SUBARU, WHICH HAS BUILT ITS BRAND IN the U.S. around symmetrical all-wheel drive, will expand its product offering to include a rear-wheel-drive sports car, going on sale in early spring 2012.
The Japanese auto maker uses the recent Geneva auto show to unveil a sleek Lucite body that highlights the lowered position of the 4-cyl. horizontally opposed boxer engine and the driveline channeling all the power to the rear wheels. Subaru has not sold a RWD car in the U.S. since 1970.
Expect the actual production vehicle to be displayed at the Tokyo auto show in December.
Subaru refers to the program as the Boxer Sports Car Architecture, stemming from a joint development program with Toyota, which owns 16.7% of Subaru. General Motors sold its 20% stake in Subaru in 2005.
Subaru and Toyota announced the joint rear-drive vehicle development program in 2009.
In Geneva, Toyota exhibits its own sports car derived from the architecture.
The FT-86 II, delivered by the auto maker's European Design Development Centre, emphasizes aerodynamics, compact dimensions, dramatic styling, a high power-to-weight ratio and a low center of gravity — important for dynamic handling.
Toyota says the concept harkens to its sporting roots by combining a free-revving boxer gasoline engine and 6-speed manual transmission. Toyota contributes RWD and suspension technology to the development, while Subaru brings its boxer engine expertise.
Like the Subaru vehicle, Toyota says the production version of the FT-86 II will go on sale in Europe in 2012.
There are a number of questions Subaru executives do not answer about the new sports car, such as weight distribution, price target, anticipated sales volume, horsepower/torque and whether a race series will be developed around the vehicle.
But Ikuo Mori, president and CEO of Subaru parent company Fuji Heavy Industries, says the vehicle will be on sale in all markets worldwide and serve as an important addition to the brand's portfolio by drawing a new breed of enthusiast customer.
“We expect when we introduce this vehicle that it will appeal to customers who will enjoy an opposed-piston sports car,” Mori tells Ward's after unveiling the concept. “We want to expand our appeal beyond reliable driving.”
Most Subaru customers in the U.S. are looking for AWD, off-road capability, practicality and near-luxury appointments when they buy a Forester, Outback, Tribeca or Legacy.
With the new car, the auto maker hopes to attract more customers like those drawn to the brand's sporty offerings, particularly the Impreza WRX and STI.
But Mori says the new model does not signal a completely new direction for the auto maker.
“We aren't changing any products or engineering,” he says. “We want to enhance the good characteristics of the horizontally opposed piston engine.”
In January, Subaru unveiled the third generation of its gasoline boxer engine, a 2.0L 4-cyl., codenamed FB, first to appear later this year in the all-new '12 Impreza compact car.
A 2.5L version appears in the new Forester cross/utility vehicle in the U.S.
Horizontally opposed engines first arrived in the Subaru 1000 sedan in 1966.
Over the next 23 years, the Japanese auto maker would sell 4.1 million boxer engines, most of them in AWD and FWD vehicles.
Subaru's first prototype passenger car, the P-1, arrived in 1954 in a front-engine, RWD layout.
If the model on the stand is any indication, the sports car will offer a small back seat in a 2+2 configuration, much like the Mazda RX8.
By way of competitors, Subaru identifies the Porsche Cayman, a mid-engine, rear-drive 2-seater that also uses a boxer engine, but with six cylinders.
Without discussing price, Subaru executives suggest their vehicle will be less expensive than the Cayman, which starts at $51,400 in the U.S. Cayman offerings in the U.S. include a 320-hp 3.4L V-6 and 265-hp 2.9L 6-cyl. boxer.
Subaru says its rear-drive sports car will be the first in the world powered by a boxer engine mounted in front, and that the engine, thanks to its flat design, will be positioned unusually low in the chassis and likely will be made of aluminum.
Compared with the 4-cyl. boxer in the current Impreza, Subaru engineers say the center of gravity for the engine in the new sports car will be 4.7 ins. (12 cm) lower, and that it will be positioned 9.5 ins. (24 cm) closer to the firewall, more like a front/mid-engine vehicle.
The engine's center of gravity will be lower than an average adult male's knee, says Toshio Masuda, senior project general manager, Subaru Product & Portfolio Planning Div.
Lowering the engine allows the driveshaft extending to the rear to be flatter, which, in turn, allows the hood, floorpan and seats to be positioned lower.
“It will feel like a go-cart,” Masuda says.
The Lucite model on the show floor confirms the unusual orientation of the longitudinal boxer.
In many vehicles today, the top of the engine often is well above the top of the wheels.
The Subaru concept pushes the engine much lower, about level with the wheel hubs.
A shallow oil pan was designed especially to maintain the flat dimensions.
The engine is so low, a visit to the chiropractor might be necessary after working on it.
Two all-new transmissions are being developed for Subaru's sports car, an automatic and a 3-pedal manual.
Subaru insiders say a 200-hp rating is possible for the engine, but that straight-line acceleration is not the primary goal of the vehicle program.
Instead, Subaru plans aggressive integration of lightweight materials and a distinctive suspension setup incorporating struts at the front and a double-wishbone layout at the rear.
Combined with a short wheelbase and short overhangs, the auto maker promises an entertaining ride.
Subaru will produce the vehicle in the Gunma prefecture of Japan. Last July, Subaru opened its fifth engine plant there, in Oizumi, to produce the FB boxer engine.
Subaru Concept Key Specs
Engine: 2.0L naturally aspirated H-4
Wheelbase: 101 ins. (257 cm)
Overall length: 165 ins. (420 cm)
Overall width: 70 ins. (177 cm)
Overall height: 50 ins. (127 cm)
Tire size: 215/45R17
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