Road Impressions: Subaru XT 4WD Coupé

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Subaru, who were among the first to introduce four-wheel-drive on ordinary-type saloon cars, have come a very long way since I sampled their 1800 GL Estate, back in 1981. That car was impressive in the way its four-wheel-drive transmission, engaged with a separate lever, defeated the slipperiest of West Country trials hills, and to use that awful expression of some motor traders, “it drove well”.  But it had the air of a somewhat out-dated vehicle, which had, incidentally high and low ratios for its 4WD.

Very different was the very individual Subaru XT 4WD Coupé which I collected from International Motors’  West Bromwich premises in August where the Public Relations Department is very efficiently run by Keith Kent and Zoe Pickering. Here is a car which looks different and is refreshingly different, in an age when ordinary cars are becoming ever more stereotyped. It is described quite honestly as a 2+2, the room behind the front seats more suited to luggage oddments than humans, of whatever dimensions, although I subsequently carried a full-sized one in the back with no complaints. It is driven, normally through the front wheels, by Subaru’s flat-four (Alfasud mourners should note!), very over-square, light-alloy (heads as well as cylinder-block) 1781 cc four-cylinder turbocharged engine, but four-wheel-drive is immediately available by pressing an inset button on the end of the gear lever. Thus there is slippery road or gradient traction available by a system second only to Ford’s always-engaged 4WD

This Subaru XT 4WD Coupé is the flagship of Fuji Heavy Industries’ car range. It is distinguished not only by its styling but by its low-drag factor (0.29 Cd.) attained after work in Fuji’s Aircraft Division. The lightweight L-series power-unit develops 134 (DIN) bhp at a modest 5600 rpm and 144.6 lb-ft torque at 2800 rpm (aided by the turbo, fuel-injection and electronic ignition) on a c.r. of 7.7 to 1, the engine having a bore and stroke of 92 x 67 mm and an overhead-camshaft for each bank of cylinders, driven by toothed belt and prodding via zero-lash tappets. The drive goes through a five-speed gearbox (with automatic transmission an option) and there is all-round independent suspension with MacPherson struts at the front, trailing-arms at the back, using rolling-diaphragm air-springs pressurised from an electrically driven compressor, to provide automatic self-levelling.  Not only that, but height of ride is under the driver’s control, as befits a rough-roads vehicle.

All-disc brakes and rack-and-pinion power-steering may be taken for granted but another unique feature of the XT Subaru is an hydraulic “hill-holder” that holds the car on a gradient and makes restarting easy on the manual-gearbox model. Another specialist feature is steering-column height adjustment which raises, with the column and wheel, to a low or high setting, the whole instrument panel and the minor controls. The column is also telescopic, so the ideal driving position is obtainable…

The low-drag factor of this car is gained by such items as a single-blade screenwiper that parks automatically below the screen, aircraft-type faired external-door-handles, aerodynamic mirrors, and retractable headlamps, raised by the aforesaid switches. The wide doors of this two-door booted coupé carry the switches for the electric windows and mirror adjustments, again neatly done, with automatic raising and lowering of the driver’s window and the doors have central-locking. Although Subaru themselves refer to the XT as a 2 + 2, it possesses generous-sized bucket back seats with belts, and it is only a lack of leg room that makes these seem better for luggage stowage than human freight.

The boot-lid is opened from a lever on the floor to the driver’s right, the lid then springing up automatically; the same lever opens the fuel-filler flap. The stowage space is good, but height is somewhat restricted by the covered get-you-home, space-saver spare-wheel. Luggage space is increased by the unique Subaru “boot-through” arrangement, and there are narrow rigid side-pockets, a lockable drop-cubby, a console lidded bin, rear window shelf and a lipped screen sill well. Another good item is a cover over the vanity mirror in the n/s visor.

The Subaru XT’s fascia carries, on a recessed panel, an easily-read 150 mph speedometer and matching tachometer, the latter red-lined from 6500 rpm, with outboard of these, on the left, the oil-pressure gauge and the water-heat gauge, on the right, the voltmeter and the fuel-level gauge.

As for the styling, it follows the present Japanese coupé trend, with plenty of glass area and a big wrap-round back window. The front bumper incorporates an air dam. The sun-roof is of the detachable kind, but it can be lifted at the rear for ventilation without detaching the panel. The front seats have lever-adjustments for fore-and-aft, up-and-down, and squab-inclination movements and there is lumbar support adjustment. The head-restraints are removeable, the seats are upholstered in check-patterned cloth, there are well-fitting carpets and loose mats, the interior living up to the Subaru’s impression of being quality-built, and the test-car was in lightning silver and extra black finish. The test-car’s pressed-steel simulated-alloy wheels were shod with Uniroyal Rallye 340/60 190-60 R14 radial tyres.

On the road I used the 4WD only experimentally, having no snow-covered hills to climb; it makes no appreciable difference to the very light steering or the the understeering cornering of typical fwd characteristics. Torque-steer is virtually scarcely noticeable. This XT Subaru is not a tarmac-burning youth’s racer by any means but performance is more than adequate, with 0-to-60 mph coming up in 9.3 sec, and the top speed being 125 mph. The engine gets into its stride above about 2000 rpm and then delivers its turbine-like output of power to its peak without hesitation. The smooth cruising pace is one of the car’s good points, as is the comfortable ride. Incidentally, one clever aspect of the suspension is that if the high position has been selected, this reverts to the normal height automatically as speed exceeds  50 mph and this extra height (about 1.2 in front, 1.4 in rear) cannot be selected at over 80 mph.

The suspension does induce very slight lateral-sway at times and there is some rear-end kick, as if the front springing is better damped than that at the back. It is also somewhat soft suspension, which, with the lack of feel to the extremely light and smooth power-steering (3-1/2 turns, lock-to-lock) makes the precision of control more touring than sports-car. The clutch is light and engages smoothly, the gear change is precise rather than notchy. As for the Subaru’s brakes, returning to the Ford Sierra XR4x4 after driving a Fiat Croma Turbo I nearly went through the windscreen; the XT’s brakes come somewhere in between and except for initial over-servoed action are powerfully progressive and light.

Irritating wind noise is absent, the turning circle is commendably small (31.8 ft) but the “keeps” for the heavy doors could be more effective. The turn-indicators’ repeater lamps are rather ugly and vulnerable. There are twin roof-lamps and a grab-handle on the roof for the front-seat passenger. The fuel tank has a capacity of 13.2 gallons and the overall fuel thirst of four-star petrol was 28.4 mpg.  The wheelbase measures 8 ft 1 in and the kerb-weight is just under 23 cwt.

Those who are attracted to the Japanese coupés, with their efficient control arrangements and individuality, should find the Subaru XT Turbo an irresistible proposition with its additional benefit of instantly-engageable 4WD, and therefore competitively-priced at £12,500. It comes with an 18-month/18,000-mile warranty. — W.B.

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