Glancing down the price lists at the back of the weekly crop of car magazines is instructive. Anyone needing a lesson or two in marketing need only look in this area. The pricing of the Subaru BRZ in the UK is worthy of note. The 2.0 litre iSE Lux comes in at £26495 which, interestingly, is exactly the same price as its Toyota sibling , the GT86 in slushbox format. The Subaru offers a respectable 197 horses from its comparatively small boxer motor and its close relative from its parent offers exactly the same. Both offer unreconstructed driver enjoyment in its purest form without much technical sophistry to speak of and both are, presumably, aimed at the same type of UK buyer. It is hard to see whether the Toyota buyer would veer towards the Subaru, essentialy the same car, unless he or she fell victim to attacks of irrepressible nostalgia. The Subaru, of course, looks good in blue and would also be kitted out by such a buyer with a fresh set of gold coloured wheels. It also falls almost exactly equidistant the two extremes of the hot coupe market, with the slightly more effete, but ‘nagel neu’ Peugeot RCZ joining it below stairs at a sharp £24250 for the likely to be sought after 1.6 THP 156 GT. This is keen pricing by Peugeot in an attempt, much like that undertaken recently by Subaru, to resuscitate the Peugeot brand from the mire that is the near broke PSA amalgam and to fire the image of that company in the face of poor sales and production figures. The quest by Subaru to rejuvenate its image is probably on a more secure financial footing than Peugeot’s however since Subaru has the valuable cushion of the 16.5% stakeholder underneath. On any view of things, Subaru can afford to take a risk. Peugeot cannot.
So what of the sports coupe market above Subaru? Anyone shopping for a BRZ is presumably doing so down to a price since a 40k budget opens up vistas of Porsche Cayman,scraping below that barrier only in poverty 2.7 litre form. But that offers a stonking 271 horses even in poverty spec and is in a different league, by common consent. Autocar called it a ‘five star car by any measure’. It did not wax in the same way about the BRZ
This is the reality of the market and in some ways encapsulates Subaru’s current marketing dilemma. The 2.5 litre boxer , which it has seen fit not to use in the BRZ in Britain, is in some ways still its trump card. That would be the motor, arguably, which would put clear blue water between it and the somewhat less potent 1.6 Peugeot. The 2 litre creates less of a definable gap.
Subaru is not of course alone in labouring under this marketing dilemma. It is not the only manufacturer to have possessed in the nineties the keenest rallying pedigree only to see this rendered amorphous by current electric powered, driver-aided, hybrid, machines which it seems the motoring public will buy without demur. Mitsubishi also had such a pedigree. Mid-priced Japanese saloons were for many years the rally weapon of choice and the likes of Tommi Makinene ensured that for six years the mid priced Mitsu was well in the public eye on as many months as there were rounds of the WRC. A quick comparison of the two ranges offered – Subaru and Mitsubishi – in the UK – shows that they are in most respects ploughing a very similar furrow save that we look in vain for a Mitsubishi sports coupe or for a spiritual succesor to the Lancer. What we find are a succession of 5 door hatches in a range rounded off by the 5dr 4 x 4 Shogun and Outlander. Not – Subaru please note – a notchback in sight.
But both Japanese minnows are arguably losing the current sales race in UK to the likes of Mazda, a factory with some, though not all of the same automotive DNA as Subaru and Mitsubishi. Mazda was the maker which pursued the rotary engine well past the patience levels of other manufacturers, proving that a rotary could be made to last 24 Hours in endurance racing after the well-publicised failings of the Neckarsulm factory in the 60s/70s. When the NSU Ro80 appeared to universal astonishment in 1967 it was shown at those first shows alongside , guess what, a Mazda ( the r110S Cosmo) . And it was Mazda, not NSU, who persevered in the development of tip seals that would last – hence their Le Mans successes much later. Both Subaru and Mitsubishi tended to scorn this endurance led success base preferring to concentrate on the international rally scene where Mazda were not at all prominent.
So came the advent of the bland era. Mazda found the ultimate Lotus Elan lookalike in the MX-5 shelving most of its active development of the Wankel motor in the process. The niche RX 7 remained exactly that: a curiosity for those who wanted to show their friends just what fun 14,000 rpm sounded in a close coupled coupe. And Subaru and Mitsubishi took the bland route also.
It might well be said that both Subaru and Mitsubishi suffer the current market frisson attaching to most mid range brands. It took motor sport to bring both brands to the attention of motoring Jo Public. It is well documented how mid market operators are currently suffering, both GM Vauxhall and the British end of the Ford concern seeing themselves bested in market share by ‘premium brands’.
So is there a lesson here somewhere in how these three manufacturers, Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Subaru are adapting, or not, to changing times? They all shared a common past interest and active participation in motor sport at varying levels. They all, with the possible exception of Mazda, renounced that active participation and on theface of it seem to have lost market share. They all had a discernable market niche which most onlookers would have considered rightfully theirs. Mitsubishi, having worked the Lancer well past its motor sport sell-by date, found market respite in the first Shogun, much more of a UK hit than the Lancer ever was. In some ways the Shogun was the best of the rest in the poverty Range Rover sector of its era. Only Mazda and Subaru forged ahead with technological innovation of direct benefit to the enthusiast driver, as opposed to the passive innovation which seems to sell cars now. Subaru has stuck with its large boxer motor and AWD innovation only to find that in the ‘teenies’, this is no longer at the cutting edge of what motoring Jo Public seems to want. JP wants to treat car as kitchen appliance : switch on, be conveyed with the minimum hassle to destination, switch off. That same person will, if some have their way, simply charge their car overnight and let it do most of the driving, and maybe other things for them, in the morning. These are not the sectors to which either Subaru or Mazda have traditionally played and it may well be that their growing pains in this direction are the reason for their loss of impetus – less so in the case of Mazda who have hit gold in the two-seater sector and have, in the MX 5 found the spiritual successor for the classic the British love, the MGB.
The truth is that only the involvement of these three in motor sport ever lifted them from the grey porridge they would otherwise have been. Their absence from the motor sport podium has hurt. It is no accident perhaps that Porsche and Audi, premium brands representing the marketing exemplar, are both heavily engaged in motor sport. Peugeot too, had its Le Mans winner and held motor sport dear. So maybe – just maybe – Subaru should absorb this lesson and get back in there.