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Subaru’s 50th Anniversary: A Look Back at Five Decades of Subaru in the US

Subaru turns 50 this year, and to commemorate the big event the company has released a limited number of 50th Anniversary cars. Outfitted in Heritage Blue paint, the 50th Anniversary Edition badge will be offered on every model in the 2018 Subaru lineup: That includes the WRX, Impreza, Crosstrek, Forester, BRZ, Legacy and Outback.

A Little Upstart Makes a Big Splash

When you think about it, it’s really quite impressive how far Subaru has come in the 50 years since Malcolm Bricklin and Harvey Lamm first contracted to import Subaru cars. It’s even more remarkable when you consider the duo only had one model to sell: the Subaru 360. With its 2-stroke engine, quirky look and 66-mile per gallon fuel economy rating, the 360 was able to undercut the VW Beetle by $300, coming to market with a list price of just $1,297. Still, with only 16 horsepower and 37-second 0-to-50 mile per hour time, not many Americans gave the 360 a second look. Perhaps the car’s advertising slogan "cheap and ugly" didn’t help much.

In the early ’70s, Subaru introduced a number of cars, including the first mass-produced front-drive car with a boxer engine (Subaru 1000), the first 4×4 car that didn’t require manual locking wheel hubs (1975 GL wagon) and the 1977 BRAT, a pickup-like vehicle based on the GL wagon. By mounting two rear-facing seats in the BRAT’s tiny open bed, Subaru was able to classify it as a car, thus skirting the import tariffs placed on foreign-made lightweight trucks. The option of a simple all-wheel-drive system in a car that was inexpensive and easy on gas appealed to a growing number of Americans, especially those who enjoyed winter sports and outdoor recreation. Among the more famous customers to own a BRAT was the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who kept one at his ranch in California. In 1978, Motor Trend awarded the DL sedan Import Car of the Year, and by the end of the disco decade, Subaru had established a small but loyal following. The 1970s also begat one of Subaru’s most successful ad campaign tag lines: "Inexpensive. And Built to Stay That Way."

The 1980s saw Subaru’s model line expand, posing a direct challenge to larger Japanese rivals such as Toyota and Honda. During this time, Subaru introduced such innovative features as Hill Hold, which kept manual transmission cars from rolling backwards, an optional hi/lo 4×4 system and its first turbocharged engine. In 1983, Subaru sold its one-millionth car, and in 1985 introduced the radically styled XT coupe. The XT was a front-drive sports car that could be equipped with 4-wheel drive and, for a short time, a 6-cylinder engine. In 1987, Subaru introduced the subcompact, 3-cylinder Justy, the first car sold in the U.S. with an Electronic Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT) and an available full-time all-wheel-drive system. In 1989, the Legacy sedan was introduced, one of two Subaru vehicles built in the company’s new Lafayette, Indiana plant.

First Signs of Growing Pains

Heading into the ’90s, Subaru sales were down and the company seemed to struggle with its identity. 1991 saw the introduction of the SVX luxury performance coupe, which featured such radical design cues as window inside a window front door glass and a wrap-around dash. However, a $24,000 starting price and lack of a proper manual transmission hampered sales. In 1993, Subaru rolled out the first Impreza sedan, followed in 1995 by the first Outback wagon. By the mid ’90s, the on-demand 4WD system was phased out in favor of a permanent all-wheel drive system soon to become standard on every model. By the late ’90s, Subaru had found its stride, adding more luxury features to its cars while continuing to tout the advantages of all-wheel drive, the unique boxer engine and excellent safety ratings. In 1998, Subaru created its first compact crossover, the Forester. Built off the Impreza platform, the Forester went on to become a huge success, offering nearly as much room inside as an Outback, but for a lot less money.

The year 2000 began a turnaround of sorts for Subaru, with profits improving and a growing number of repeat customers returning to showrooms. In 2002, Subaru introduced the Baja, a larger successor to the BRAT but featuring four doors and a folding mid-gate pass-through. However, the biggest change in the early 2000s came not from the traditional line of family cars, but from a modified version of the Impreza compact.

After being offered overseas for years, the rally-inspired WRX finally made its way to the U.S. Offered in both sedan and wagon form, the 2002 WRX quickly found a home with younger drivers formerly fixated on modifying Honda Civics and VW GTIs. With its turbocharged engine and standard all-wheel drive, the WRX eviscerated the competition and established Subaru as a performance force to be reckoned with. In 2005, the 300-horspower WRX STI debuted, giving European performance names like Audi and BMW cause for concern.

In 2006, Subaru made its first foray into the 7-passenger, 3-row SUV market with the B9 Tribeca. Regrettably, the awkwardly styled Tribeca proved too small to be competitive, and it never really caught on. An Outback sedan made a brief appearance during this time, but in 2008 was dropped from the lineup. 2008 also marked the greatest economic meltdown since the Great Depression, and car sales plummeted for every manufacturer — except for one. Subaru actually sold 491 more cars in 2008 than in 2007, a 0.3 percent increase. In 2009, an all-new Forester was introduced, winning Motor Trend’s SUV of the Year award. 2010 brought the introduction of a much larger and more SUV-like Outback. Loyalists were not happy with the new look or loss of the turbocharged engine, but sales surged and the Outback became a mainstream favorite with both rural and urban drivers alike. In 2012, the Impreza-based XV Crosstrek was added to the lineup, giving buyers a smaller and less expensive alternative to the Outback wagon. 2012 also saw the addition of the company’s first rear-driver performance model, the BRZ.

Keeping It in the Family

Most recently, Subaru has returned to the 3-row SUV market with the introduction of the 2019 Ascent, an 8-passenger crossover touting advanced safety features and a new 2.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. In fact, over the last five years, Subaru has made huge advances in design, efficiency and safety. With the exception of the Toyota-based BRZ sports car, all Subaru vehicles now employ permanent Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, and a fuel-saving CVT transmission is the only automatic available, although some models still offer a 6-speed manual. The EyeSight collision avoidance system first offered in 2013 is now widely available across the line and is standard on the 2019 Forester and Ascent. Of course, all Subaru models continue to enjoy exceptional resale and reliability scores, not to mention best-in-class safety and crash test ratings.

All told, it’s been a wild 50 years full of change, innovation and surprise. We can’t wait to see what Subaru has in store for the next 50 years.

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