Subaru sets its sights on urban -- and rural -- markets in US

When Hugh McGrail of Medway, Mass., wanted to replace his aging, gas-guzzling Pontiac Bonneville Brougham, he went to a Pontiac car dealer with the idea of picking up a slightly used Pontiac with far better gas mileage.

It was then he discovered that the dealer also sells Subarus, the front-drive import from Japan.

What McGrail found was that he could buy a brand-new, high-mileage Subaru for about the same price as a used Pontiac with 40,000 miles on the mileage clock.

''Of course, before I was through,'' he admits, ''I added a couple thousand dollars to the base price of the car.''

The point is, he's content with the car so far even though, he concedes, ''it doesn't give the ride of my old Pontiac.'' The ride, he adds, isn't bad, however. Also, he likes the back lumbar support on the driver's seat as well as the hill-holder feature on the car.

Unlike McGrail, Sam Blake has been ''itching for more than a year,'' as he explains it, to get ''my hands on a Subaru.'' He's even eager to find out a lot more about the company - where it's been and where it's going down the road. ''I'll probably buy one in about a year,'' he reports.

McGrail and Blake aren't alone. In fact, it's easy to see why the Subaru is such a big seller in New England. Indeed, the on-demand 4-wheel-drive Subaru wagon and hatchback fight through the deep snows of winter and springtime mud with a shrug. Heavy rain doesn't bother them, nor steep hills, rutty roads, and cold starts.

It's no wonder the Fuji-built vehicles became the best-selling import in Maine and Vermont. And in Alaska and Idaho as well.

A publicly owned US company, not a subsidiary of the Japanese carmaker, Subaru of America is headed up by a young group of dynamic, highly motivated people who are aiming to set the company apart. Helping it along, of course, is the improved design over the last few years.

The cars are built by Fuji Heavy Industries, Japan's largest manufacturer of machinery - trains, buses, aircraft, lawn mowers, and industrial equipment. The first Subarus came to the US in the late 1960s.

To get more visibility, both urban and rural, the company has done what Sweden's Volvo did some time ago.

While Volvo backs tennis in order to get visibility, Subaru backs skiing and promotes itself as the official car of the US Ski Team. All of this is intended to sell cars - and not surprisingly, it does.

Looking ahead, Subaru sees a market for two-seater minicars, under 1,400 pounds, and expects to be on the US road with one by the 1985-model year.

''You can get the same kind of fuel economy as you can in a diesel at half the cost,'' according to Harvey Lamm, president of Subaru of America Inc.

A minicar to Mr. Lamm means just that - not a 1-liter engine but one that is about half that size. The car would seat two, plus luggage - and that's all.

The company's long-range US sales goal is 300,000 cars a year. Helping it reach its goal is the coming minicar.

Meanwhile, Subaru aims to hold on to its own particular spot in the marketplace. Like all automakers, Subaru has had its problems over the years, including a distressing backfiring problem on earlier-era cars corrected in 1981 when Subaru went to electronically controlled carburetion. It also had a heater-control problem in which the car was either hot or cold, but nothing between.

The company's ''big difference,'' of course, is front-drive power, plus the 4 -wheel-drive feature when you want it. In addition, the 4-wheel-drives have the highest Environmental Protection Agency mileage ratings of any 4-wheel-drive vehicle sold in the US.

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