From a world of much-vaunted ‘giant-killers’, Iain Robertson remains firm in his assertion that Subaru is a brand that more than lives up to its accolade, were it only given yet-one-more-chance to do so, its main problem being happenstance.
Having posted yet another year of disastrous sales/registrations in the UK new car scene by not exceeding 1,000 units in 2020, it surprises me, firstly, that its shares owning partner, Toyota, has actually done little to aid the brand’s survival. Secondly, it amazes me that the factory retains the concessionary services of International Motors Group, based on the outskirts of Birmingham. Finally, why would any of its remaining dealer network want to represent a flailing survivor, which might be kicking its last, in light of the broader electrification of the new car scene.
Allow me to explain: I have been a brand fan since the late-1970s. My history master at school used to own an odd-looking Subaru. I did not study history but I admired his vehicle choice. Personally, I bought into the brand in 1982, with a 1.8GLF hatchback that more than satisfied my light-ish off-roading demands and assured me of safer progress in the worst of adverse weather conditions (not specifically for self-preservation but so that I could avoid other idiots). I became an ardent fan of the firm’s rallying history and even edited ‘Total Impreza’ magazine. Around a decade ago, a colleague and I produced a back-to-back video of an XV tackling a Land Rover dealership’s ‘off-road site’, in the company of a Defender model (you can find the video on You Tube; the XV is the ‘winner’). With considerably more than 1.5m views, I only wish that we had monetised it!
Yet, for all of my innate understanding of Subaru’s adherence to its surprisingly simple but symmetrical four-wheel drivetrain that imposes the most phenomenal inherent balance and qualities of traction that are virtually unbeatable (Unimog users are urged to look away), I am of the belief that the vast majority of Subaru, let alone other 4×4, buyers could not give a monkey’s toss! If they did, the brand would possess unerring loyalty from a growing band of its customers, considerably beyond the pathetic results posted for 2020.
Attempting to fathom the reasons for Subaru’s lack of UK success does not lie in an enthusiasm void. Those ‘in the know’ can natter endlessly about Subaru being involved in remote rescue bids, dragging hapless motorists from snow-clad Highland hillsides, through Devonian ditches and Cambrian off-road excursions. There are seldom questions raised about Subaru durability, to which owners of some truly vintage examples will attest. Subaru has always been slightly over-priced, a potential barrier to uptake rate, were it not for fairly solid residual values (lose it one way, get it back another). Thus, any accusatory fingers do need to be directed at both manufacturer and concessionaire.
It has seldom helped the brand’s cause in the UK that its main protagonist, Lord ‘Bob’ Edmiston, was a renowned hater of ‘the media’, even though the motoring press have all been, at times, willing supporters of Subaru. However, when he passed the managerial baton to his accountant son, the slump commenced in grand style. The UK importer suffered from a run of questionable marketing/brand managers, all of whom read from various ‘how to’ manuals but, apart from one, Kenyon Neads, failed notably to introduce innovation to a brand that was struggling incessantly from a serious lack of investment. Its media relations’ aspects have been less than acceptably managed over the years, which has not been helpful. In fact, as a measure of how flaccid Subaru has become in the UK, its current MD, John Hurtig, is also the primary brand contact. Yet, Subaru has not helped the mix.
It took an absolute age for the manufacturer to wake up to the realities of high quality in terms of detail finish. ‘Soft touch’ dashboards, durable hide seating and improved sound deadening were all tactile essentials to the new car scene that Subaru avoided studiously. The decline was already well progressed when these superficial aspects were dealt with finally. Peer inside a new XV and it is on a visual par with its notional rivals but it has never been enough, clearly.
Introduced almost nine years ago, the car received a much-needed facelift in 2017. Ingeniously, while looking much like the outgoing version, it was, in fact, totally different. However, another of its key attributes is the horizontally opposed, flat-four engine construction; combined with the 4×4 system, a low centre of gravity results and the car’s off-road prowess remains in ‘legendary’ status. Sadly, ‘boxer’ units (as they are known) are notoriously thirsty and, in more potent turbocharged form, can be shockingly unreliable, especially if the power graph is dipped into exuberantly. Of course, Subaru has attempted all manner of ‘fixes’ to eke out a few extra MPGs and, while a gently driven XV can attain close to 45mpg, the reputation is a difficult one to swerve around and avoid.
Regardless of the problems, a mildly upgraded version of the all-conquering XV is being introduced. With prices starting from £31,665 (same price as the current model), interested parties can place their orders with what remains of the UK dealer network from March 1st. There is a choice of two trim levels (SE or SE Premium, the latter for an extra £2,000), with standard equipment on both including the Permanent Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, Subaru’s bespoke ‘EyeSight’ twin-camera, driver assistance safety technology, automatic LED headlights (with high beam assist), 18.0-inch diameter alloy wheels, heated front seats, an 8.0-inch multifunction colour touchscreen, complete with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, plus keyless access and pushbutton start:stop. SE Premium benefits from leather seats, the driver’s being 8-way power adjustable, sat-nav and a sunroof.
There are minor trim and technology updates but the lack of a fully electric alternative, which might compromise the all-wheel drive system’s efficacy, might also become a final nail in XV’s coffin.
Conclusion: Being advanced and capable, yet simple and competent are clearly insufficient features for a Subaru survival programme. As much as I have loved the Subaru brand, I fear that it is one to which we may be stating ‘farewell’.