Maverick motors - Issue 14 - Magazine | Monocle

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Subaru: the history

In upstate New York the odds are that there’ll be a lesbian professor behind the wheel, while in the Cotswolds it could just as easily be a down-on-her-luck duchess. It replaced the Volvo as the unofficial car of Seattle some years back, Australian and Swiss cattle farmers swear by them, Finns learn to drive in them, and, judging by empirical research, independent booksellers cherish them as they would a first-edition Updike. Thanks to its Impreza, Legacy, and in particular Forester models, over the past decade or so Subaru has reaped remarkable global sales success in a scatter-gun effect across a disparate, marginal and often Crocs-wearing demographic.

But how calculating has the Japanese firm been in its brand management? At the start at least, not at all. In the late 1990s, Subaru watched as Toyota and Honda mopped up in the burgeoning SUV sector. Unable to fund a new platform, the company took its rally-bred, boxer-engined Impreza – already a cult hit due to its blistering performance and under-the-radar looks – and raised its ride height, inadvertently creating a new sector, the Crossover Utility Vehicle (CUV).

According to Naoki Fujimaki, general manager of product marketing for Subaru Europe, the Forester’s guileless clarity of purpose was the key to its success: “The broad, classless appeal may have been generated because it opened a new market but the overall concept came from the ultimate functionality of the vehicle. There was no class image. Maybe this is due to the difference in car culture between Japan and Europe – Japanese car culture is basically classless.”

It seems they genuinely did set out to design the most functional and practical-looking car they could. Some may call it “homely” while others make cruel comments about farm buildings. Fujimaki-san describes it with almost Foresterial directness: “The first and second generation Foresters were designed in order to express their versatile functionalities through their exterior design.”

The Forester, launched in 1997 and built at the Gunma Yajima factory just outside Tokyo, had the ground clearance to match most SUVs, coupled with the carrying capacity of an estate (unlike the Impreza and Legacy, there was no saloon). Although it had all the aero-dynamic efficiency of a Mack Truck, those four-wheel drive Impreza components beneath still meant it could sprint to 60mph in under six seconds (“It embarrasses the heck out of my buddy and his 2001 911 Carrera,” raves a US enthusiast on one of the countless Subaru internet discussion sites).

In a so-called boxer engine, the pistons “punch” horizontally instead of vertically as in a conventional motor, which means the engine can be flatter and lower, in turn lowering the car’s centre of gravity. As with the Impreza and Legacy, this helps the Forester corner flatter and handle with greater agility than any SUV. If you’ve seen Tron, that’s how the car nicknamed “Scooby” corners.

Buyers (there have been 1.24 million Foresters sold to date) value the thoughtful, practical details such as the extra-deep recesses on the door handles so you can open them wearing chunky gloves, mammoth wing mirrors, the full-length sunroof, and the water-­repellent seat trim. They love the elastic power of the engine, yet thanks to a dual-range gearbox and four-wheel drive, it could also tow an Alp (the fact that the Forester has repeatedly been voted Towcar of the Year by various caravanning types has, miraculously, done nothing to dent its credibility among people who choose life). Meanwhile, a wildly successful motorsport programme has garnered the adoration of the loyal band of men who wait on Welsh hillsides in puffa jackets all night for a glimpse of Juha Kankkunen’s headlights and a mouthful of gravel. Plus, the Forester has a washing-up bowl in the boot. You have no idea how useful that is.

Journalists carped about Subaru’s interiors, saying that they looked and felt as if you were sitting inside a video box, and even the most loyal owners will admit to being troubled by fuel economy more suited to a V6 than a four cylinder, but their reliability is legendary. When we have been visited by Armageddon and only the cockroaches survive, they will be driving our Subarus.

In the meantime, the Forester remains a kind of scattergun cult among a bewildering array of niches, most famously lesbians. Subaru became aware of this soon after the car was launched, when its own research showed a hotspot of lesbian owners in Northampton, Massachusetts. It began targeting ads in the gay and lesbian media, including a campaign fronted by Martina Navratilova. This coincided with a sales increase in the US of almost 50 per cent.

The Impreza 555 in full blue and gold livery has a certain hooligan appeal, but as you mature you nurture a sneaking regard for the almost wilful suburban blandness of the Legacy (beneath which, again, is a car that just goes at impressive speeds – particularly in Spec B form).

There are those who still swear by their Foresters. One is a Dane, Jeanne Mengers, who quit a glittery job as celebrity guest wrangler at Claridge’s hotel in London for a rural Devon pile where she raises goats. She rang me a few months back to rave about this “ugly boxy thing” her husband had bought her. “I love the fact I can put the muddy dog in the back and park it without a care because it looks so awful,” she said. “It’s a turbo, you know, so it’s really fast and the huge sunroof is lovely.” (“I’ve been raving about them for years,” I told her. “Do you ever listen to anything I say?” “Not really,” she said.)

Subarus are cars for non-­conformists. To own one is to reject the ludicrous, usually German-based hierarchies of automotive prestige. Few car manufacturers could count “eccentric” and “classless” among their core brand values, but Subaru does. Or, at least, it did. The new Forester, the third iteration, is bigger and slicker-looking and lacks the boxiness that gave it old-school Volvo cred, much more SUV than estate; the new Impreza, though still a ripping drive, is now a conventional hatch and even uglier (quite an achievement); and the Tribeca, the company’s first full-blown SUV, is dismal and far too curvy, betraying the brand’s DNA.

Could Toyota’s stake in Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent company, have diluted the brand’s maverick genes? If the rumours are true, and Toyota is to increase its stake to 17 per cent, this might just be the beginning of Subaru’s homogenisation. So to all those female PE teachers, Woollamaloo sheep shearers and penniless viscounts out there, the message is clear: you had better start stockpiling those Mk2 Foresters.


  1. Marco Kölliker is from Zufikon, a small town in the Swiss municipality of Bremgarten. Kölliker has a customised Forester XT Turbo ’04.

  2. Lawyer Lukas Ott, 44, lives in Hellikon and is a member of the Swiss Impreza club. He takes his Impreza STI ’03 for runs around the racing track.

  3. Bernhard Russi, 60, is a former Swiss Alpine ski champion who won the Olympic gold medal in 1972. Here, next to his Tribeca ’08, he prepares to go freeclimbing.

  4. Daniel Monnet, left, is a machinist in a road construction firm, and lives in Sion. Ten years ago he was the founder of a Subaru club in Valais.

  5. Christian Jakob, 30, and Fritz Sauer, 47 are two Kantonspolizei (regional police) officers in Trogen. They use the Subaru Outback ’05 on duty.

  6. Dentist Theo Roetheli, from Bergdietikon, originally wanted a Toyota Rav4 for pulling his trailer, but decided on a rare Subaru SVX ’93 instead.

  7. Anne-Joëlle and Jean-Raphaël Fumeaux park their Forester Turbo ’04 – the 25th anniversary edition for Subaru Switzerland – next to a lake near the village of Martigny.

  8. Andreas Huber, 33, is from Muttenz, near Basel. The IT technician owns the black Impreza STI ’06. Both he and his wife are members of the Subaru club.

  9. Bernhard Pfyffer-Feer, 58, with his dog in his Subaru Outback ’04. The master of forestry – who owns 10 hectares – has driven Subarus for 10 years.

  10. Robert Couturier works as a computer specialist in Geneva. He has owned the sporty Impreza since 1999, but is now replacing it to accommodate his family.

  11. This Subaru A67, 1600 ’79 will be driven by Rita Holmberg-Bertschi, 44, at the Jungfrauen Rally in June. Holmberg-Bertschi also owns a Subaru garage.

  12. Sandra Huber, 27, is the wife of Andreas (image no. 8). The dental assistant owns a white Forester turbo.

  13. Taxi-driver Rolans Schüpbach, 52, waits in his Subaru Legacy ’05 at the Zürich-Kloten Airport. He says he drives about 90,000km a year in the car.

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