Last Fling for Subaru’s Microcars as Toyota Influence Grows
By Andy Bannister
That’s what’s happening over at Subaru, however, where the company is ending production of its own design midget vehicles – “Kei-cars” in Japanese parlance – by 2010. These models, almost all of which are sold in the domestic market, are a long-standing tradition.
The reason for this is that Subaru is being sucked into a closer relationship with Toyota which, sadly, seems to be starting to drain the character out of one of the Far East’s quirkier car manufacturers.
Suzuki, Mitsubishi, Honda, and Daihatsu are among the other big players in the Kei-car market, which is worth a staggering two million or so sales every year in Japan, including vans and pick-ups.
Kei-cars were conceived after World War Two to promote affordable motoring. As traffic multiplied they have also had the advantage of been easy to drive and park on Japan’s increasingly-crowded roads, as well as being very cheap to run.
Every Kei-car model has to conform to a set of standards laid down by the government. The vehicles are therefore all short and narrow, with a maximum engine capacity of 660cc and 63bhp (although this is considerably more than in the early days).
Some of these models have half-heartedly been exported in the past. One of the earliest to taste success in the west was Honda’s N360 in the late 1960s. Subaru’s last serious attempt to sell this class of car in Europe was in the late 1980s, with the Vivio hatchback and E-10 MPV.
Take a look at the company’s current Kei-class line-up, all now doomed, and weep at the decision to end production and snuff out these characterful little vehicles. Subaru’s larger designs have not been acclaimed for their styling, but the little three-door R1 and five-door R2, in particular, look fresh and appealing – premium Kei-cars, if you like, for the more discerning buyer.
In the UK the official importer will have nothing to do with them, but a few of these Subaru Kei-cars have trickled in as personal imports. An R1 is ideal for zipping around the streets of London – and Paris, Rome or Berlin, for that matter – and the success of Smart in these urban environments shows people will pay real money for attractive little cars.
Sadly, buyers who want to sample a scaled-down “real” Subaru will have to hurry. The reasoning behind the demise of these designs is all about cold, hard economics.
Subaru has long been too small to thrive on its own and has sought alliances as a pragmatic move to help develop new models and maintain market share.
For a time it was under the wing of GM (which gave it the Subaru Traviq, a rebadged Opel Zafira, and in return got the infamous Saab 9-2X). Now it is part-owned by Toyota and seems to becoming more aligned with the line-up of Japan’s leading automaker.
Toyota has its own in-house microcar specialist, Daihatsu, whose products directly compete against Subaru’s small cars. The cute little Subarus were expensive to develop and are relatively low volume products compared to their rivals, so commercially they make little sense.
Meanwhile, Toyota and Subaru are heading off in an entirely different direction, jointly developing a new rear drive/all-wheel-drive coupé together. Optimists wonder if this might turn out to be a spiritual successor to the futuristic Subaru SVX of long ago.
Europe already has a taste of what’s to come as Subaru has begun selling a Daihatsu-built 1.0-litre car, the Justy, across the continent. It is nothing more than a rebadged version of Daihatsu’s Sirion.
No doubt in time Subaru-tagged versions of Daihatsu’s extensive Kei-class line will appear in the company’s showrooms in Japan to try and retain the loyalty of current customers. This seems to work for Nissan, for instance, which has a presence in this sector by selling Suzuki and Mitsubishi designs with its own badges.
It does make you wonder a bit where it will all end. How much of Toyota’s gene pool will end up in future Imprezas, Foresters and Legacies, and how will this go down with the company’s loyal band of owners?
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