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Subaru Going Back To The Couch For Brand Analysis

Posted by: David Kiley on February 27, 2007


Good piece in this week’s Automotive News by Jim Treece about Subaru and its CEO Ikuo Mori. Mori says he is revamping the company’s product and brand straegy, and admits the migration up market with the B9 Tribeca hasn’t worked.

I feel I am in a unique position to comment here. I’m a two-time Subaru owner. And I am currently dithering over what car to buy next given the fact that my 1998 Outback has 140,000 miles on it and leaks oil from the seals thanks to a bad radiator flush by an oil shop chain that ruined the engine. They replaced the engine with a junkyard engine, but it’s not the same.

Mori, says the Treece article, isn’t ready to divulge specifics about the big plan. But he says that Subaru’s “engineering first” mentality must change.

Let me offer Mr. Mori a few notes on his current product lineup that may or may not help him.

The Legacy/Outback: It’s a station-wagon. You like to call it a crossover, and boast it was the first of the crossovers. It’s not. The wagon version is just that—a station-wagon. Stop thinking and saying that it’s a crossover. You sound foolish when you do that. Station-wagons are not cool. And you’ll never get big volume out of them. The Outback is a fabulously practical vehicle, and there’s nothing…NOTHING…I’d rather be driving on I-90 in a snowstorm. But it has a limited audience, given its “styling”, even in an era when crossovers are the fastest growing segment. Remember, this is not a crossver.

The Forester: This is another station wagon. You call it a crossover. It’s not. It’s a station-wagon. It looks just like one. That’s how I can tell. It also gets above $25,000 waaaaaaaay too fast when you start optioning it the way one wants. The turbo-charged version is great. But the market for turbo-charged station-wagons…not so big.

The Impreza: Save the WRX version, whose engine performance redeems the retired-Kindergarten-teacher styling, this may be the most boring styling exercise on the planet inside and out. I have encountered shoe boxes with more interesting styling lines.

The B9 Tribeca: There is nothing especially wrong with this vehicle except that it has utterly nothing to do with Subaru’s brand. Do you even have a design language at Subaru? If so, it’s never been articulated particularly well. And pricing it at $35K when properly optioned disappointed a lot of loyal Subaru buyers who waited a long tome for a vehicle that seated more than five. Tribeca? Named for a trendy neighborhood in Manhattan. Subaru? That was marketing genius.

I happen to believe that Subaru’s Boxer engine and all-wheel-drive technology is the best in the business. Take that Audi! And now that my ‘98 Outback is on its last legs, there is a part of me that wants to to re-up with Subaru. But styling is too dull and prices are to high. That’s a bad combo. I may still buy a new Suubie. But it’s getting real tough to pull the trigger with so many choices.

A few points of advice:

Straigten out your styling, and make the models you bring out a bit more compellng without going the Nissan route. Make them look of a brand piece, too.

Bring out a legitimate crossover priced between $20k and 28K. Not a wagon. A crossover.

The next people-mover should be something closer in packaging to the GMC Acadia, not the Tribeca.

Get a hybrid from your Toyota corporate partner and put it in a car priced no more than 25K.

Get a clean diesel from Toyota.

Next WRX…don’t forget to style it!

Tell me brand story in your ads. Subaru is what I call a backyard bbq brand. People in my world will try and sell their neighbors on Subaru based on their own brand stories. I have told people about how I’d see SUVs—Explorers, Tahoes, etc—rolled over in a ditch on I-90 while the Subarus, my own included, stayed glued to the road in lake effect snow driving around Cleveland on the way to Western Pa. There is community in Subaru ownership.

Subaru, it seems to me, has long had a love-hate relationship with the people who were closest to its brand. In Japan, Subaru is viewed a kind of Junior BMW. Seriously. In the U.S., on a brand map, it exists closer to brands like Birkenstock and L.L. Beane. Relentlessly practical. It’s Japanese management has also never been quite at home with the affinity gay women have had with Subaru, though it’s American managers have employed Martina Navratilova as a pitch-model. Get over it.

The Junior BMW thing is not going to work in the U.S. A product line that is styled, packaged and marketed for value, environmentalism, capability and fun, though, will probably work. Make it happen. And be proud of it.

By the way…don’t forget to emphasize technology and engineering when you come out with the vehicle I want—-a cool looking (but not too cool) all-wheel-drive crossover vehicle with a Boxer engine that gets around 35 mpg. That would be true to Subaru’s brand values.

Reader Comments

Jaime Medina

February 27, 2007 7:31 PM

Actually, I wanted to comment that Subaru is about to (according to rumors)debut a boxer diesel engine in Geneva (So obviously, it won´t need toyota's help or technology):


February 27, 2007 8:53 PM

Kiley, fyi Subaru has developed a boxer diesel enginge which should get average mpg figures of 50mpg and should see production in its cars by 2009. I like you will laud subaru ont is engineering prowess and that a lot of focus is placed on the cars internals and chassis but where Subaru is short is on styling with its boy racer looking Imprezza with the overexaggrated spoilers ( excellent car though). Its station wagons including Forrester appeal to a largely female audience. I agree Subaru needs to do something really exciting like a convertible and yes plans for a hatch to counter the Mazda3.

From Kiley: Thanks for the info.....but i doubt we will see this car in the U.S. If we do, I'm all over it.


March 25, 2007 8:23 PM

What a stupid, uninformed commentary.

Buy a diesel engine from Toyota? Did you do ANY homework for this article? If you had, you'd know that Subaru is about to debut a groundbreaking turbodiesel engine of their own based on their boxer engine design.

Additionally--while the Tribeca has not been a success, the current Legacy is a great car and sells very well in its niche market. Subaru is more like VW or Volvo than Toyota--and is successful in its market. There is a significant crossover of potential buyers between the three--especially for those that want the practicality of a wagon/small SUV (the Forester is not a 'crossover', Kiley--it's a small SUV; the EPA thinks so, major car magazines think so, why do you have a problem thinking so?), they want best-in-class safety, reliability, and performance--but don't want to pay $35-40k to get it (typical price for a comparable Volvo or VW wagon w/AWD). Given that, the Legacy is extremely well-priced.

As to the next-gen Impreza, there is plenty of evidence that it will be a significant change from the current car.

Perhaps you are the one that requires the rethink, Kiley--not Subaru.


April 7, 2007 6:10 PM

The Outback IS a station wagon...that's why I LIKE it...I have a Murano...not a bad "crossover" but its really an elevated, inefficient station wagon that I doubt could handle half the dirt roads that an Outback could, slops around corners, floats on the highway, has higher chance of rollover, gets so so mpg, etc...and I consider it without peer in interior room, handling and mpg in its class. Crossovers are hot hot hot right now, just as SUV's were before them. Anyone besides me see the trend toward...gasp...the STATION WAGON? Not in name, mind you, but in design...lower roof line, rounded corners, unibody, etc. Yep, with rising gas prices, the wagon will come back...I'll bet my rump on it. What Subie needs to do is find a cute, clever, catchy name to replace Station Wagon (since that term instanly makes "cool" people gag), and hopefully, they will hang onto the Outback so that they will be uniquely poised for the return of the "Crossover Wagon" or "Car Utility Vehicle" or whatever slick term the industry uses to enslave the public that "we must have one." Wagons are cool because they have the comfort and handling of a car, yet have the cargo versitility of an SUV. I personally was proud of our Impala Wagon's ability to haul scouts and their gear down dirt roads, family boat and gear, lawnmower, home improvement supplies, sofa...what couldn't it haul. Even had an encouter with Loretta in the back when I was in high school...but we won't tell my parents about that about cool!

BTW, it would be nice if the Bean version came with a black or dark brown interior. Nothing like a weekend of camping, canoeing, mt biking to soil the nearly white Bean interior...get practical if you tout practicality. And the two tone dash and 80's.


October 9, 2007 10:38 PM

The Tribeca shared a 6 cyl. 3.0 litre boxer with the Outback for several years. Now the Tribeca gets a 3.6 litre boxer with better HP, torque and mileage. All on regular gasoline. So -- why not put the 3.6 ltr 6 into the Outback? Isn't that a no brainer??


December 5, 2007 2:38 PM

I bought a 2000 Outback Limited after my '98 was rear-ended. Recently, because my current car is aging, I've been toying with the idea of a new car, like a Lexus IS250. But, I just like the Outback too much to buy a new car yet. I've seen some photos of the 2010 Legacy (from a Japanese magazine) and it is an extremely well thought out design. With a diesel boxer engine, it would sell outrageously well here in the Portland, OR area. I hope it happens and I can buy one!

Joe K

January 8, 2008 12:40 PM

And this is why business week people should not write pieces on cars. Just because they have a car key they think they are qualified. The writer doesn't have a clue, showing that by blaming an radiator flush for (what are typical) subaru oil leakes. I have owned 5 subarus and actually am an autmotoive engineer.

Subaru is building its own diesel engine. This is not the worlds best kept secret. They are using thier "partner" toyota to help design it.

Subarus are stationwagons, we all know this, no matter what the badge. Its a beutiful wagon, and i wouldnt own any other. They do need to get better colors, which is a complaint on the boards.

As far as prices, for a fully eqiped AWD station wagon that gets good mpg at 24,000 out the door, thats a great deal.

SUbaru always takes a chance on new cars, it keeps subaru interesting. The Tribeca was a great idea, now they need a a small base car like another Justy.

There are too many people that are unqaulifed to write pieces like this, and they just come off sounding stupid in the process, or maybe that is the point.

Note From Kiley: The engine siezed because there was no coolant in the radiator, not because of an oil leak. The lube shop screwed up the radiator flush.

Did I suggest Subaru was developing a diesel in secret> I dont think so. I wrote the post you are responding to many months ago, though, before Subaru started trumpeting a turbo diesel it plans to bring to the states. However, with sales growth stagnant at Subaru, I believe they would have done thmselves a lot of good by developing a turbo diesel for the U.S. long before now. It's not like the technology is new.

Good luck with your "automotive engineering."

joe Tria

June 3, 2010 7:47 AM

I just purchased a 2010 outback. Frankly, i don't care what it is called, an SUV or a Wagon. But, if you check out the stats, it is within one inch in length, height and width of the Chevy Equinox. I drove both and decided on the Outback, probably because it is made in the USA and the Chevy is not. But, I really like the car a lot. The important thing about a car is how you feel in in. and this car feels good. I have the CVT transmission and it is great. 30.5 mpg on my first tank, 29.9 on my second (lots of town driving). It has ample power and suits my needs fine. Call it a crossover or a wagon if you want but you will agree it is a well made well mannered vehicle, but, so was the Chevy. I do agree that they are missing the boat by not bringing the diesel over. someone else will, but for sure it won't be GM.

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