UK: MOTOR MOUTH - The sensible eccentric.

UK: MOTOR MOUTH - The sensible eccentric. - While it didn't have the erotic resonance of a first date, my first sighting of a Subaru was just as memorable. Euston Road, 1977 - the year this strangest of Japanese cars was introduced to Britain. Challengin

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

While it didn't have the erotic resonance of a first date, my first sighting of a Subaru was just as memorable. Euston Road, 1977 - the year this strangest of Japanese cars was introduced to Britain. Challengingly inelegant and on the distant banks of the mainstream, it was not a car you could ignore. It was perverse and hard-to-look-at - strengths Subaru has played to since its first microcar appeared in 1958.

Although one of the youngest international brands, Subaru has achieved disproportionate levels of awareness by being different - as acknowledged in Blondie's brilliant proto rap hit Rapture in 1980, in which Deborah Harry wrote and sang: 'You go out at night/eating cars, you eat Cadillacs, Lincolns too, Mercurys and Subaru.'

Subarus appeal to people secure in their self-esteem, people who know what they want. Among the very first customers were damp, woolly Welsh hill farmers, a notably unfrivolous segment of the market, not usually susceptible to the siren call of fashion or the fugitive chimera of taste.

Although you can buy some very fast Subarus, their appeal tends to be directed towards customers swimming in the deeper end of the gene pool than Jeremy Clarkson. There are web sites for Subaru cultists, who swap information about carbon-fibre driveshafts. Subaru has a portfolio of quirky visual idioms. The large Legacy has a magnificently strange pavilion roof, although no one knows why (unless research showed a significant number of hat wearers in Powys). Another arcane detail is frameless windows.

They do and prove nothing, other than an unfaltering commitment to weirdness.

These are an externalisation of a unique technical philosophy: Subaru insists on using horizontally opposed ('Boxer') engines. These not only feel and sound unique, but their low centre of gravity is also a perfect complement to the four-wheel-drive power trains, so that Subaru can sell you a comfy estate car whose dynamics challenge the assumptions of the laws of motion.

From the Welsh, Subaru extended its appeal to more refined sectors, slotting neatly just beneath Mercedes-Benz wagons but with a hint of Range-Rover breeding and farmyard smells. You will see Subarus comfortably installed in places where to arrive in a Nissan or Toyota would say 'fish knives' (or possibly worse) to the hosts. As a sign of confidence, Subaru, already defiant of convention, is morphing itself still further into extreme perversions of market expectations. First, the design team had the whacko idea of jacking up the suspension on the Legacy wagon, adding expressive lights with wire guards and calling it an Outback. No one took this terribly seriously. Then the design team took stronger drugs and developed the Forester. For this, you have to queue.

The Forester is a concept of genius, which reveals genuine, if possibly accidental, insight into consumer psychology. Again, rare among the Japanese, Subaru is not afraid to lead - although we cannot be sure where. With the Forester, it has done what no one ever thought about - it is not an estate, not a sports car, not a ute (utility estate car). The Forester is a unique hybrid. It's all of those things: more ground clearance than a Lamborghini, lower roof line than a Transit.

True, the interior is awful and external appearance plug ugly, but fastidious aesthetes need not apply. Instead, here's a car that offers a seriously strange combination of athletic driving dynamics (responsive engine, flat cornering and very high grip) with the carrying capacity of a container truck and mud-wrestling competence. The other-worldly quality of the interior plastic is a reminder that this car is a product of the awesome Fuji Heavy Industries, which could, if one wanted, sell you a power station. While the upholstery is hideous, the seats offer huge support both to the gluteus maximus and to the psyche: it's a car you sit in. And while sitting in it, you can have extraordinary fun with its many storage boxes and cubby-holes.

If you want a car that makes people think you're rich, I'd look elsewhere.

If you'd like a car that advertises your sensibility, you could start here. I can't think of any praise higher for Subaru, or better evidence of the integrity of the product, than to say they are the only cars to have been acceptable with plastic hubcaps.

But Welsh hill farmers take them off.

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