From the July 1988 issue of Car and Driver.
Subaru used to be the automotive equivalent of the Unification Church, offering the cultlike faithful a collection of cars committed to a trinity of all-wheel drive, quirky styling, and bargain-basement pricing. For years the Subaru doctrine, built on shibboleths such as “Inexpensive and built to Lay that way,” drew converts to the cause in increasing numbers. Eventually, however, four-wheel-drive alternatives from the United States, Europe, and other Japanese companies caused schisms among the congregation. And when the industry’s move upmarket tempted Subaru to forsake its tenet of affordability, attendance fell off sharply.
The 1987 Justy reaffirmed Subaru’s belief in affordability, and it’s been a huge success. It’s not only brought back some of the apostates but also made a few more converts. Toward the end of the ’87 sales crusade, Subaru’s fortunes soared. Now that the collection plate is looking pretty full again, the company is trying another move upmarket with the introduction of the XT6.
Essentially a six-cylinder version of the XT coupe, the new XT6 shares the XT’s platform and, with some modifications, its suspension hardware and interior fillings. The heart of the new car is a single overhead-cam, 2.7-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder, based on Subaru’s 1.8-liter flat-four. It shares its pistons, rods, and bore spacing with the four-cylinder engine but incorporates a revised fuel-injection system, a new camshaft drive, an oil-pan baffle, and a knock sensor. Other engine modifications include some friction-reducing refinements and the use of two silicone-filled engine mounts to reduce vibrations. The six produces 145 horsepower at 5200 rpm, compared with 97 horses for the naturally aspirated four-cylinder and 115 ponies for the old turbo four, which is no longer available.
To back up the engine, the XT6 buyer can choose front-wheel drive or full-time four-wheel drive. If he chooses the latter, his next option is a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic. (The front-driver is available with the automatic only.) In the five-speed four-wheel-driver, a center differential distributes torque equally to the front and rear axles; it can be locked when the going gets really sloppy. The automatic model has no center differential; instead, a computer-controlled, hydraulic multiplate clutch varies the amount of power transmitted to the rear wheels. On dry surfaces, 95 percent of the power goes to the front wheels. On slippery surfaces, sensors in the front and rear driveshafts detect speed differences between the front and rear axles and direct up to half of the power to the rear.
Science-fiction fans probably already know about the XT6’s “Cybrid Steering.” For the rest of you, “Cybrid” comes from “cybernation,” which means computer control, and “hybrid,” because the system uses a combination of electrics and hydraulics. Unlike conventional power steering, which uses the engine to drive the steering pump, the Cybrid system uses a separate electric motor. One of the benefits of Cybrid is a reduced load on the engine. Another is a more precise matching of the amount of power assist to the demands of the moment. Several sensors, including one in the steering column, feed information to a central computer, which in turn selects one of four different “maps” to regulate the amount of assistance. A “fail-soft” mode provides 28 seconds of power assist in the event of electrical failure.
The XT’s underpinnings also received attention. The engineers recalibrated Subaru’s self-leveling air suspension, which is standard on all four-wheel-drive XTs. Both the front-drive and the four-wheel-drive XT6 get beefier anti-roll bars, larger disc brakes, and fatter wheels and tires. The XT6 front-driver comes with 14-inch 195/60HR-14 rubber, while the all-driver gets 205/60HR-14s.
The overall packaging is pleasantly surprising. With the addition of the six-cylinder engine and the other changes, the XT6 is undoubtedly the best Subaru ever built. It has ample go power when you mash the throttle, its brakes are reassuring, and it offers a noticeable amount of what is commonly known as handling. Subaru has even made an effort to do away with some of its stranger-than-fiction interior touches. The digital gauge package, for instance, has been dropped; in its place are better-looking and easier-to-read analog instruments. The newly designed seats offer better support, and more attractive cloth upholstery can almost—almost—make you forget you’re driving a Subie.
What we’re seeing here is an honest attempt to lose some of the traditional quirkiness in an effort to appeal to a larger pool of buyers. That pool, however, will also have to be more affluent than the existing roll of Subaru devotees. The base price of the front-drive XT6 is $16,116, while the all-drive manual and automatic cost $16,956 and $17,716. Granted that the XT6 arrives with a slew of standard luxuries—including air conditioning, power windows and locks, alloy wheels, cruise control, and an excellent stereo system—it’s still priced right up against some serious motoring machines.
If the all-weather capability of four-wheel drive is important to you, the XT6 offers a good blend of luxury and modest performance at a reasonable price. On the other hand, if serious speed is at the top of your list, and if you don’t mind the occasional challenge of driving on slick roads with only two driven wheels, we doubt you’ll become a Subaru convert.
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