Curbside Classic: Subaru Justy – Extra Justification

Subaru Justy

Traditionally, very small cars and four-wheel drive have rarely mixed. The extra mechanical drag inflicted by the four-wheel drive system tends to blunt the car’s fuel economy potential, and their small wheels limit ground clearance. The Subaru Justy is one of the few small cars of the 1980s and 1990s that combined 4WD with a small body, but oddly, that isn’t what it’s most remembered for today. In the United States, the Subaru Justy is mostly known for two things; as the last car in the U.S. market to be sold with a carburetor, and first one with a CVT gearbox. A justifiably odd mixture of old and new tech.

CC 66 038 800image: PN

Although the Justy’s story starts in 1984, in Japan, it didn’t arrive in North America (as well as the UK) until 1987. The early ones (above) are quite rare in my neck of the woods, and I don’t remember having seen one for at least a decade now. The styling was definitely 1980s-boxy, but mechanically the Justy was quite novel.


The engine was not the usual Subaru boxer four-cylinder, but a transverse-mounted inline three-cylinder with 1.0-liter or 1.2-liter displacement, depending on the market. A three-valve SOHC head with dished pistons allowed the 1.2-liter version to produce a respectable 67 hp @ 5,600 rpm. Although chain-driven balance shaft was utilized in an attempt to quell the inherent imbalance of the engine’s three-cylinder design, it still had a reputation for being a bit thrashy at higher revs.

fuel injection

Photo used under Create Commons license from

Initially, carburation was the sole induction method, but starting in 1992, all models except the base DL received multi-port fuel injection.


The Justy initially came only with a five-speed manual gearbox, but an electronically-controlled, continuously variable transmission became available in select markets in 1987. CVTs were not really new, having seen service in motorcycles, snowmobiles as well as some ATVs; even so, their best-known automotive application was in late-’50s Dutch DAFs fitted with a rubber belt-driven CVT called Variomatic. It would be 1989 before a CVT would be offered in the North American market by Subaru, whose CVT utilized a more-durable steel belt instead of a DAF-style rubber belt.


Suspension was independent at both ends. Front and rear struts were used, which not only made for an easier conversion to 4WD, but also provided a smoother ride with the short wheelbase. Brakes were the usual front discs and rear drums. Steering was handled via a variable-ratio, rack-and-pinion setup.


Front-wheel drive was standard, but in 1987 an optional on-demand 4WD system became available for purchase. Cars fitted with this system normally operated in front-wheel drive mode, which the driver could switch to 4WD by pressing a button mounted atop the shifter. So long as the front wheels were pointing straight ahead, the swap could be done at any speed, but wasn’t recommended under heavy throttle input. Since the system is electronically actuated, an icon in the gauge cluster indicates if 4WD is selected. Even with 12” rims (13″ was optional) a 4WD Justy is likely to run out of ground clearance before it runs out of traction.

Subaru Justy front

The boxy front-end styling was softened significantly during a 1989 refresh, which improved the aerodynamics, and flush- mounted headlights gave the car a more-’90s look. In 1992, a four-door Justy became available, although I’ve been told that it never was offered in the U.S. market. Might one of our CC readers confirm or deny that?

CC 148 023 900

(They were sold here; here’s the evidence. – Ed.)

interior 5spd vs CVT

The interior is pretty much standard Japanese-of-the-era, with none of the wackiness of, say, the XT or SVT. The only truly novel feature is the shift knob-mounted button that electronically engages the 4WD system. Other than that, the interior would look at home in a base Toyota or Mazda of similar vintage.

Subaru Justy rear

The Justy disappeared from the U.S. market after 1994, and from the Canadian market a year later; however, the Justy name lived on in other markets. In 1994, a four-wheel drive variant of the Suzuki Cultus (Geo Metro) was sold in Europe as a Justy; 10 years later, the 2004 Subaru G3X Justy was a rebadged Suzuki Ignis. In 2007, the Justy name was moved once again, this time to the Toyota Passo/Daihatsu Boon platform–a sad fate for a nameplate first applied to such an innovative little car.