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All-wheel drive is Subaru's forte today, but that wasn't always the rule. Subarus have been sold in the U.S. since the late Sixties, with rear-drive and front-drive as well as AWD. Still, Subaru was among the first automakers to adopt four-wheel (or all-wheel) drive, in the mid-Seventies.
Fuji Heavy Industries, the parent of Subaru, was founded in Japan in 1953 to build Rabbit motor scooters. The company evolved from the prewar Nakajima Aircraft Company. Subaru is the Japanese name for the six-star "Pleiades" constellation in the sky.
Subaru's first significant car, the rear-engined 360, debuted in 1958. Its air-cooled two-stroke, two-cylinder engine made a modest 16 horsepower. In 1964, a four-speed gearbox replaced the original three-speed.
Late in the 1960s, auto entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin began to import those little Subaru 360s to the U.S. Bricklin's efforts were stymied when Consumer Reports called the 360 "the most unsafe car on the market." Erasing that image took a long time.
Meanwhile, in 1968, Subaru launched a full-size FE model with a front-mounted, water-cooled, horizontally-opposed engine. Eventually, this "boxer" engine configuration became almost a Subaru trademark.
By 1971, Subaru began to export a bigger model to the U.S., called the FF-1 (or Star). Some American auto magazines praised this different breed of Subaru. Minicars were popular elsewhere in the world, but Subaru avoided the U.S. with its smallest model.
Subaru adopted four-wheel drive much earlier than most automakers. A 4WD wagon appeared in Japan in 1973, and began to reach U.S. dealerships two years later. Late in the 1970s, Subaru's American slogan was: "Inexpensive. And built to stay that way." As for fuel economy, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated Subarus could reach as much as 50 mpg in highway driving.
Yet another sort of Subaru arrived in 1987: the little Justy with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), under license from the Van Doorne firm in Holland. Years earlier, CVTs had been used in the Dutch DAF, but they were virtually unheard-of in the American market. Also launched at this time was a four-wheel-drive XT sport coupe with a squarish profile.
For 1992, Subaru released the dramatic SVX coupe with a unique window-within-window design for the front doors. Ads declared that "You can drive it so fast you'll get so many tickets you'll lose your license." Allegedly tongue in cheek, the ads drew considerable fire from safety advocates. Later advertisements toned down the fast-driving message.
Subaru offered a Loyale sedan and wagon, evolved from the prior DL/GL series and smaller than the Legacy, as late as 1994. Subaru's first subcompact Impreza appeared for 1993, edging aside the Loyale, adding a stronger-performing, turbocharged WRX edition along with the 2002 redesign. For enthusiasts, Subaru issued a hotter-yet WRX STI in 2004, unleashing a 300-horsepower turbo. Subaru redesigned its Impreza for the fourth time as a 2012 model.
First of the larger Legacy sedans and wagons appeared for 1990. Outbacks began as station-wagon offshoots of the Legacy, but adopted a more rugged, quasi-SUV demeanor. Forester was Subaru's first actual compact SUV, launched for 1998. A larger, crossover-type wagon called the B9 Tribeca emerged for 2006, soon losing the "B9" prefix. From 2003 to 2006, Subaru also exported a Baja compact four-door pickup, derived from the Outback wagon.
Ever since 1997, all Subarus have had all-wheel drive, giving Subaru a strong selling point. Another point is the company's continued use of horizontally-opposed (boxer) engines. Many modern-day Subarus are produced not in Japan, but in Indiana.