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Future Collectibles

1992-97 Subaru SVX:
Great Car, Lousy Timing

Collectible Automobile * April 1997 * Pages 80-82

With a flat-six engine and reputed Giugiaro styling, the SVX bowed in 1992 amid high hopes-and, for Subaru, high prices.


Here we go again: another Japanese sporty car that might be coveted some distant day as an interesting, short-lived rarity. Oh, you can still buy a new Subaru SVX in 1997, but probably not in '98. With sales always far below expectations--and with Outback wagons now beating Subaru's path back to profits--the SVX is looking seriously terminal.

We call it "sporty," not a sports car, which has ever been the consensus. The SVX is a grand tourer, and quite a good one. Road & Track even termed it a "poor man's Carrera 4." While comparisons with a Porsche might be stretching things, the SVX was unquestionably a big jump for Subaru, which had spent some 20 years in the U.S. pitching low-priced quirkiness to the Birkenstocks crowd. "Inexpensive, and built to stay that way," remember? Yet apart from Audi and some brief attempts elsewhere, only Subaru bothered to offer all-wheel drive, and at prices not far above those of its front-drive cars. No wonder that much of its U.S. business came from practical AWD wagons that earned a loyal following in foul-weather areas, where people really appreciate all-wheel traction.

But niche products never mean big money and Subaru--or rather its parent, Fuji Heavy Industries--envied the huge U.S. success of rival Japanese giants Toyota and Honda. Hence, the American-built Legacy of 1990, a new home for Subaru's AWD, but as mass-market bland as any Camry or Accord. By the time the SVX arrived, Subaru was touting itself as "What to Drive," and fast abandoning its truly weird XT coupes and three-cylinder Justy.

Why, then, the SVX--by far the costliest Subaru ever? One suspects corporate ego, or maybe the heavy hand of marketing. After all, what better than a swank, high-tech GT to eradicate a "cheap car" image?

In one sense, this strategy succeeded. Car and Driver, for one, welcomed the SVX as "a repli-jet [that] strafes the luxocoupe market and changes forever our understanding of the word 'Subaru.'" Then again, AutoWeek felt a $25,000 Subie to be "a leap of faith" in the sagging auto market of 1992.

However improbable for a Subaru, the SVX worked very well despite being almost totally new. Its only link to the past was a water-cooled flat-six engine, and even that was greatly modified from its first XT6 incarnation. Displacement went from 2.7 to 3.3 liters, overhead cams from single to dual, and valves per cylinder from two to four. Other changes included a new resonance induction system, lofty 10:1 compression, and more intelligent electronics. The result: a stout 230 horses, 224 pound-feet of torque, and smooth, eager revving to a 6500-rpm redline.

But that was too much muscle for any manual gearbox on Subaru's shelf, so the SVX came only with a four-speed automatic, whose own computer was tied to the engine's. This was smart enough to chose normal or "Power" shift schedules depending on your right-foot aggression. It could also start you off in second gear (by pushing a button) to minimize wheelspin on slippery stuff. Incidentally the engine brain controlled each cylinder bank independently and could momentarily shut one side down to lessen "shift shock" in hard acceleration.

Hardly a thing was changed for the '93 SVX (above), especially the quirky side-window design.


The drive system was equally wizard, comprising a front differential, viscous limited-slip rear differential, and a central multiplate clutch. More chipsets linked with a standard antilock braking system to monitor wheel speed, throttle angle, engine data, and other inputs; when needed, the clutch pack would send power from the wheels that slipped to the wheels that gripped. The typical split was 60/40 front /rear, but could vary between 95/5 and 50/50.

Suspension broke no new ground, but was well considered, being all-independent with struts, coil springs, lower front A-arms, three-link rear geometry and an anti-roll bar at each end. All-disc brakes were BMW-sized, with diameters of 11.9 inches fore and 11.4 aft. Tires were meaty V-rated P225/50 Bridgestone Potenzas wrapped around alloy wheels. Steering was power rack-and-pinion, with vehicle-speed sensitive assist if you ordered a $2000 Touring Package.

That option also delivered power driver's seat, premium stereo with CD player, power moonroof, heated door mirrors, and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift handle. The only other factory extra was a rear deck spoiler. Everything else was standard, which contributed to a pudgy curb weight of just over 3500 pounds.

Another factor was the expansive "glass-to-glass canopy" roof. To achieve its fairly radical curves, Subaru patented a new "suction" process of hot-forming glass in the mold. It also patented a method of bonding glass to the outside of the SVXs steel superstructure. This produced a smooth, futuristic

look that was further enhanced by flush "window-in-a-window" side glass: sub-panes in the doors and just behind, separated by slim bars. Only the front panes lowered, but they suffered less buffeting than full windows. Unfortunately, the dividers could get in the line of vision, though Subaru said they were placed "above the sight line of 99 percent of the population."

SVX styling was allegedly handled by Giorgetto Giugiaro, who was commissioned for it in 1985. Oddly though, Subaru made no mention of his role in either the production SVX or its thinly disguised 1990 show-car predecessor. Likely, Subaru's own designers just couldn't resist making changes, suggested by the fussy detailing around the rear flanks-and the more coherent lines of sketches published in one Subaru booklet devoted to the car. Still, the SVX was a definite head-turner, even if some turned more out of curiosity than admiration.

Performance was anything but curious. Car and Driver clocked 0-60 mph in 7.6 seconds and a standing quarter-mile of 15.7 at 91 mph-good going for a hefty mid-size coupe on a 102.8-inch wheelbase. Road & Track's example did even better: 7.3 and 15.4 at 92.5 mph. Even more impressive was how easy the SVX was--er, is--to drive. As AutoWeek reported, "It will do just about anything a driver asks, and it doesn't anger easily...There's a hint of lean in turns, but never any wallow and always steady, reliable grip.... And if [you get] carried away going in or coming out...just lift a little and correct the steering. No wide eyes, no heart murmurs-the car is back in line, pressing on.... The engine is smooth and torquey. Even the automatic works well enough that few people will pine for a stick shift."

The SVX split into three varieties for '94: AWD LSi, and front-drive LS (above) and L. The interior design blended the console into the instrument panel.


Unfortunately for Subaru, not all that many people pined for an SVX. After an inaugural 1513 sales in late 1991, U.S. deliveries in calendar '92 were just 3667, a long way from the 10,000 per annum forecast. The '93 figure was scarcely better at 3859. An unchanged car didn't help, nor did a super-strong yen that lofted the base price to 34 grand.

Subaru responded with three SVXs for 1994: AWD LSi, and new L and LS versions with front drive, fewer frills, and friendlier $24,000-$29,000 base prices. Being 249 pounds lighter than the LSi, the LS proved a pleasant surprise for Car and Driver: "[It] has to put all its power through two tires ... but its handling and power characteristics are so finely coordinated with its lesser weight that it feels more agile.... No matter how riotous the road, the LSs handling is well balanced, easily felt, and a delight to use…." C/D also applauded dual air bags and threepoint seatbelts on the LS and LSi, though the L was still saddled with a driver's bag and motorized "mousebelts." Otherwise, changes were nil.

Sales did change--for the worse: a mere 1609 in calendar '94. The '95 story was dishearteningly similar. The L got dual air bags, but deliveries were just 1801. For 1996, Subaru banished the LS, and

upgraded the L to all-wheel drive and most LS standard features. But that only brought base price to near $30,000, and the LSi was pushing $36,000. For all its goodness--and rising prices on rival upmarket coupes--the SVX couldn't shake its "costly for a Subaru" curse, so sales remained sluggish, at last count a piddling 1432 through last September. For 1997, the SVX is back to one AWD model, with a body-color grille and 17 inch rolling stock the only differences.

In retrospect, the SVX is a classic case of great car, lousy timing. But now that its time is running out, should you buy one for tomorrow? We'd be tempted, but not for investment purposes. Like most Japanese cars, this one isn't likely to become a high-dollar keepsake anytime soon. But second-hand values have been relatively strong, so your best SVX buy will be an earlier model, all but identical to the '97s but far more affordable. An A-1 '92, for instance, now goes for $17,000 or less.

Regardless of year, we'd drive our SVX with no thought of some future concours. It may not be inexpensive, but the SVX is built to last and a fine ride. A pity it hasn't lasted longer on the market.

From the Back Seat

In its favor, low sales numbers and distinctive features--including the weird "window-within-a-window"--certainly separate the SVX from the herd. However, is any Subaru really "collectible"? After all, this is the same company that built its reputation in the U.S. with four-wheel-drive econoboxes sold as "Inexpensive, and built to stay that way." Other than this ill-fated moon shot, Subaru lacks a sports car history which is bound to haunt the SVX forever and mark it as merely another automotive oddball. By comparison, other contemporary Japanese sports cars like the Mazda RX-7, Nissan 300ZX, and Toyota MR2 have better breeding and show much greater potential for return on investment. The SVX was just the wrong car for Subaru.

Rick Popely

What Honda, Nissan, and Toyota figured out some time ago seems to have escaped the souls at Subaru: You can't sell a $30,000 car under a $15,000 nameplate, no matter how good the car is. That's why we have Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus today. While the Subaru name is certainly well respected, it just doesn't pop to mind when the expenditure of such lofty sums is being considered, and it doesn't bring instant recognition at the country club. That stigma, more than anything else, has caused the SVXs downfall

in the marketplace-and is something that will continue to beleaguer it in the collector arena. With resale values so low and the car itself little changed, it's hard to justify buying a new one, but make no mistake that an SVX of any vintage is indeed a capable and endearing machine--even if few others are impressed with your choice.

Rick Cotta

Some components of this car had real appeal, but Subaru seemed to find a way to devalue most of them. The concept of all-wheel drive is worthy, though the unexceptional traction I experienced with one in snow made me question the wisdom of fitting this one with wide summer tires. The flat six was smooth and strong, but was saddled with a nonsporting automatic transmission. The cabin layout was good, and its use of suede and leather upholstery was quite sophisticated, but those silly half-windows.... And despite styling by maestro Giorgetto Giugiaro, the SVX still managed to convey that nerdy Subaru look. It's an interesting car and a worthwhile buy at a bargain price. Just don't expect its circle of admirers to be large.

Chuck Giametta

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