of their all-wheel drive wagons briefly in the 2000s. Based on the Subaru Legacy Outback wagon, the Baja featured a small truck bed behind a traditional four-door cabin. Available between the 2003 and 2006 model years, the Baja was assembled in Subaru’s Lafayette, Indiana facility.


1988 Justy 4WD


Photo Credit: Subaru Global

The Justy may be one of the oddest vehicle offered in North America by Subaru since the 360 kei car in the 1960s. Debuting in the United States in 1987 and Canada in 1988, the Subaru Justy did not appear vastly dissimilar from other subcompact cars of the time. However, beneath body shell of the 3,700 millimeter economy car buyers may find an array of bizarre mechanicals. One of the last mass-produced passenger cars sold in North America with a carburetted engine, the Justy also offered an electronically-controlled continuously variable transmission (ECVT).

In 1988, Subaru expanded their “On-Demand” four-wheel drive system to the small Justy. The availability of the versatile drivetrain made the Justy 4WD the most affordable four-wheel drive model for the road. Originally equipped only with a five-speed manual transmission only, it was made available with the ECVT in 1990. Subaru’s all-wheel drive with a CVT was commonplace in their current model lineup. In 1991, the starting price for the Subaru Justy 4WD in Canada was $9,615.


1992 SVX AWD


Photo Credit: Subaru of America, Inc.

Subaru began to successfully promote their all-wheel drive system as a performance-oriented technology with rally racing through the 1980s and 1990s eventually leading to a stretch of three consecutive FIA World Rally Championship constructor titles from 1995 to 1997. The Subaru XT was introduced early in 1985 as a technologically-advanced and aerodynamically-advanced sport coupe but the Japanese automaker decided to introduction the advantages of their on-demand four-wheel drive to the model. Available on the XT until the model was discontinued in 1991 but its successor, the SVX, would mark another highly stylized appearance of Subaru’s all-wheel drive technology.

The evolution of the XT, the SVX was a sport coupe featuring a distinctive exterior designed by the famed Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign whose portfolio included the Lotus Esprit, BMW M1, 1974 Volkswagen Golf as well as the Delorean. The Subaru SVX’s roof and window line specifically stood out for its window-within-a-window side glass inspired by aircraft. A 3.3-liter flat-six engine generating 230 horsepower was immediately paired with permanent four-wheel drive sufficiently producing the 1992 SVX. Billed as a four-seat sport coupe, the 1992 Subaru SVX came with anti-lock braking as standard equipment and was available with speed-sensitive electronic power steering.

A slow-selling niche vehicle for Subaru, the SVX would continue production until the end of 1996.

1996 Legacy Outback

Photo Credit: Subaru of America, Inc.

Constructing their all-wheel drive pedigree on a wagon 24 years earlier, Subaru would refocus on the vehicle body type when they took a gamble that instantly started paying high dividends for the company. With a marketing campaign that involved Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan as a pitch person, the Subaru Legacy Outback invigorated aggression and character to what was a dying wagon market in North America.

Debuting in 1996 with the introduction of a redesigned Legacy line, the Outback augmented the Subaru Legacy wagon to be a more capable vehicle for off-roading terrains. An improved suspension rising the wagon’s ground clearance by 1.2 inches to a total 7.3 inches, the Subaru Outback also incorporated a higher roof, white-spoked wheels as well as a unique grille. While promoting greater front passenger headroom than the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer at the time, the Subaru Outback also touted much greater fuel efficiency than its truck-like sport utility vehicle counterparts.

The multiple terrain capable wagon was an instant trailblazer on the sales charts with some crediting its success as changing the fortunes of Subaru in the United States. Originally marketed as the Legacy Outback, Subaru swiftly repositioned the wagon variant as its own, separate model. According to Subaru of America, the Outback out sells the Legacy by a large and growing margin. In December of 2019, 181,178 Outbacks were sold compared to 35,063 examples of the sedan.


1998 Forester

Photo Credit: Subaru of America, Inc.

The roots of the now-dominant crossover utility vehicle segment are difficult to determine. While automakers had toyed with giving car-based wagons expanded all-weather handling capabilities (the before-mentioned Subaru Outback being one example) the crossover class truly emerged when car companies began experimenting with designs that incorporated cues from larger sport utility vehicles. Subaru became an early adopter what would become the crossover craze for the 1998 model year with the introduction of the Forester.

Using the underpinnings of the compact Impreza, the 1998 Subaru Forester measured roughly 76 millimeters (2.99 inches) longer, 31 millimeters (1.22 inches) wider and 126 millimeters (4.96 inches) taller than the Impreza wagon-based Outback Sport. The Forester’s increased height was attributed to 7.5 inches of ground clearance and a higher roof that made the early crossover a capable cargo hauler.

Revised over several model generations to be comfortable, technological as well as versatile, the Subaru Forester has become one of the more popular members of the brand’s North American lineup. In the United States, the one-millionth example of the utility crossover was sold in 2013 while the two-millionth Forester was purchased on July of 2019 shortly after an all-new redesign that included standard Active Torque Vectoring working in concert with the vehicle’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive.

2004 Impreza WRX STI

2005 Subaru Impreza STI
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Car FYI Canada

A replacement to Subaru’s long-running Leone (known as the Loyale in North America since 1990), the Impreza premiered for the 1993 model year as a fresh approach to the brand’s compact option offered as a sedan, coupe and wagon. While the Impreza attracted customers as an entry-level lineup, it became immediately apparent that the platform had the potential beyond that a simple economy car. Serving as the basis for the off-road themed Outback Sport, the Subaru Impreza’s low center of gravity combined with all-wheel drive and a boxer engine made the machine a very capable sport performer.

The Impreza quickly became the weapon of choice for the Subaru World Rally Team operated by British motorsport group Prodrive with its blue colour scheme and 555 sponsorship emerging to a common spectacle in global competition. Debuting at the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland, the Subaru Impreza driven by Finnish rally veteran Ari Vatanen achieved a second place result. The first World Rally Championship victory would be scored by Spain’s Carlos Sainz (the father of the current Ferrari Formula 1 driver) at the Acropolis Rally in Greece in 1994. The late Scottish rally ace Colin McRae would score two event wins with the Impreza later in the same year before taking 11 rally victories in series competition between 1995 and 1998 as well as securing the 1995 drivers’ championship. McRae’s championship also coincided with the first of Subaru’s win three consecutive World Rally Championship constructors’ titles.

The WRX (World Rally eXperimental) version of the Subaru Impreza would share many of the performance and handling attributes found in the competition cars with road cars. A higher performance STI variant of the Impreza WRX made the hot compact a sizzling machine. Originally offered only in Japan, the WRX models gained wider reach finally arriving in North America in 2002. Equipped with unique bodywork, 16-inch cast aluminum wheels and powered by a 227-horsepower engine mated with a sport-tuned Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, the 2002 Subaru Impreza WRX impressed sport compact consumers before the 2004 arrival of the Impreza WRX STI. Boasting a turbocharged and intercooled 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine developing 300 horsepower, the STI upgrade also came with further suspension enhancements, a driver-controlled center differential and 17-inch BBS forged wheels.

Since its arrival, the combination of the WRX and STI has symbolized peak factory performance from Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drive system.

2014 XV Crosstrek Hybrid

Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid ar 2015 CIAS
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Car FYI Canada

While the Impreza-derived Subaru Outback Sport (available from 1995 to 2011) checked off many boxes on the checklist for customers Looking for an affordable yet versatile vehicle. However, the compact wagon one potential demerit was it didn’t fit the image of a true crossover such as the Toyota RAV4 or Ford Escape. When Subaru introduced a re-engineered Impreza, the company replaced the Outback Sport with the XV Crosstrek (shortened to Crosstrek in 2015). Measuring 2.4 inches longer than its predecessor, the 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek’s other more dramatic improvements included a wider track, considerably greater interior volume as well as a much taller ground clearance (8.7 inches compared to 6.3 inches to the 2011 Outback Sport).

A year after the successful launch of the XV Crosstrek, Subaru used the platform as the basis for their first electrified production vehicle. Featuring an AC synchronous electric motor with a 2.0-liter boxer engine married to Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, the 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid maintained many of the advantages of an all-weather crossover while achieving better fuel economy. Auto Stop/Start as well as a silent-running EV Mode fitted to the XV Crosstrek Hybrid meant even greater efficiency for the all-wheel drive crossover.

The original hybrid model was discontinued in 2017 but a new plug-in hybrid Crosstrek Hybrid debuted in 2019.

2023 Solterra

Photo Credit: Subaru Global

As evident with the creation of the Crosstrek Hybrid, Subaru is one of many automakers adapting to a future without fuel-burning engines. In looking forward to battery-powered motoring, the Japanese brand’s all-wheel drive system is envisioning a tomorrow involving the sun and the earth.

The 2023 Subaru Solterra will be the automaker’s first fully electric vehicle. A compact crossover utility based on a jointly-developed, all-electric platform with Toyota, the Solterra was announced in May of this year and is planned for sale in Canada as well as the United States, Japan, Europe and China by mid 2022. More details of for Subaru’s upcoming Solterra should be forthcoming


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