From the September 1983 issue of Car and Driver.
When was the last time you met somebody who belonged to the Subaru Owners’ Club? Know anybody who wears a Subaru racing jacket or hauls around Subaru-monogrammed luggage? Read any good coffee-table books lately on the Subaru mystique?
What we are trying to say here is that the Subaru has yet to achieve icon status with the cognoscenti. Yet its epidemic presence among the backpackers, the bird watchers, the Sierra Clubbers, and the no-nukers implies a cult worship unknown in any other car-owner body besides that of the Saab and the Volvo (both of which, for no rational reasons, have been anointed by the guilt-racked upper middle class as environmentally responsible automobiles). At least the Subaru has optional four-wheel drive, which must be at the core of its appeal. It is also reputed by some to have anvil-like reliability, which is important to the environmental collective because its post-Luddite furies can be vented by treating the hated but necessary automobiles as beasts of burden.
So Subarus run everywhere except underwater and will plow through a snowdrift deep enough to stall an M-1 tank. So they are the official car of the U.S. ski team. So beneath their faintly bizarre exteriors hide leathery hearts and wills of iron. So what to all that? The question remains, would you want a Subaru parked in your driveway?
Answer: If you are in the mood for some serious, multipurpose, down-and-dirty traction action, trade all your old airline coupons, your complete collection of Eddy Howard albums, your library of Annette Haven videotapes, and your season tickets for the Toledo Mud Hens to get your hands on a Subaru GL-10 4wd station wagon mit turbocharger. Aesthetics be damned. The Friends of the Earth be damned. The GL-10 is one slick machine.
Here’s what happened: As you may know, Subaru (which is part of Fuji Heavy Industries and has been in the car business for only 25 years) began manufacturing four-wheel-drive wagons in 1976; this latest version has been around since the 1980 restyling. The 4wd setup is terrific, especially when linked to the three-speed automatic. It can be activated by the press of a button on the shift lever without any hub locking, fiddling with secondary shifters, etc. It is one of the simplest four-wheel-drive systems in the world, but until now there has been one primary problem: even with its “big” 1782 cc engine (a 1595 cc version powers the low-line DL sedans and coupes), the car wouldn’t pull the lid off a granola box. The normally aspirated 1.8-liter, overhead-valve, flat-four, water-cooled powerplant is rated at 71 hp (53 for the 1.6-liter model) and pulls a maximum of 93 pounds-feet of torque at 2400 rpm.
The little boxer motor had a reputation for being bulletproof, but once the 4wd wagon was loaded up for a trip to the mountains, hapless owners were sometimes required to jettison ski boots, backpacks, and even the odd passenger to get the little wheezer to pull serious grades. Traction with the 4wd was terrific—but with an engine too weak to work even on dry pavement, how was anybody going to make it across an open field or snowy mountain pass?
Enter that wonderful, exhaust-driven dose of steroids we know as the turbocharger. The Subaru engineering department went back to the drawing board and hooked up an L-Jetronic fuel-injection system in place of the old two-barrel Hitachi carburetor and bolted on a slick little IHI turbocharger that pumps out seven pounds of boost and raises horsepower to 95.
The change is magical, even with the revalved three-speed automatic, which is mandatory equipment with the turbo. (The same drivetrain, officially known as “Turbo-Traction,” is also available in the BRAT pickup.) Whereas the old wagon would amble to sixty in about 17 seconds, the turbocharged car will zoom from zero to sixty in 13.7 seconds.
But more important is the midrange performance improvement. With the normally aspirated car, passing on a two-lane was often where the 4wd was most needed, simply because it was always possible that you’d have to dive onto the opposite shoulder to avoid oncoming traffic. Not so anymore. The GL-10 Turbo-Traction will jump from 30 to 50 mph in 6.5 seconds! More important, it accelerates from 50 to 70 mph in 11.6 seconds! Compare that with the new kid on the block, Toyota’s much praised Tercel 4wd wagon, which takes 28.8 seconds to ooze from 50 to 70 mph, and the new Subaru is a pocket rocket in the middle speed ranges.
But let’s get one thing straight: the Subaru GL-10 Turbo-Traction wagon, for all its technical aura, is not a Japanese incarnation of the Audi Quattro. It is not the ultimate sport wagon that enthusiasts have fantasized about ever since Volvo hinted at the concept with its short-lived 1800ES three-door in the early 1970s. In fact, the Subaru turbocharger is used not to enhance power but merely to bring it to acceptable levels. In this sense, the unit is utilitarian in spirit, as is much of the rest of the automobile, despite rather energetic efforts to glitz up the interior with digital instruments and power gadgets.
Ultimately, the Subaru GL-10 borders on the schizoid. On the one hand, it presents itself as a gutsy, go-anywhere little firebrand that’s ready to chug up the side of Mount McKinley. On the other, it offers department-store elevator chimes as a seatbelt warning and such “luxury” accouterments as power windows and mirrors. Somewhere in the middle of all this confusion, one would hope to find some handling to accompany the enhanced power, but this is not the case. Sadly, the added power of the turbo elevates torque steer to unpleasant levels. The Subaru wagon is a tall car (56.5 inches), and while bending it through a corner, it feels as if it is about to flop over on its door handles. This impression is enhanced by its manifestly unpleasant Bridgestone 185/70SR-13 Mud and Snow tires. These tires fall between two stools: they are too stiff and hard-compounded for normal road use, too timidly treaded for serious mucking about in the weeds. Add to that the heavy steel Jackman-replica off-road wheels, which look as if they were stolen from an early Walker Evan pickup, and the on-road handling of the GL-10 suffers badly. If Subaru would instead offer better street radials on a set of alloy wheels (which are available as an option), the behavior of the car in normal driving conditions would be greatly enhanced. If an owner wanted to do some serious work in the woods, he could then mount up a set of big knobbies and head for the mountains.
While this might sound gratuitous, it could be said that “Subaru” and “styling” are mutually exclusive terms, as are “military” and “intelligence,” or “English” and “cuisine.” One sometimes wonders if in fact there is a Subaru styling department, or if there is merely a blackboard mounted on a sidewalk outside the factory where passersby can scribble suggestions. The basic shape of the car is pleasant, but by the time it has been gooped up with chrome trim, lights, gold emblems, luggage racks, and a set of totally incongruous white pickup-truck wheels, the impression becomes ruinously busy.
The same is true of the interior. Like most Japanese small cars, the passenger compartment looks like a vinyl blister pack. The Subaru insides are relieved only by inserts of polyester cloth in the seat bottoms. The instrument panel is an ergonomical comedy, with all manner of buttons and knobs, plus digital readouts that emit a red-and-green night glow that resembles a Kmart Christmas display. The seats are marginally comfortable, and the overall interior accommodations are about what you’d expect from an automobile with a 96.7-inch wheelbase and a 168.7-inch overall length.
Despite the shortcomings in the handling and ornamentation departments, the Subaru GL-10 Turbo-Traction station wagon is one mighty little automobile. lt’s no accident that this brand is the best-selling imported car in Vermont, where icy mountain roads are a way of life. Nor are its funky looks responsible for its success in New Hampshire, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado. Any reservations regarding aesthetic are more than compensated for by the car’s reliability and good-natured enthusiasm for tackling anything this side of an Israeli border station.
At a base price of $10,300, the turbo wagon is a bargain. Utilitarians might balk at the extra $800 for the Turbo-10 package, which includes power windows, a sunroof, cruise control, the aforementioned digital dash, and a trip computer, but even at about $11,000, the car is bulging with value. It’s no Audi. It’s no Tercel. It’s no AMC Eagle SX/4. It’s pure, undistilled Subaru. And with the news that the turbo will be offered for the sedan and the coupe during the 1984 model year, the prospect for ownership becomes even more interesting. After all, did you ever try to ford a muddy stream or navigate a snow-clogged mountain with mystique?
Although Subaru’s new turbocharged 1.8-liter flat four is this company’s first venture into the realm of blown engines, its execution reveals a thorough understanding of turbocharged-powertrain fundamentals.
Generating the pressure is an IHI RHB-52 turbocharger whose flow characteristics, size, and efficiency are ideally suited to engines under 2.0 liters. Peak boost is limited to 7 psi by the turbo’s integral waste gate; should it fail, a blow-off valve in the intake manifold opens above 7.7 psi. The engineers selected L-Jetronic fuel injection (a first for Subaru) to deliver the fuel precisely and directly into the intake ports, avoiding the long, tortuous intake passages inherent with carbureted turbo motors. They also incorporated a knock sensor in the ignition system to light off the compressed mixture at the point of maximum efficiency without fear of destructive detonation. The result is 95 hp at 4800 rpm and 123 pounds-feet of torque at 2000 rpm, substantial increases over the naturally aspirated powerplant’s 71 horsepower at 4400 rpm and 93 pound-feet of torque at 2400 rpm.
Few modifications were required to withstand the rigors of this increased output. New cast pistons reduce the compression ratio from 8.7 to 7.7:1. The piston rings are upgraded, and the temperature is kept under control by a larger radiator, a thermostatically controlled oil cooler, and an additional fan.
Subaru fitted taller overall gearing (3.70:1 versus 3.90:1) to maximize the new engine’s fuel efficiency. However, to maintain performance at low speeds, when boost is minimal, the automatic transmission’s first and second gears were lowered and a torque converter with a higher stall speed (2850 rpm versus 1900 rpm) was fitted. These changes keep the turbo motor working in its most efficient mode, combining higher performance with the same EPA fuel economy (24 mpg city, 30 highway) as its naturally aspirated counterpart. The achievement of power boost with little efficiency penalty is a Subaru exclusive, placing the GL-10 among the elite of the turbocars sold in America. —Csaba Csere
The Subaru with Turbo-Traction neither handles nor holds the road as well as a Porsche 944. This won’t prevent it from being celebrated as one of the most useful and likable cars ever built by a combination of humans and robots. It makes the Audi Quattro look like a very fast, very expensive, light-reconnaissance vehicle—unsupportably frivolous. It is the rolling realization of that apparently impossible dream, “a really good car the average guy can afford to buy.” It is simple, strong, well built, comprehensively equipped, and it does things two-wheel-drive cars cannot hope to do. It is most important to bear in mind that the Subaru with Turbo-Traction is not a superior car because of an artificially undervalued yen, or because Japanese workers are paid less than UAW members and are expected to sing the company song every morning after calisthenics. The Subaru is superior because the ideas that led to its creation were superior. General Motors and Ford have spent a lot of time and money telling us about “world cars.” Subaru has built one. —David E. Davis, Jr.
Common wisdom holds that a car’s powertrain smoothness is determined by the vibration output of its engine, but this ignores the overwhelming effect of the exhaust system on perceived smoothness. A perfect example is the new turbo Subaru.
Naturally aspirated and turbocharged Subarus share engine mounts and a flat-four engine that is inherently smoother than an inline four of similar displacement. And yet the standard car feels like an out-of-balance meat grinder, whereas the turbo version is quite acceptable.
The difference is in the exhaust. Both cars have similar exhaust systems, which are poorly isolated from the body structure. However, the turbocharger causes a total transformation by emulsifying and flattening the peaks of the individual exhaust pulses that are so strongly transmitted to the interior of the standard car. Obviously, when it comes to smoothness, exhaust systems do more than just deal with hot air. —Csaba Csere
If I were marooned on a desert island and could have any four-wheel-drive rig that I wanted, I assure you it wouldn’t be the Subaru Turbo. Turbocharger or no, it doesn’t qualify as a work of 4wd art. Tercel 4wd wagons are far more refined, S-10 Blazers and Bronco IIs are roomier, and Quattros leave the poor Subaru choking on rubber smoke.
Yet the Subaru Turbo does have one endearing quality that sets it apart from almost any other vehicle I can think of: it seems to thrive on malevolence. Treat it like camel dung, and it comes back for more—wagging its tail, no less—and asks practically nothing of you in the bargain.
Since there’s no shifting to be done and four-wheel drive is only the push of a button away, driver participation is held to a minimum. Potholes that would permanently disfigure the front end of an average RX-7 don’t even faze the Subaru, so you needn’t pay much attention to where you’re aiming it. For all of this, it earns my grudging respect. There’s something to be said for a car that won’t make you feel guilty for slapping it around. —Rich Ceppos
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