Ute, right-hook seven-seater not on Subaru build list

Every new Subaru coming to New Zealand from now on has a common key fresh start ingredient, but it cannot be used to realise every dream.


AN architecture that will underpin every Subaru coming here from now on will cement a successful future for Japan’s smallest brand – but won’t provide a pathway to two vehicles Kiwis crave most at the moment.

Speaking to MotoringNetwork during a quick visit here for a media preview of the Impreza coming on sale at the end of February, Takeshi Tachimori – who, as a Corporate Executive Vice President and Fuji Heavy Industries director, is the highest-ranked Subaru boss to come here - is enthusiastic about the potentials offered by New Global chassis that debuts on this compact hatchback.

However, while the one-size-fits all policy will work for the next Forester, XV and WRX - all likely to release locally over the next 18 months – and the replacement for the current Legacy sedan and Outback wagon, potentially out in 2019, it won’t spur Subaru into creating products suited to the hotspot big sports utility and one-tonne utility sectors.

Though there are fond lingering memories for the car-based Brumbie ute, it seems Subaru is simply not equipped, nor particularly interested, in going into the large utility vehicle market.

“The pick up or ute market is, I think, a very specialised market in Australia and New Zealand,” he says.

But any such vehicle would have to suit North America, too, and that’s an immediate challenge because what we think of as ‘big’ is their ‘small to medium.’ So, simply, “we have no thought about entering that market.”

Bad news, too, about seeing the big-sized seven-seater sports utility he personally revealed in Viziv Seven concept form (below) at the Los Angeles motor show a couple of weeks ago. The production version, probably to be called Ascent, is a go for 2018, but only for the United States, where it will be built.

Maybe that’s missing out on a market opportunity, he agrees; after all, NZ is hardly the only place where seven-seater SUVs are on the rise, and though Subaru potentially mistimed with the defunct and less expansive Tribeca – ironically, now a popular used car here – surely the conditions are far more conducive for success now?

That’s true. But it all comes down to cost … and risk. As delighted as Tachimori is to hear that NZ has an especially high level of Subaru ownership per capita, basically Americans keep the factory lights burning. They account for 66 percent of Subaru production and their tastes for very large SUVs – and bear in mind that the concept is 38 centimetres longer than an Outback and taller and wider than a Land Cruiser 200-Series – a safe bet. But Subaru feels the cost-return equation doesn’t add up so easily elsewhere, not even promising left-hook markets like China, let alone the right-hand-drive sectors.

“We’re not sure if the other markets can afford that investment.” Translation: We doubt we’ll sell enough there to reap a return.

What if they built a smaller like-minded model for other places, or perhaps re-engineered the Outback into a three-row configuration? Sorry, that’s not going to happen, either.

Going forward, Subaru seems set to stick to what it does well now – all-wheel-drive cars and wagons, most with an off-road bent, and some sporty as well – it has committed to a new WRX and STi and also signed off on a second generation of its rear-drive sports coupe, the BRZ.

Tachimori says that decision was made long before Toyota Japan indicated announcement last week that it will deliver a second-generation of its conjoined 86, again with Subaru as a partner.

“We’ve already started the discussion about the next BRZ/86 … when we started the first-generation development, our mutual understanding (between companies) was that it will be such an important part of our alliance it would not be a one-generation model.

“So we’ve always been in the discussions about improving the current car and also developing the next one. So this isn’t new.”

What won’t occur is any potential for Subaru to follow Toyota’s decision to return to building larger sports cars; there’s no intention of a Subaru equivalent of the Supra that will be a co-production with BMW.

“For sports cars of a two-door format we have no thoughts beyond the BRZ. We have the WRX, and even though it is a four-door sedan, it’s still in a unique market position.”

Though Subaru has long hung up its WRC overalls, WRX still holds good credibility as a “road-going rally car. People love the characteristics. We believe that BRZ works as a small coupe but WRX will remain a very important sports model for the brand.”

So, too, the STi model, though the challenge there is to work out a replacement for the current 2.5-litre engine, which being an older generation unit lacks the WRX direct injection so is threatened by poor economy and inability to meet emissions standards.

“We’ve been using the current engine for a long time,” he laughs. “… so we’re discussing the next development.” However, it will be another purely fossil-fueled powerplant, not a hybrid, as per the Honda NSX, because of cost considerations.

“We understand that some future sports cars will be electrified, but right now we are quite sceptical about our sports car model (being like that). We are not a premium brand selling a $100,000 model. It’s very difficult to have an electrified sports car in our model lineup.”

The link with Toyota (a majority owner of Hino Motors, the largest shareholder in FHI) will nonetheless allow Subaru to deliver mainstream plug-in hybrid cars, starting with a version of the XV that Subaru NZ hopes to have alongside regular editions of the new model coming next year. Around 2021 there will be a full electric car, though the latter is especially aimed at California, to meet that state’s ever-challenging fresh air regs.

Whether BRZ/86 will be on the New Global platform that debuts with Impreza is uncertain, but everything else will be, even the Viziv, though that project requires significant modification to the architecture, moreso than for Outback and Legacy.

New Global offers significant advantages for the maker and buyer, he says.

The pluses for drivers are better dynamics – because the structure is 70-100 percent more rigid – and, because of that, more fun, plus improved safety. On Impreza, for instance, crash energy absorption improves by 40 percent over the old model.

“The most important part of the new platform is that it increases body strength and rigidity.”

It’s a safeguard in the expectation of expected ongoing tightening of crash worthiness regulations, not least in respect to offset frontal impact. “So we need a stronger body for those reasons.”

Subaru parent Fuji Heavy Industries, which soon renames as Subaru Corporation, also wins, says the man whose advancement through the company he joined in 1977 with a BA in aerospace engineering has been spectacular: A succession of product and planning roles, three years running Subaru of America and, since 2013, back in Japan in his current role.

A common underpinning means Subaru’s three plants - two in Japan and another in Indiana, the United States – will be able to build all their vehicles on one assembly line.

That means Subaru will be able to more easily adjust production to meet shifting market demand around the globe and also achieve savings that it intends to invest in new advanced technology to stay competitive with bigger rivals.

Being the one of the smallest global car brands creates some challenges – every cent has to be spent carefully – but though Subaru only just reached a production capacity of one million cars a year, it has no desire to grow much larger.

The in-house sentiment is that big isn’t always better, especially when another brand intent is to keep an emphasis on quality over quantity.

And the bottom line comes first. A string of stellar earnings ended recently when FHI reported a 29 percent drop in operating profit in the latest quarter, citing unfavourable foreign exchange rates, increased incentive spending and rising quality costs for being caught up in one of history’s biggest automotive callbacks, the recall of faulty Takata airbag inflators offset rising sales.

That led to the operating income fell to 106.99 billion yen ($1.06 billion) in the fiscal second quarter ending on September 30 and net income dropping 22 percent to 84.97 billion yen ($839.2 million).

Revenue dipped 3.3 percent to 808.27 billion yen ($7.98 billion) in the July-September period, while global sales increased 8.0 percent to 266,800 vehicles.