Historiography: Horizontally-Opposed Engines and Four-Wheel Drive
Victory & Reseda introduces a new contributor to our site: Ryan Senensky. If you are a fan of the Japanese Nostalgic Car site, you may have seen his byline on it. He just happens to be based in Minneapolis – not far from V&R's Headquarters. Please join us as we welcome Ryan to the team. If you like his stuff, let us know.
Now, on to his Historiography of Subaru and the road towards making four/all-wheel drive popular among smaller vehicles…
Subaru is releasing a new Impreza, and for the first time since the last generation, it is actually worth getting if you intend on doing anything besides driving grandma to bingo night. More importantly, the Subaru Impreza Sport is actually not just a badge with some gray wheels, a standard roof rack and optional manual transmission. The new Impreza Sport does have upgraded suspension that is stiffer without being back breaking, has torque vectoring and can actually handle it's own in an autocross. It reminds me almost of the 2.5RS of yesteryear which was all the fun of a WRX at the time, but with a conventional naturally aspirated engine.
Now people are going to say "why not buy a WRX?" First off the new Impreza sport comes in with a price tag below $25,000 and well, at that price sometimes the appeal of a fun car that has a warranty and hasn't been previously vaped in is actually enough to make you consider owning the car. Or possibly I've just become old, that is a very real possibility as well.
But let's be real here, most people will buy the Subaru Impreza because it is AWD and that is a surprisingly rare thing in a compact car. Yes, there are a few cars which have some garbage active AWD system which sends a portion of the power to the real wheels when needed like a glorified traction control. The question stands though, how did this happen? They didn't need to put an AWD system in a compact car… did they?
Well to get the complete story, we need to go back to 1972 and look at Subaru's original platform that started it all, the Leone. Previously Subaru had released the Subaru FF-1, which was a compact FWD car that was relatively popular, especially in places that had snow more than once a year. After a special project creating a 4WD version of the car for the Tohoku Electric Power Co. to use to get to their assets that are off the beaten path, the reception was positive enough to get the next generation of Subaru cars to come with an optional 4WD. This series called the Leone, or in America, the L-series was released as a coupe in 1971, but the next year in 1972 a sedan and wagon variant was released as well, and by 1974 they all had an optional 4WD system, even the coupe. The reason it wasn't standard is that Subaru has always been a cautions company and they left 4WD as an option so the economy minded would still have a product with a Pleiades logo on it. Luckily, there was in fact a niche market for this feature and it became quite successful.
Who in the world would want a compact car with AWD though? That's what a Bronco or a Land Cruiser is for right? Well yes, that is true but the fuel economy was terrible in those and for most Subaru buyers they were just way too large. If they didn't want something that big they would have to spend all of their money hunting down a Jensen FF or a Jensen Interceptor, which wasn't feasible for pretty much anyone.
For the average owner in a climate that snows, which happens to be the majority of land masses on the planet, this new concept was a welcome relief as RWD platforms of the era had suspension systems that were not nearly as advanced as they are today. Solid rear axles meant that road imperfections would destabilize the entire car, leaf spring suspension systems allowed for side to side wheel movement and traction control was considered letting off the gas and counter steering. For a car with a short wheelbase, like a Datsun 510 or Mazda Capella, that archaic suspension would become a game of Russian Roulette. That is also where that myth of "get the heaviest longest front wheel drive car you can get" comes from. Luckily Subaru had an offering that unlike large FWD cars was actually not terrible, and in fact, was actually rather fun especially when you took them off paved roads or into inclement weather. On top of having 4WD, Subaru also had one more trick up their sleeve. As traction control didn't exist yet, they didn't want their customer's torque steering across the highway in winter so they mounted the engine longitudinally like a RWD car. This allowed the front axles to be equal length, it lowered production costs for the axles and provided Symmetrical power from left to right.
The Success of this AWD system not only meant more sales but also spurred some really interesting sub-models, like the RX Coupe and the BRAT. The success also ushered in a second generation…
Internally called the EA81, this new generation would bridge Subaru from the early 70s curvy design language, pushrod flat four engines and carburetors over to the turbocharged, fuel injected, digital dashboard clad and overall more modern boxier styling of the turn of the decade. Although power is not this chassis strong suit it did incorporate creature comforts like a new push button 4WD system that could be changed at speed as opposed to your traditional 4WD that requires the car to be stopped, popped into 4WD then driven again. The EA81 Leone chassis was touted for it's superb off road handling, taking what was already a capable chassis and only improving it. There was even an adjustable Panhard rod for the rear suspension which allowed manual height adjustment. This feature didn't really have grandma in mind despite Ronald and Nancy Reagan owning a BRAT of this generation. The next generation would take the innovations of this chassis and improve them greatly to a point where they were actually useful.
In 1984 the Leone/L series was redesigned for it's third and final version, the EA82 chassis. Mostly known for being designed with a ruler, this was Subaru's first attempt at making a car that was aesthetically pleasing on top of being functional. They also vastly improved creature comforts which included a trip computer, which is akin to the multifunction display at the top of the dashboard on the new Foresters. That manual height adjustment became Hydro-Pneumatic Height Adjustment which was an early air bag suspension system and an optional much more over the top digital dashboard was available on this model as well on the Turbocharged GL-10 and XT Turbo models. This would be the first time that Subaru also used the term XT which is now used for Forester and Outback turbo models, for the EA82 the XT was a radical aircraft inspired wedge shaped sports car designed to compete with the Prelude and Celica GT-S.
Although the GL/Leone is the immediate successor to the Impreza, let's look at the innovative XT. In particular, the XT-6 is the most important of the XT lineage. After the XT Turbo was received as being painfully slow to the point of costing the car actual sale numbers, Subaru came back in 1988 with a new model called the XT-6. The XT-6 was virtually identical from 10 feet away but upon closer inspection there were some major changes. The completely ludicrous 4×140 lug pattern was replaced with Subaru's staple 5×100 lug pattern which graces the Impreza to this day. Under the hood, the flat four with a wheezy potato strapped to the exhaust was replaced by an actually competitive 2.7 Liter H6 engine that made a respectable 150 HP. What the engine was strapped to was the biggest change however, that push button 4WD system was replaced with a Full Time 4WD system that operates very close to Subaru's Symmetrical AWD they use today. Power was sent to a center differential that relatively evenly divided power between the four wheels. Between the AWD delivery and 150 HP, the Subaru XT6 was a competitor to the Supra and 300ZX, unfortunately Subaru never sent the car nor it's successor, the SVX, into competition so they didn't get the stellar reputation for performance that the other Japanese muscle cars of the era achieved.
Unlike the XT-6, the EA82 GL-10 actually had some rally use and is partially the reason that Subaru Tecnica International (STI) exists today. Noriyuki Koseki, the founder of STI, led Subaru Rally Team Japan program in a GL-10 Sedan in WRC Group A races throughout the 80s. Although the car never got podium, they were very close many times and during the era were one of the only Turbo AWD cars on the field along with the Audi Quattro and Porsche 959. One of the most interesting features of the car were access ports on the sides of the frame rails for quick cylinder head changes between stages as the EA82T engines were plagued by head gasket issues that would make early 2000s Subarus look like a non-issue.
The Subaru Leone/L-series also has a unique place in automotive history as being a car that was replaced by another chassis not once, but twice. The first replacement of the Subaru Leone was in 1989 when Subaru released the Legacy which was more advanced in every way. On top of being much larger, having standard AWD and performing better in civilian guise it also won Subaru their first WRC wins. Subaru did however, continue to produce the Leone under the Loyale moniker in it's new class as the entry level Subaru. Once the Loyale name came, the wacky 80s features were stripped away, gone were the digital dashboards, turbochargers, active suspension and non-wagon models. This would continue this way until 1994 when Subaru would release their new compact car, The Impreza.
The Impreza brought such a night and day difference to the quality of Subaru's entry level car it was as if they had advanced 10 years in technology. Modern styling, an engine that wasn't a warmed over 1970s design and optional full time AWD were the calling cards of the new GC chassis code Impreza. Subaru did make a very Subaruish conservative decision when designing the Impreza wagon however, they modeled the tailgate to look like an evolution of the Loyale's tailgate and offered a FWD base model. This was to welcome long time Loyale buyers to the new decade of Subaru models, I believe they vastly overestimated their customer's loyalty of the Loyale but this this is a proof of concept of their customer first mentality. By 1997, Subaru was confident enough of the demand for AWD to drop the FWD variant of the Impreza and offer them only in AWD.
The GC Impreza was a massive hit and by the mid-90s rumors of the successes of the turbocharged WRX in Japan were beginning to make their way across the pacific. America did not get a turbocharged variant because there wasn't a proven market for a turbocharged compact after the turbo craze of the 80s calmed down stateside but Subaru did give us a performance option none the less. After teasing the American market with the turbocharged 2.5RX, we received the naturally aspirated 2.5RS, which was no slouch either. Keeping with the look of the everywhere-but-American WRX, Subaru equipped it with the large spoiler, hood scoop, hood vents and massive foglights. This wasn't just an appearance package though, Subaru followed through under the hood with the muscle car ideology of putting a big engine in a little car by inserting the Legacy's 2.5L H4 engine. Despite being neglected of the turbocharged glory and DCCD (Driver Controlled Center Differential) differential control system, the immediate torque of 2.5RS and radical styling did create a larger interest in the Subaru brand among performance drivers and in the growing tuner craze but having seen the WRX in video games, and from the rumors of foreigners, the demand for the WRX was entrenched.
The WRX wasn't the only Impreza submodel to stay away from America in the 20th century, sadly we were also negated of the single most attractive car ever produced in quantity. The Subaru Impreza Casa Blanca. Never mind anything by Bertone, Pininfarina or Italdesign, Fuji Heavy Industries made this amazing automobile. Unfortunately this rare classic was only made for two years, it will forever be a mystery why it didn't see the 21st century. Collectors should be on alert of this model as a future blue chip classic.
Upon entering into the 21st century the Subaru Impreza was a solid design that mechanically didn't see much change for quite some time. However in 2001 Subaru did hear the plead of the American car buyer and gave us the WRX in all of it's turbocharged glory, however now we knew of a better option… the even more bonkers STI. With sales of the WRX being high, demand for performance models still not quenched, and Mitsubishi sending the higher caliber Evolution VIII, Subaru did give us the STI in 2004. Unlike some brands that, despite demand, neglect America from their high revving, variable valve timing DOHC FWD hot hatchbacks, Subaru gave the American public their AWD performance compact car. Between the Evolution VIII invading in 2003 and the arrival of the '04 STI and that created a famous performance war between aftermarket tuners which had drafted many young buyers to the brands involved.
The early 2000s performance war between the Evo and the WRX/STI is an extremely important piece of the Impreza's history and a perfect example of why a performance model of a car is important, while you can make a great compact car it can easily be lost in the fray especially if the immediate specifications of price and fuel economy aren't first in class. The Impreza and Lancer are perfect case studies of how to use the publicity and engineering of a performance car to improve the sales of both the base model and brand as a whole. While Mitsubishi is in very deep financial trouble, Subaru's expert use of a performance model took what was considered a utilitarian "worse than a pink Cadillac" appliance and turned it into a highly sought after steed with a racing pedigree.
Another interesting choice by Subaru was to have the performance model be available in wagon form in America as well. This wagon form of performance model was nothing new to the Japanese market in which it was designed for, historically cars like the Nissan Skyline Wagon, Toyota Crown Wagon and even the Japanese WRX wagons have been highly revered. The open minded Subaru buyers ate up the idea of a hopped up wagon, because what is cooler than a fast compact? Obviously, a fast compact wagon. Realistically though, this was a market that nobody had though about and it makes sense once you really think about it. On top of having dad be able to fit in his kid's hockey gear in the boot then not hate the drive to practice, the 25 year old buyer taking the WRX to autocross events and track days would also have a place for their track tires and jack. People who say they don't like wagons are like people who say they don't like anime, usually they've never tried it and think it's lame because they're afraid of looking not cool.
The original buyers of the WRX when it came to America continued to be lifelong Subaru buyers as Subaru continued to apply the same quality engineering to the Impreza. As they finally retired the second generation of Impreza after two face lifts the new body style released in 2007 took the lessons learned and applied them into a chassis that was stronger and safer. Even the performance models, despite being heavier, performed better. Subaru could have completely changed the Impreza in every way with a new engine and drivetrain but they still are a company that doesn't believe in reinventing the wheel every time they design a new car. The following generation in 2011 did change largely though.
With the 2012 model year Impreza, there were some major changes however. The old hat EJ series engines were replaced by the FB series engine and Subaru axed the automatic transmission as a whole. The death of the Subaru automatic transmission was not because everyone got a manual like they should but they instead replaced it with a CVT to the collective groan to all enthusiasts who hadn't driven it. Keyword, had not driven it, despite common wisdom of how much of a drag a CVT transmission would be feeding into an AWD platform, it actually performed better than the automatic and provided better fuel economy. Even the immediate lag that is synonymous with a CVT was largely tuned out with some clever throttle mapping. The manual transmissions were still readily available, on the base model Impreza and the WRX and STI. Even those who drove the new CVT over the automatic were generally pleasantly surprised with how smooth it was. The second collective groan from performance enthusiasts came when they discovered the new WRX and STI were only available in a sedan form that looked too close to the Mitsubishi Evolution X for comfort. Again enthusiasts were even more dismayed when they discovered that there is a car called a Subaru Levorg in Japan that is a WRX wagon with different badge on the end of it. However at the end of the day enthusiasts were largely won over and were happy enough to get a WRX/STI of any sort in America, especially after the Evolution X was discontinued after being strung along from 2008 until 2016 like Bernie in "A Weekend at Bernie's."
With the current generation of Subaru Impreza, the result is a product 42 years in the making. Constant tinkering with the power delivery on their products has solidified Subaru into a class with the likes of Land Rover and Jeep as masters of applying power to all four wheels. What sets them apart is an attention to detail above all others that don't have an orange, yellow and black flag flying above their headquarters. They even have achieved this while still having an attainable price point. Subaru also looks towards a better product, they continue their avant-garde engineering philosophies and they do what they can to create a sustainable platform.
Where most brands are using double digit airbag numbers to reinforce their crash test scores, Subaru is engineering a stronger and safer chassis with a company wide maximum of only 9 airbags. That chassis is built smarter with designs to deflect collision damage away from the cabin, utilizing clever engineering to have paper thin pillars and minimal blind spots. Have you also noticed beltlines on cars lately? The belt line is the bottom of the window and had been rising to get better crash test results. It seems like soon we won't have windows instead just a wall of cameras. Not on Subaru though, they're as low as they've always been and they still run away with IIHS Top Safety Picks and five star crash test ratings. They use their AWD system along with their low center of gravity to maintain control in inclement weather too so you don't even have to worry about those crash test results. What other brand has one of their most loyal customer bases being owners that crashed their old car? Usually I loathe the new version of a chassis but with the Impreza, despite no mention of a second generation of Impreza Casa Blanca, I know Subaru will make the right decisions and the Impreza will be better than ever in every way.
Cover photo by Randy Stern