Disappointing market share figures for the UK in 2013 have reactivated the old question,much posed recently, whether it is worthwhile for this smallish Japanese manufacturer to remain active in the UK. The focus of Subaru has for some time been in the States with the continued expansion of the Indiana plant crucial to success there; and success so far has been reflected in strong sales in the US sector.
The wider question with Subaru is whether the continued need to link with other manufacturers has resulted in a dumbing down of the product. Certainly, Subaru has proved to be an expert at both arranging matches – see its introducing of Renault to Nissan- but the question remains how much true benefit Subaru itself has derived from its various tie-ups. The brief GM period was far from startling and things took a dive when a badge engineered Impreza appeared badged in the States as a Saab 9-2X. That said, it was Malcolm Bricklin who introduced the small Subaru concern to the US market and the financial results for 2013 of Fuji Heavy Industries have not been that disappointing overall with the company posting a record operating profit of 69.6 billion yen,admittedly much helped by the weakening yen and the buoyant nature of the US market where sales have been growing by 24per cent year on year.
On balance, the position of Subaru has been good everywhere save UK. The impetus has always been in other markets. The Subaru Liberty with an efficient entry level 2.5 litre engine has gone down well in Australia yet the UK domestic position remains becalmed . It remains remarkable that this car maker took so long after investing in AWD more than most to come up with a car like the XV when bigger , more noticeably ‘outdoors’ makers considered it a no-brainer to be present in this sector in the early part of the previous decade. So said Matt Prior, the road test editor of Autocar.
There is plainly a role for Subaru under the auspices of its current partner, Toyota, exemplified by the fact that it was Subaru , not Toyota, who developed the BRZ. The accommodation arrived at between Toyota and its younger sibling seems, on the face of it, well honed, with Toyota taking the lead in project planning and design and Subaru crafting and improving the production reality.However, only for so long can Subaru go on crowing about boxer fours and AWD when they end up letting their competitors steal a march in the areas of technology they pool. Toyota is still a 16.5% shareholder and there are signs that things are looking up in markets other than UK particularly when the range is beginning to recapture some of its past brio. It is that brio which was much to the taste of the British enthusiast buyer who was so much wedded to the Impreza WRC concept. Matters have definitely moved on from that ‘anorak’ buyer of the nineties and it is equally beyond doubt that the new car market is far more sophisticated and the buyer much more subtly demanding than before; hence the BRZ which is so obviously occupying a much more up market position and is pitched against Porsche Cayman and the like. This very fact however highlights the power discrepancy between the two and the over-dependence on the 2 litre boxer four which ends up with a deficit to the Cayman of some 100 bhp. The Subaru is lighter of course but is arguably still hobbled by the limitations of this power unit which requires it to rev to 7,000 rpm in order to produce its 197 bhp.
So is it now time to ditch this over reliance on the boxer four? Only time will tell whether the sophistication given to the handling and roadholding, helped already by the 45/55 front/right weight distribution enables the fleetness of foot of the BRZ to become evident to enthusiast buyers and therefore a winner in the market place. The problem for Subaru is whether in reality they have really done enough. In addition to this, they are not immune from committing marketing clangers of a fairly basic type – witness the anticipated 2015 small to mid range offering appearing in preview without a hatchback. It is gaffs like these which will continue to hobble the manufacturer in the UK arena.