Direction of next rally-bred Subaru to be decided in Japan as Senior heads to talks
27 February 2012
By HAITHAM RAZAGUI
SUBARU Australia managing director Nick Senior will travel to Japan this week to take part in talks over what the next incarnation of the brand’s rally-bred, high-performance WRX and STI products will be like when they arrive in around 18 months’ time.
Mr Senior will join delegates from some of Subaru’s international markets to discuss whether the next-generation WRX and STI will continue with the formula of “a quite hard edge in terms of style, design and performance” or become a more “European sports sedan in the mould of M series or AMG”.
The next WRX and STI will be distanced from the standard Impreza sedan and hatch that were launched in Australia last week, as was initiated when Impreza branding was dropped from the updated wide-body WRX in September 2010 and with the new separately-branded XV crossover that arrived here in January.
Although Subaru has considered further distancing the WRX and STI from the Impreza sedan and hatch by developing a variant that would have a similar relationship with the Impreza as the Volkswagen Scirocco does with the Golf, Mr Senior said he and the factory were not keen on losing the versatility of the sedan and hatch body styles.
“The factory has given the indication that they do not want to lose the edge that the WRX and STI have been associated with and established over the last 18 years,” he said.
“That (two-door scenario) may well be possible, although you do lose potential volume … competitors like the Nissan 200SX come and go because they don’t have that versatility in terms of the four and five-door layout.”
On the subject of Australia’s influence in Subaru product planning meetings, Mr Senior said: “We can put in our 10 cents’ worth … but we have got to recognise our station in life and we are the fourth-biggest market behind the US, Japan and China.”
Asked of his preferred outcome, Mr Senior said he would like Subaru to continue with the WRX/STI formula it has had so much success with over the years and said a final decision would be made “in the very near future”.
“I do love that we do have the four and five-door variants and I would like that to continue.
“I think the other thing is they are iconic names and have established a reputation, and to keep that edge is very important, to have that edginess about them.
“We have sold more than 25,000 WRX (in Australia) since 1994 so it is an extremely popular and much-loved vehicle.”
In contradiction to previous reports, Mr Senior said the FB-series ‘boxer’ engine, which debuted in last year’s updated Forester SUV and now exclusively powers the new Impreza line-up in 2.0-litre form, is suitable for turbocharging, meaning its efficiency gains will not be lost if applied to a high-performance vehicle.
He also said that, because the company has developed a version of its Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) to cope with the torque of diesel engines – meaning automatic diesel Subarus are on the horizon – the next step is to apply the transmission to high-performance vehicles.
The current WRX and STI, which will continue to be sold alongside the new fourth-generation Impreza until their replacements arrive, continue to be counted among the Impreza’s sales by VFACTS.
Mr Senior said combining WRX and STI sales figures with those of the new Impreza in VFACTS will slightly muddy the waters as a large proportion (roughly 170 units of the Impreza’s average 966 monthly sales) will be attributed to an older model.
He said once the new WRX and STI hit the market they are likely to join the rear-drive BRZ coupe in the sportscar VFACTS category and listed under a separate model name for the first time.
After GoAuto expressed disappointment to Mr Senior over the new Impreza’s slower than expected acceleration (10.5 seconds for the manual and 11.5 seconds for the CVT automatic) at the launch in South Australia last week, he said the 2.0-litre models were more about efficiency than performance.
However, Mr Senior said he hoped a higher-performance model would form a spiritual successor to the sporty Impreza RS that was sold in Australia between 2003 and 2005, to form a flagship variant that sits below the WRX.
Not to be confused with the RS variant that shared the same 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine as the rest of the Impreza line-up, Mr Senior suggested a reborn RS could use a derivative of the Forester’s 126kW/235Nm 2.5-litre petrol engine.
Asked whether Subaru’s diesel boxer engine is likely to make it under the bonnet of the Impreza, Mr Senior said it is not likely at this stage, especially given the fuel economy gains of up to 22 per cent made with the petrol version of the new model.
“Diesel is an SUV thing”, he said, citing the increased cost of diesel engines compared with petrol.
However, he did not completely rule it out, saying that if a suitable engine became available it would be considered for Australia.
It is a similar position to that taken by Honda in Australia, which recently announced it will be introducing a diesel variant of the British-built Civic hatch in 2013.
This is likely to be related to the existence of a powerful and highly efficient new 1.6-litre unit that will debut at Geneva next month and is set to replace the well-regarded 2.2-litre diesel used on several European-market Hondas.
Mr Senior said he expected Impreza volume to remain steady despite the arrival of the fourth-generation model.
This is largely due to pressure on the factory, which is operating at 100 per cent capacity and working hard to satisfy exceptionally high demand for the new XV, more than 650 of which were sold locally in the two weeks immediately following its launch last month.