Subaru sees a market for two-seater minicar in US

By 1985, and maybe before, a Subaru minicar could be on the road in the US -- a two-seater that weighs no more than 1,350 pounds. "I see a 50,000-car market in the US for that kind of vehicle," asserts Harvey Lamm, president of Subaru of America Inc. "You can get the same kind of fuel economy as you can in a diesel at half the cost."

With such a limited market potential, it may not be too feasible for an industry giant such as Ford or General Motors to take the minicar route.

By a minicar, Mr. Lamm is talking about a car that has perhaps a 550-cc engine and weighs under 1,400 pounds. It might be that some of the other importers will call a one- liter car a minicar, but it's not a real minicar, muses Lamm.

Unlike the other Japanese car makes, Subaru of America is not a subsidiary of the manufacturer but rather a US company set up to import vehicles from Fuji Heavy Industries of Japan. Of the vehicles that it sells, Subaru of America takes more than half of all Fuji output. Fuji also sells other vehicles in Japan, including an entire minicar and mini-commercial line of vehicles.

When it does arrive in the US, the minicar will be a two-seater with luggage space in back.

"We'll be talking about the car as a 2 plus 1," reports Lamm. What it will mean is that there may be space for two small children in back. It will be sold in Japan as a four-passenger car.

Subaru of America will sell between 150,000 and 160,000 cars in the US this year, a far cry from its far larger competitors, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan (Datsun).

Its objective, according to Lamm, is to sell between 250,000 and 300,000 cars a year, still on the low rung of the Japanese sales ladder. If it brings in the minicar, it could reach its goal in two years, adds Lamm.

Meanwhile, Subaru is aiming for a 10 percent increase in fuel economy on its 1982- model cars through more sophisticated control of the carburetion system. It has no interest in taking the diesel route because of the cost.

"The fuel economy of a diesel is complicated by its price," asserts Lamm. Simply, a diesel engine is a premium-priced product and takes a long time to make up the extra cost in fuel saved.

Super-high mileage is its long-range goal.

Subaru tested a prototype three-wheeler on the West Coast last year, a hint of the minicar concept to come, but don't look for it on the road any day soon. Mass production of the rear-drive, 1-rider vehicle, called the Gyronaut or X-100 , is impractical, according to a Subaru official. For one thing, it wouldn't make economic sense in its present configuration.

"Projects like the Gyronaut tangibly demonstrate our dedication to fuel efficiency and engineering excellence," asserts Lamm. "The X-100 uses Subaru components being produced every day . . . which keeps what we learn in our experimentation close to real-world applicability."

A marketable minicar is something else again.

"We can get 50 m.p.g.-plus in a minicar," he reports, "which you can't do in a subcompact with a gasoline engine." In the West Coast test, the Gyronaut topped 100 m.p.g. with the same engine as the minicar it plans to import.

The company also will have a new BRAT in 1982 with more space inside the cab so that, as Lamm sees it, "a person who is 6 feet 2 or 3 can sit comfortably." While there are no major changes in the '82-model car lineup, the fuel tanks in all vehicles but the BRAT and hatchback will hold 2.6 gallons more fuel, thus giving Subaru the longest- range subcompacts in the business.

The hatchback is a much shorter vehicle and there isn't the room.

In 1983 it will have an automatic transmission for the four-wheel drive. Also, it should have a turbocharger in '83. A full changeover in product won't come until the 1985-model year.

"Our product line then will probably be different from that of anyone else in the auto industry," predicts Lamm.

That's the whole point of the company's marketing strategy. It wants to be different. "Our whole thrust is to fill the smaller niches in the marketplace," he says.

In doing so it tries to meet any gliches that crop up. Use of electronically controlled carburetion in the '81 cars has eliminated an annoying habit of the 1980 models to backfire. As one reader wrote a few months ago: "My wagon pops between upshifts between 75 and 85 percent of the time. It also backfires periodically on downshifts and sometimes in gear when you take your foot off the gas pedal."

Is Subaru making any attempt to satisfy the buyers of earlier-model cars with hiccups? some of them ask.

All Subarus are front-wheel drive (fwd). Even the 4-wheel drive is really a fwd, notes Lamm. When the vehicle is operating as a 2- wheel drive, it's the front wheels that are powered, not the rear wheels as in other 4- wheel-drive vehicles.

"We're the only manufacturer in the industry with this kind of system," says Lamm.

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