The Subaru Outback: Substance Over Style?
The Subaru "success" story hit a bit of a pothole in June, as sales increased by 16 percent, a rate that just slightly topped the industry average. Nonetheless, last month was the automaker's best ever in terms of volume, while sales for the first half of the year were up by 35 percent. However, as I've pointed out a few times in the past, these numbers are hiding a serious weakness at Subaru. Well, it turns out that company has now realized the same thing. It just also turns out that there are (at least) two different ways of parsing the popularity of the Subaru Outback and its impact on the Subaru as a whole.
The Krome on Cars analysis here is simple: As goes the Outback, so goes the automaker. Now, that medium-sized crossover/SUV is about five inches shorter than a Ford Explorer, but while the former's station-wagonish body style makes it appear less big and truck-like than the Ford, it still offers Subaru's hallmark all-wheel-drive system for a healthy dose of ruggedness. It's a combination of attributes that certainly helps explain the Outback's popularity, something reflected in the fact that its sales were up 117 percent through the first half of 2010.
It also helps explain'”almost entirely'”the success of the automaker. Subaru sells only five vehicles in the U.S., remember, and the other four aren't exactly doing their share in recent months. Sales of the Subaru Legacy midsize sedan are up 50 percent on the year, but increased a bare 1 percent in June, the third straight month of falling Legacy sales rates.
The Subaru Forester, using the same general mix of SUV and crossover attributes as the Outback, also puts up the same general volume numbers. Subaru sold 41,147 Outbacks in the first half of the year and 42,935 Foresters. On the other hand, the latter seems to have plateaued, attaining sales improvements of between 24 and 29 percent each of the last four months. That's a solid performance, but not more than that.
As for the compact Subaru Impreza and the large Subaru Tribeca, the numbers tell an ugly story. Impreza sales are down 3 percent on the year; the Tribeca has essentially cratered, with first-half sales down 62 percent and the company selling just 175 units in June.
When I put these factoids together, I see the Outback and Forester as two very competitive entries in the marketplace. In terms of volume, for example, the Forester is performing at about the same volume level as the Hyundai Santa Fe, while the Outback is outselling the Hyundai Tucson by more than 2:1. Subaru SUV/crossovers? No problems. (Let's just ignore the Tribeca here; after all, that's what the customers are doing.)
The car side shows a different picture, and the reasons are pretty obvious. The Impreza and Legacy sell in two of the most hotly contested segments of the industry, the compact and midsize categories, respectively. Ye olde bar is set exceedingly high in these segments, where the Subarus have to go up against the likes of the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima and Hyundai Sonata.
Here, standard all-wheel-drive is no advantage at all, in fact, it's a distinct disadvantage because of its affect on fuel efficiency. For the 2010 model year, Subaru introduced a CVT on the Legacy, allowing it to achieve a competitive EPA line of 23 mpg city/31 highway/26 mpg combined. But most who have driven the CVT-equipped Legacy report a negative impact on the driving experience, and the Legacy with a manual transmission only goes 19/27/22 with the EPA. To put this in context, the Sonata is rated at 24/35/28.
Looking at compacts, the most efficient Impreza gets a downright disappointing EPA line of 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway/22 mpg combined. The Civic gets rated at 26/34/29 and even the Civic Si goes 21/29/24. It's also worth pointing out that the least expensive Impreza starts at $17,495, while you can get into a Civic for $15,655.
You can probably see where I'm going with this, but first let's find out where Subaru is coming from. In a recent story in Automotive News, the automaker's current sales success was noted, and then we get this: "But executives and dealers say sales could do better still with a more eye-catching lineup." Yep, Subaru believes what's actually holding the company back and preventing it from attracting a wider audience is its vehicles' design language.
Subaru certainly has seen some semi-recent design miscues, perhaps most notably the "aircraft-inspired" grilles from the mid-2000s, but I don't care what the next Impreza looks like, it's not going to start selling like a Civic until it starts using gasoline like a Civic.
If even Land Rover can change with the times by planning a front-wheel-drive product (the 2012 Evoque), surely Subaru can do the same'”and should.