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Subaru Steps On the Gas

Quick, Sporty New Cars Aim to Shake Up Its Staid U.S. Image

February 21, 2001|TERRIL YUE JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Judy Gamble and Donald Heck have consumer profiles that could not be any further apart. Gamble, 61, is a marketing manager from Riverside County who's getting ready to retire and values safety in her car. Heck is a 31-year-old auto technician in Irvine who's about to get married and has pumped $15,000 into souping up his ride so it goes faster.

But both are Subaru owners. They represent opposite ends of the spectrum of customers the Japanese auto maker--once the well-kept secret darling of sensible college professors and Colorado ski bums--is counting on to continue its recent U.S. growth trend.

Gamble discovered Subaru as a passenger in a friend's Outback, riding from Arizona to her Norco home. "It was really comfortable and roomy," she says. "I started asking around, and I never talked to one person who owned one, or who knew someone who owned one, who didn't like it."

Now Gamble makes her daily 64-mile commute through winding canyon roads to her job in Brea in her own all-wheel-drive Outback, and says she loves the way it handles curves and deep puddles.

That's been the reason most people have bought cars made by Subaru, the automobile division of Tokyo-based Fuji Heavy Industries.

Known today for making only cars with permanent all-wheel-drive, Subaru has parlayed that technology into a reputation for sure-footedness and durability and created a market niche in which for years it had no competitors.

But competition is emerging. Volkswagen, General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. are fielding passenger cars with all-wheel-drive.

So Subaru--which entered the U.S. market in 1968, peaked in 1986 and then tumbled before recovering with its switch to an entirely all-wheel-drive lineup in 1994--is branching out again with a new line of sporty, performance-oriented compact coupes and wagons.

It is not as far a stretch as some might think. Although its U.S. reputation is somewhat staid, Subaru is known in Asia and Europe for its racing prowess in what may be the roughest, toughest automotive performance contest known: the World Rally circuit. Subaru not only is a perennial top-place finisher, it also won the world championship three years running, from 1995 to 1997.

That heritage already has spawned interest in the growing street performance scene.

Take Heck for instance. A shop foreman at Frank's Irvine Subaru, he cruises around in his silver 2000 Impreza RS compact to which he's added a custom turbocharger system that boosts the engine's stock 165-horsepower output to about 260 horses. He's also added performance street suspension and racing seats and safety harnesses, among a host of performance and appearance enhancements.

"People in California are tired of the Honda and Acura scene," says Heck, referring to the brands that dominate the youth market in the Southland. "They say, 'Do I want one of those or do I want to do something different?' "

Subaru of America aims to provide that something different.

Next month it will put on sale the Impreza WRX, an affordable (about $24,000) pocket-rocket with 227 horsepower from a turbo-charged version of Subaru's signature 4-cylinder "boxer" engine.

Porsche is the only other company to use a boxer engine, designed so the cylinders lie flat on either side of the crankshaft--horizontally opposed--rather than standing upright as in traditional car engines. It makes for a relatively rectangular, box-shaped engine.

"The horizontally opposed engine has always been our strength--it gives a lower center of gravity . . . and great balance, traction and cornering," says Takao Saito, chief executive of Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Subaru of America.

U.S emissions and safety regulations mean the American-market WRX will be toned down from the 280-horsepower model available in Japan and Europe and which Britain's Car Magazine says can blast from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds. "Around corners, a [Porsche] 911 owner would lose sight of the Subaru's rear wing after 100 yards, it's so light-footed," Car Magazine said, calling the WRX "a car that could make your innards bleed and your earwax evacuate your head."

Word of mouth among performance enthusiasts has been impressive, says Horacio Antonielli, a general manager at Irvine Subaru. With the first cars still on the boat from Japan, "We have already sold 70 WRXs--our entire initial allocation--and most of our second," he said. "We're spending a lot of time trying to find more to keep our customers happy."

*

As part of its new performance orientation, Subaru this year brought back a 6-cylinder version of its boxer for use in some Legacy and Outback models. And for 2002, it is is upping the size of the 4-cylinder engines in the redesigned Impreza line--except the WRX--to 2.5 liters (the turbocharged WRX retains the 2-liter version).

And coming late next year is the ST-X, basically a stretched Outback with a pickup truck bed. About 24,000 a year will be built at the joint Subaru-Isuzu plant in Lafayette, Ind.

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