Curbside Classic: Subaru XT6 – Outcast in the Speciality Coupe Group

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There’s a classic Subaru for which I’ve been searching a long time.  This isn’t it.  The first-gen Legacy Sport Sedan remains a rarity which hasn’t been featured on these pages since CC’s inception, and I’ve been searching for one of those turbocharged unicorns since I began posting here.  By contrast, this is one of a handful of XTs that have been featured on CC over the past few years.  Does its abundance relative to the Legacy SS speak to a bizarre love on the part of XT owners?

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The XT-series is the sort of car which, by the end of its model run, was just as invisible as the likes of the Saturn Astra in 2009.  Sold in small numbers and cloaked in styling cliches, few in late ’80s America would’ve looked over their shoulders as an XT coupe drove by.

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Its dramatic wedge stands out today, though, and I didn’t need to look twice when I drove past this white example.  Seeing one in such good shape near the IU campus was certainly unusual: CC-fodder in this area is usually of the American or European variety, think E30 cabriolet, CJ-7, W123 wagon or El Camino.

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Though based on the rather rustic Leone series (DL/GL/GL10/RX to us Americans), hotter versions of those cars, along with the XT (called Alcyone in Japan), did gain proper full-time AWD systems by 1988.  Even in their most evolved incarnations, Leone-based cars would remain clumsy handlers, but the integration of full-time AWD represents still marks an important turning point in Subaru history.

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While the hottest AWD-equipped GL-1o never reached the levels of agility as the up-coming Legacies and Imprezas (cars substantial enough to underpin the very solid SVX and on-par with the likes the Audi 80 and 90 Quattro when the road turned twisty) the shift from part-time 4WD to AWD helped bring the company’s cars out of the dark ages.

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If only marketing were given the right points to emphasize.  A “referee for your subconscious?”  Seriously??  Not very appealing, is it? I hope heads rolled for this brochure.  “Repress your most basic impulses with the new Impreza!” would be more to the point.  Car advertisers make billions selling the idea that the model they’re hawking will set buyers free.  Subaru should sue its early ’90s ad agency for millions in lost revenue.

Initial attempts to underscore the cars’ newfound refinement coincided with years of slow sales.  Subarus still are associated the all-weather capability imparted by their early part-time 4WD systems and current sales success is based on reinforcing the image of an earnest, rustic machine.  When it comes to engineering ingenuity, “don’t show, barely tell,” is the watchword, at least at Subaru.  Note the relative absence of BRZ promotional material today.

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When it comes to the XT6’s overall extroversion, taking such a subtle approach to advertising is a difficult task.  The styling spoke louder than the coupe’s newly refined mechanicals.

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Our specific XT is a front-drive model, with the intriguing flat-six, dubbed XT6.  Front-drive XT6s came in automatic form only, and with precisely zero AWD decals and only a gear-range selector between the front seats, I am certain only the front wheels receive power.  That only makes it more likable; without the loud, throbby EA engine, this flat-six model puts the lineup’s best foot forward.  And even without driven rear wheels, classic Audis and Subarus display a strong character.

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With 2.7 liters of flat-six making all of 145 horses and 156 ft-lbs or torque, driven rear wheels would dilute whatever force the engine could route through a torque converter anyway.  Front-drive versions forfeited that other piece of Subaru’s techno-wizardry of the era, the air-suspension system, netting no loss in functional appeal.  Improved ride and handling wasn’t prime on the list of that system’s assets; it was largely touted as a way to raise the car to traverse rough surfaces when introduced in the XT turbo.  By the time that model morphed into the XT6, its manual ride-height adjustment facility wasn’t available to US buyers, anyway.

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The later cars complemented the XT’s famous asymmetrical steering wheel with an electro-hydraulic power assist marketed as Cybrid Power Steering.  It’s hard to find any explanation of its benefits other than improved efficiency through its electrically driven hydraulic pump, but I suspect it could have been a way to help cram the “EA-plus-two-cylinder” ER-series flat-six under the hood (CC-readers, tell me if I’m wrong about the Cybrid system).  Contemporary reviews paraphrase Subaru’s assertion that it offered more natural bleeding off of assist as speeds climb, but no Legacy or SVX adopted it later on, so let’s hope it at least was cheap for Fuji Heavy Industries to develop.

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So where did the XT standout?  It didn’t, really.  It certainly is a contender for the dubious distinction of being the most gimmicky of its rivals, as many have highlighted.  It outdoes the very cheesy 200SX Turbo and Cordia Turbo.  Even as soggy as those cars were, both out-drove the XT.  The Subaru also failed to  out-sprint the perpetually wanting-for-power Prelude; a car which, thanks to straightforward ergonomics, fine handling and sweet engines, was deservedly more popular.  Based on the agricultural Leone, the XT managed parity in refinement to the Chevette-based Isuzu Impulse, but its Giugiaro-penned shape was Haute Couture compared to the Subaru’s fashion victim, and the RWD Impulse’s performance was much more convincing.

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I’m not trying to be hard on this poor coupe; given the popularity of specialty coupes thirty years ago, it makes sense that Subaru wanted a piece of the action.  With little outlay, they could offer an entrant based on existing mechanicals with the added distinction of all weather traction.  Surely, few test-drivers would ever recognize the XT’s dynamic limitations.  It just goes to show how big of a cliche this segment had become by the turn of the decade.  Countless cars like this, the Pulsar NX, the Scoupe, etc did very little to stem the rise of the SUV.

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I can say this much for the XT in the form of our featured car.  With the flat-six, if offered a degree of mechanical refinement absent in competitors and despite the styling cliches, was a thoroughly modern looking personal coupe.  I like to think of it as a cut-rate Legend coupe for a buyer confident enough to buy from an off-label brand.  In some ways, it makes more sense than the many contemporary Accord coupes, Preludes, Integras, 240SXs and Celicas sold with an automatic transmission, and I can see an initial owner very satisfied with his or her purchase.

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The XT’s looks lived on in the house of Fuji, at least for a short period.  Take this coupe’s frameless glass, blacked out A-pillar and wrap-around C-pillar, throw them on a 1985 Legend, complete with box fender flares and you have the first-gen Legacy.  Pillory me all you like, I find it to be quite a handsome sedan.

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Subaru didn’t abandon the coupe either; when the XT gave way to the SVX (still called the Alcyone back home), fortification necessary to match distinguished styling came in the form of a unique power plant.  A beefy 3.3 liter flat-six disguised any connection with its four and five-door platform-mates while also keeping it from direct competition with the segment’s heavy hitters.

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Quite unlike the XT turbo and XT6, the SVX was well-regarded for its balanced handling and ride quality, which says a lot for the Legacy’s chassis refinement.  Unfortunately, the SVX grand-touring experience was so authentic it even offered an excursion through escalating exchange rates, pricing itself out of the speciality coupe class.

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In hindsight, a more basic SVX using a federalized, off-the-shelf, four-cam, boosted, flat-four would’ve been cheaper to develop and easier to sell (and would’ve offered a way to take the Legacy wagon and Outback upmarket much sooner).  The brilliant DSM trio took a similar route, using Galant VR4 mechanicals, and bolstered Mitsubishi’s otherwise non-existant image for over ten years.

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DSM also taught a valuable lesson to the Japanese big three: don’t charge a ton for a sporty coupe with a weak engine.  One wonders what a well-priced 2WD Celica turbo, or SR20DET powered 240SX could’ve done for the segment, or if the Prelude held the line on pricing while offering the 2.2 VTEC in a single-trim 1992 model.  You can’t blame the disappearance of coupes all on SUVs when the fun and affordable Eclipse and Talon did solid business for years before the lame-o 2000 Eclipse was introduced.

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But I digress… The passing of the XT6 would see Subaru head into even more dark times, and my beloved first-gen Legacy and Impreza would characterize the marque during its years of slow sales and no image.  That obscure company is one we would hardly recognize today.

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Subaru entered the 21st century with an enviable two-pronged reputation, with Outbacks and their raised ride height promising go-anywhere versatility in conjunction with WRXs promising uncommonly manic performance.  They took their best technology, let the cars do the talking, and have never looked back.  To drive the point home, the “Love” brand is now the product of the Subaru corporation–say goodbye to Fuji Heavy Industries.

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Those leading this initiative would prefer to bury the cynically-conceived XT the way most of us hide an school portrait with a laser background.  Luckily, the science-fair mentality that lead to cars from the XT to turbocharged ersatz hardtop wagons with air suspension hasn’t been buried with the name change.  Early impressions suggest the upcoming 2017 Impreza and WRX really will be cut-rate Audis, with none of the associated pretense.  From today’s perspective, the brand’s future looks stronger than ever.

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