A different kind of sports car

“The Subaru SVX is a different kind of sports car,” read Subaru’s two-page ad that ran in every major car magazine in the country circa 1990. It sure was. It had four seats, for starters, and all-wheel drive, and a standard sunroof and leather appointments everywhere, plus 230 horsepower from a horizontally-opposed, six-cylinder, and a price tag under $30,000. It should’ve been a revolution. Unfortunately, that revolution never arrived.

“Subaru Vehicle X” is the formal title from whence the SVX gets its acronym. In the Japanese home market, the SVX was known as the Alcyone SVX, in reference to the brightest star in the constellation Pleiades, which is represented in Subaru’s logo.

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Subaru wasn’t new to coupes in the early 1990s. It had produced the relatively successful Subaru XT and XT6. The XT was right for 1985 when it debuted, but by 1991, it had all the styling excitement of a Texas Instruments calculator. The XT6 also never lived up to its promise, with just 145 hp from the flat six. The SVX was an opportunity to deliver serious performance while simultaneously gently pushing Subaru up-market without having to launch a whole new brand like Nissan and Toyota did, and Mazda had been considering. The SVX’s drivetrain really set the stage for a lot of Subaru products that followed. Remember that it wasn’t until 1996 that Subaru made all-wheel drive standard on all Legacy models. The bulk of Subarus sold here were still front-wheel drive. The SVX would dispense with that by offering all-wheel drive as standard equipment from the get-go, competing against grand touring cars like the Porsche 911 Carrera 4 and the Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4.

Sports Car Face Plant: Subaru SVX (1991 – 1997)

The SVX featured Subaru’s EG33 3.3-liter normally aspirated Boxer six, the largest engine Subaru would ever produce for a passenger vehicle until the introduction of the Tribeca. This dual-overhead cam beast featured a lofty 10.1:1 compression ratio, allowing the engine to churn out 231hp without the need for a turbocharger. About the only thing you could complain about in this “sports car” was the transmission. Subaru didn’t produce a manual transmission up to the task of handling the power produced by the engine, and shipping it all to the four wheels, so the only transmission available was a four-speed automatic.

Early press was encouraging, with major magazines comparing the SVX to cars like the Corvette and the Acura NSX. Autoweek liked its “usable pull; where you need it, when you need it,” and in 1992, Motor Trend found it couldn’t “find enough superlatives to describe this car on a curvy back road.” Similarly, it proved itself in competition. It won the 1991 Alcan Winter Rally from Seattle to the Arctic Circle and back, and it served as an Indy PPG Pace Car for several years, an anomaly amongst pace cars, which are usually retired after a year.

Sports Car Face Plant: Subaru SVX (1991 – 1997)

Sounds relatively good up to this point, right? So what happened? First, Subaru offered two all-wheel drive systems for the SVX. The first was a relatively conventional system called ACT-4, which featured a less-than-optimal 90/10 torque split for a performance car. When the front wheels slipped, the clutch packs could channel 50 percent of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels. ACT-4 was essentially the same all-wheel drive system as was featured in cars like the Legacy at the time. Unfortunately, ACT-4 was the only all-wheel drive system you had access to in the United States. Many other countries in the world got the more intriguing system: VCT all-wheel drive is a permanent all-wheel drive system with a much more sport-oriented 36/64 front-to-rear torque split. It made for a much more engaging, sporty feel under most driving conditions. It wasn’t the kind of “get you out of trouble” all-wheel drive system that the Legacy featured. It was a “get you into trouble” all-wheel drive system you’d find on the likes of the 911 Carrera 4.

The other big stumbling block for Subaru was the design. Let’s get this out of the way: Giorgetto Giugiaro of ItalDesign was capable of producing some of the world’s most stunning automobiles (BMW M1, Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint, Maserati Bora), but he was also responsible for some of the most abysmal automotive designs of the 1980s (Lancia Megagamma, Italdesign Aztec, Lotus Etna). In his best season, Ted Williams struck out 59.4 percent of the time, too.

Sports Car Face Plant: Subaru SVX (1991 – 1997)

The SVX’s styling was certainly functional. It featured a drag coefficient of Cd = 0.29, putting it in the same league as the original Toyota Prius and the current Chevrolet Volt. But the slippery styling was never fully embraced. It made the boxy edges of the XT more swoopy and organic, and it just wasn’t an attention grabber. What was an attention grabber was the window design. It was supposedly an aircraft inspired canopy, and you did see similar designs on cars that featured gullwing doors (like the Giugiaro-designed DeLorean, for example), but the window-in-a-window design of the SVX’s conventional door glass was just plain weird. There’s little reason for it, since there’s plenty of door for the glass to slide into, and you’re not attempting to bench-press the weight of a window regulator, like you would in a gullwing door. It just felt silly and unnecessary to most.

Then there was the price. Base price for an SVX-L (the entry level trim when the SVX arrived Stateside in 1992) was $24,445. The full-zoot LS-L pushed the price tag to $28,000. Compared to a Porsche or a Mitsubishi 3000GT, that’s kind of a bargain, but compared to any other Subaru previously sold, it was a breathtaking $10,000 increase. And it only got worse from there. By 1996 (the final year of production), the price had risen to a nosebleed-inducing $36,740. Customers stayed away in droves, to the point that Subaru introduced a front-wheel drive version in 1994, effectively negating the SVX’s entire mission, before quickly abandoning that idea. The SVX’s best year was its first, when it sold 5,280 cars. Subaru had intended to sell 10,000 per year. The final model year – 1997 – accounted for just 640 cars sold.

Interestingly, there was a potential future redesign of the SVX, which included a three-door shooting brake concept called Amadeus. All of this was bad news for Subaru in the 1990s, but it’s relatively good news now. The Subaru SVX is a weird slice of the 1990s. It’s the rare usable collectible, allowing you to drive something modern, safe and quick without breaking the bank or feeling too bad if you do decide to drive it in the snow. Examples turn up on ebay with fewer than 100,000 miles in the $3,750 to $5,000 range.

Sports Car Face Plant: Subaru SVX (1991 – 1997)