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The Subaru Justy Proves That Subaru Wasn't Always Cool

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author photo by Aaron Gold September 2016

There was a time when 3-cylinder cars seemed like a good idea. I believe it was around 1907. Still, that didn't stop a couple intrepid automakers from selling undersized 3-pot cars in the late '80s and early '90s. Mind you, this was at a time when gas was 89 cents per gallon and $5 was enough to keep my Dodge Omni on the move for the better part of a week.

Subaru's contender on the 3-cylinder circuit was the 1.2-liter, 66-horsepower Justy, introduced in 1987. The Justy was tiny and tinny, weighing less than 1,700 pounds, but it did have one killer feature: optional all-wheel drive (AWD). This was in the days before AWD was called AWD; it was known as 4-wheel drive (4WD) and was usually found in Blazers, Broncos and Jeeps. When the weather turned foul, you simply pressed the 4WD button on the Justy's shifter, and away you went.

The Justy is often credited as the first car in the United States to offer a continuously variable transmission (CVT), but this claim is, er ... un-Justy-fied. Proper acknowledgment should go to the DAF 600 Variomatic, imported from Holland in 1959 (DAF continued selling CVT-equipped cars here until 1973). Still, the Justy's CVT was, at the very least, a novelty. The Justy also had the distinction of being one of the last cars in America sold with a carburetor, with fuel injection not becoming standard until the 1992 model year.

I never got to drive one of the original Justys. A pal's father had one with a 5-speed transmission, but sadly, this was in the days before I learned to drive a stick shift (although, come to think of it, this friend never let me drive his mom's automatic Chevy Citation, either). We did sneak the Justy out for a bit of hooning, although hooning in the Justy essentially consisted of turning on 4WD and driving in a straight line over the snow. We found little joy in the Justy, though we did agree that it was mildly preferable to walking, albeit not by much.

Oddly enough, the Justy never got much of a thrashing in the court of public opinion. Perhaps that's because it was sold concurrently with the Geo Metro, which was miserable enough to function as a lightning rod for bad-car criticism. But that doesn't change the fact that in a 1992 Car and Driver cheap-car comparison, nine out of 10 University of Minnesota students said they wouldn't be caught dead in a Subaru Justy. It's my understanding that the one student who dissented is still single.

At least one of the other nine must have gone on to work for Subaru, because the Justy was taken off the U.S. market after 1994 -- about the time the Outback came along and changed Subaru's fortunes forever. Since then, Subaru hasn't bothered to sell anything smaller than the Impreza in the North American market.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
The Subaru Justy Proves That Subaru Wasn't Always Cool - Autotrader