Nakajima was wound up at the end of WW2 and reborn as Fuji Sangyo which, by 1951, was making scooters at the rate of 2000 a month as Japan began its rapid industrialisation. Then in 1953, the company released a three-wheel light commercial truck and, in 1954, its first light car, the 45bhp P-1, for which the brand name Subaru was created.
Subaru became best known, domestically at least, for its smallengined mini vehicles, or kei cars, the first of which, the Subaru 360, was launched in 1958. The first all-wheeldrive Subaru was the 1971 Leone station wagon, which the company says went on to become the world’s best-selling AWD passenger car. But it was the launch of the Legacy saloon and estate in 1989 that was really the foundation of the modern Subaru.
There’s a strong argument that Subaru is still dominating one particular market niche in the way it managed with the Leone nearly 50 years ago. According to figures from Subaru UK, the Japanese company remains the world’s biggest producer of all-wheel-drive vehicles.
In the financial year of April 2015 to April 2016, Subaru sold 965,892 AWD vehicles, which represented some 15.3% of the entire global market. That was ahead of secondplaced Audi’s 720,510 units. JLR, interestingly, was the world number five, with 485,797 AWD units sold.
Subaru’s success is in large part thanks to a straightforward vehicle line-up. There’s a simple choice of four-pot boxer engines, one type of running gear and, now, one platform to cover everything from the new Impreza hatch to the upcoming seven-seat large SUV.
Although the brand’s roots were in Japanese-market kei cars, sales of these tiny vehicles have dropped from 145,000 units in 2007 to just 34,000 in the year ending April 2017. And although Subaru still markets five kei cars, they are now badgeengineered models produced offshore by Daihatsu. To that end, the production of these inexpensive and low-margin models doesn’t weigh heavily on Subaru’s R&D budget. The only other slight outlier is the BRZ coupé, which is also sold as the GT86 for Toyota. It’s based on a modified version of the previous Impreza platform, adapted to run rear-wheel drive, and as of April 2016, some 223,000 had been built.
Otherwise, Subaru’s line-up is of eight closely related models, all using the same basic architecture. The new Impreza and XV/Crosstrek are already on the new platform, with the vast Ascent SUV due at the end of the year. The rest will adopt the new platform over the next three years.
Subaru says the new platform marks a step change in both safety and refinement. In fact, Subaru has already established a safety record that’s second to none in the US.
The Forester, for example, has received the top ‘Good’ rating in the rigorous IIHS lab crash tests every year since 1999. Even though the 2017 model is based on the outgoing platform, it also scored a ‘Good’ rating for the onerous ‘small overlap’ front-end impact test.
So Subaru has advantages in using a single platform and transmission for its future cars, but market analyst logic says the company must invest significantly in electrification and autonomous technology.
Subaru is already on the case, albeit in the most cost-efficient way. It has integrated a hybrid system into its 4x4 drivetrain, fitting the electric motor into the transmission and placing the battery pack the rear axle.
This is typical of the brand’s engineering approach in that it’s a simple and easily integrated set-up which can fitted into all of the brand’s future vehicles. It’s expected to be launched later this year, possibly in a variant of the new Ascent.
Subaru also needs to produce an EV in order to meet Californian regulations (which are also used by other US states). The word is that the company is likely to build an allwheel drive electric crossover, similar in size to the Forester, by 2021, but much of the existing platform will probably be able to be adapted.
In terms of autonomy, Subaru is taking the most cost-effective and, some would say, sensible approach. The company launched its stereo ‘EyeSight’ forward-facing cameras in 2008. The new third-generation version can ‘see’ colours and is coupled to all-round sensors that can detect people, cyclists, lane markers and other vehicles. It will be used not only for pedestrian avoidance but also to assist other autonomous features such as predictive braking, lane keeping assist and ‘pre-collision throttle management’.
In short, Subaru’s autonomy will mean improved safety rather than handsoff driving, which in turn means major savings on research and development and component costs. The stated aim is that by the time the whole range is on the new platform, Subaru will be the world’s “number one brand for overall safety”, with its “All-Around Safety system protecting all passengers and pedestrians”.
Under the ‘Prominence 2020’ plan – and showing a typically modest Japanese approach – the upshot is that Subaru says it will be building more than 1.2 million cars per year by the end of the decade. It wants to be “number one for customer trust” and have industryleading profitability.
Today, profitability is good, but there’s no doubt that a decade ago, at the point of the global credit crunch, Subaru was looking decidedly marginal. In 2006-2007, Subaru produced just 578,000 vehicles and was barely profitable, and the period from 2007 to 2012 was decidedly rocky, with the company barely breaking even in 2012.
The key issue is that in 2007 Subaru sold just over 601,000 vehicles, while in 2012 it sold 617,000, a level that seems to be about breakeven for the company. However, sales then took a remarkable upward turn, hitting 978,000 in the year ending April 2016. For the year ending April 2017, the total was 1.065 million.
The company’s operating profit in the last three months of 2016 was just over £1bn, with a profit margin of a remarkable 18.4% – quite possibly the highest margin in the car business. But Subaru is tied to the strength of the yen against the dollar.
The fall of the dollar against Japan’s currency meant that in the final quarter of the financial year to April 2017, operating profits fell to £713m and the profit margin to 11.6%. That said, it’s a better margin than BMW and Audi can manage.
It’s Subaru’s runaway success in the US that has driven the recent upswing. During 2016, Subaru sales hit 615,000, well over half of all global sales. The company has a factory in Indiana, which will build 400,000 vehicles across 2017, a significant increase on previous years. By 2019, Subaru Indiana should be making 436,000 cars per year.
Europe may well be becoming as obsessed by crossovers as the US, but Subaru’s performance here is lamentable. Across the continent, sales are around 46,000 units per year, while in the UK annual sales are under 4000 units.
According to Prominence 2020, the US will remain Subaru’s “toppriority market”, followed by Japan and China. Clearly there’s no corporate will to try to break back into Europe, which, admittedly, is only attractive if you have premium pricing and bigger volumes.
What Subaru does next is what Subaru has done until now: advance slowly and cost-effectively. The single-platform, single-transmission family, simple hybrid tech and autonomy biased solely towards the safety of drivers and other road users is eminently sensible for a company of this size.
Subaru’s biggest issue is its vulnerability to swings in the dollarto-yen exchange rate, although building more cars in the US will reduce that vulnerability.
The recent rise of the yen, however, hammered the company’s income and pushed profit margins for 2016- 17 down from 17.5% the year before to a still-impressive 12.4%. But looked at as a small and more or less independent automotive company, Subaru can justly claim that its business model isn’t broken and doesn’t need fixing.