Subaru and the death-defying vital automotive safety factor
It can be either totally swamping, or too easy to ignore, but, states Iain Robertson, the wide-ranging subject of in-car, passive and active safety addenda, whether considered to be ‘nannying’, or essential, is now entrenched deeply in car manufacturing.
One of the world’s most popular cars ever, the once ubiquitous Ford Model T (1908-1927), hardly flew a flag for the safety lobby, when its primary purpose was to provide accessible and moderately affordable transportation to the majority of people worldwide. For a start, buyers could have it in any colour, as long as it was black, which is not exactly on the scale of high visibility, although most people could hear a ‘Tin Lizzie’ Model T approaching long before it could be seen.
Even as the vehicle colour palette expanded during the 1930s, car buyers believed that darker colours were less threatening than the possible alternatives, although maroons, blues and dark greens, even the earliest examples of metallic finishes, were starting to factor in additional character and vitality, as the value of personal transportation became more acceptable and desirable. With the looming threat of World War Two, it was even contemplated that the yellow taxi cabs used in North American cities would revert to a former red and green combination, rather than the more visible and readily ‘hail-able’ shade.
Although red was selected for use by our Royal Mail services in the late-Victorian period (c. 1874), extending from pillar post-boxes to its modes of transport subsequently, it was still regarded as a commercially recognisable colour not deemed suitable for the motorcar. In fact, the motor industry was in excess of fifty years old, before red became an acceptable shade, buyers specifying and referring to it as ‘pillar box red’ for many years later, without reflecting on its safety value.
Modern car owners and even commercial vehicle operators would shudder at the sharp metal, or wood edges in a Model T, so accustomed have we become with safer rubber and plastic trim and coverings. Interestingly, when the Fiat Coupe (Tipo 175) was introduced in 1993, although consisting of plastic mouldings, its daring use of body-coloured interior trim (on the dashboard and doors) was considered as retrograde-stylish. Only a few of Fiat’s rivals followed suit.
Of course, Ralph Nader’s organisation in North America played a major role in enhancing the dynamic safety of its motor vehicles but a little-known Japanese carmaker, Subaru, of the 1960s introduced 4WD not just as an aid to traction but as a means of enhancing overall vehicle stability. It would take another 25 years before receiving its first World Rally Championship, although Audi had succeeded with the technology a decade earlier.
During the late-noughties, a colleague, Rob Marshall, and I formulated a promotional video series for the Subaru UK concessionaire (International Motors Ltd). We called it ‘Subaru’s Little Things’, of which a surprising number of truly fascinating details separated the brand from all of its competitors. They included the installation of heating elements in both front and rear screens, to ensure that wiper blades did not adhere to them in adverse weather conditions. After all, outward visibility is an essential safety feature.
While it may be read as extraordinary that over 20 individual features that are impossible to isolate in other motorcars were fitted as standard to Subaru’s strictly limited product range, I can assure you that, as motoring journalists, we were equally impressed. Of course, the most vital safety feature is the company’s much-vaunted all-wheel-drive system, known more commonly as ‘Symmetrical AWD’. It is quite different to the systems fitted to any rival products and probably the best standard 4×4 system in the motor industry. Only the strictly rear-driven BR-Z coupe does not use it in Subaru’s range.
Another product video that we created, which can be sourced on YouTube and is one of the most highly viewed (over 1.25m) of its type, pitted a Subaru XV against a Land Rover Defender, on a Land Rover test track. The Subaru provided a better overall ride quality than the stiff Landy and, while the latter ‘classic 4×4’ spun its tyres helplessly on a couple of sections of the route, the Subaru provided unerring grip and cross-axle articulation to shame the British product…which was ironically never the primary intention!
While Volvo has generated a powerful reputation for its adherence to both occupant and pedestrian/animal safety aspects, concentrating on them a lot of its product development budget, I can assure you that Subaru does likewise. Every Subaru body benefits from a safety-ringed substructure that provides as sturdy a cabin safety cell, as Mercedes-Benz invests in its smart cars, with their exoskeleton Tridion developments. As such, rollover protection is prioritised. However, Subaru also benefits from a well-regarded ‘Boxer’ engine configuration (two horizontally-opposed pairs of cylinders) that not only lowers engine height and, therefore, the vehicles’ centre of gravity, but, in the event of a heavy front-end collision, the engine, rather than trying to break into the cabin area, is displaced safely beneath the car.
Currently, all three Subaru SUVs (XV, Forester and Outback) and both Levorg and Impreza models hold the maximum 5-star Euro NCAP safety rating and are fitted with a host of safety features, including EyeSight driver assistance, as standard. Subaru’s exceptional safety credentials have been recognised through several notable awards.
In fact, its brand-new Driver Monitoring System won the Technology Award at the 2020 What Car? Awards and was described as ‘the most advanced of its kind’, proving to be more accurate than other manufacturer systems at identifying when concentration was lost. The Forester e-BOXER was named ‘Best in Class 2019 in the Small Off-Road/MPV Class’ in the Euro NCAP 2019 safety performance test, achieving outstanding scores in all four assessment areas and registering the highest score ever (91%) in its class for Child Occupant Protection. Forester was also awarded 4×4 Magazine’s ‘Best Small SUV of the Year 2020’, impressing judges with its comprehensive range of safety technologies, on-road driveability and outstanding off-road capabilities.
Conclusion: Subaru remains a modest interest, low volume brand, despite its high quotient of safety addenda, which does make you wonder if safety is posited as highly as it ought to be on ‘drivers’ preferences’ tables. Somebody is missing a trick here, for sure, that Subaru UK ought to address forthwith!