Sporting Image Under Threat at Subaru
By Andy Bannister
In a big blow to the 2009 World Rally Championship, Subaru has announced it will not compete in the coming season, bringing to an end an association lasting 20 years and potentially severely testing many enthusiasts’ future loyalty to the marque.
Subaru’s Impreza model, in particular, has competed on the closely-fought European rally circuit in various guises every year since 1994. The company has relentlessly promoted the Impreza’s rallying pedigree, shifting big numbers of the WRX model on the back of an impressive rally record.
Clever marketing has also won many sales thanks to a large number of profitable and carefully-targeted limited edition versions of the WRX, cashing in on the link and the cachet of the Subaru badge.
Always an also-ran compared to its bigger Japanese rivals, it’s easy to forget that Subaru once sold pretty ordinary fare, peddling a more obscure alternative to the dullest offerings of Nissan and Toyota. One example was the Subaru Leone family, whose various versions were reliable but otherwise slow and eminently forgettable.
Beneath bland – or sometimes just plain ugly – bodies, Subarus of this era were mechanically interesting, but the only models which really stood out were the four-wheel-drive variants. In many countries these mainly appealed to farmers or rural-dwellers needing the reassurance of extra traction in an otherwise normal car.
It was the new focus on performance combined with swift rallying success which completely transformed the image and prospects of Subaru. Rally greats like the late Richard Burns and Colin McRae became world champions at the wheel of the company’s cars, and it’s hard to imagine where the Subaru marque can possibly go next to get anything like the same impact.
The rationale behind the move is depressingly familiar. Falling sales in the current economic slowdown and a change to regulations due in 2010, which would have forced the company to develop a new rally model, are being blamed. It closely mirrors the decision of fellow Japanese company, Honda, to pull out of Formula One motor racing.
This development is particularly bad news for Prodrive, the British engineering consultancy that has been responsible for Subaru’s rally programme.
Prodrive is currently marketing, in conjunction with Subaru in the UK, a souped-up version of the Impreza hatchback called the 330S, boasting 325 bhp from its 2.5-litre turbocharged engine. It must be hoping this partnership continues in the post-rally future.
In fact, like those Leones of yore, the Impreza needs all the help it can get in its current rather dull-looking standard version, which easily gets lost in a crowd.
The World Rally Championship itself is also looking as thin as Subaru‘s sales prospects. Suzuki recently announced it was abandoning its plans to compete with the SX4, leaving, only Ford of Europe and Citroën now committed to the 2009 season.
Previous years have seen Skoda and Peugeot pull out, as well as Mitsubishi – whose hot Lancer Evo X is the Impreza WRX’s closest competitor.
With so few factory teams competing, next year is in danger of being a little meaningless. Perhaps it is time for the sport to return to its roots, when enthusiastic amateurs unconnected with their chosen make ruled the roost.
Subaru’s future, meanwhile, is now tied to Toyota, and its recent products have already raised a few eyebrows among Subaru’s diehard fans, who will hardly be reassured by the rallying retreat.
A diesel engine is currently the biggest news for the Forester and Legacy, at least in Europe, and Subaru has also baffled many customers by introducing a badge-engineered 1.0-litre Daihatsu-based city car, the Justy, as its entry-level model. At the other end of the range, the Tribeca seems an expensive dead-end.
A little like Saab under GM, Subaru is seemingly dangerously adrift and needs some radical action soon to get it back on the right track.
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