Car Show Classic: 1985-90 Subaru XT/Vortex – The Brightest Star In The Constellation

Subaru’s reputation and popularity has been built on the backs of conservative wagons, from the DL/GL/Leone wagons of the 1970s to the Foresters of today. Long before the Impreza WR-X debuted, that was pretty much all Subaru made: conservative wagons, with conservative sedan counterparts and the occasional conservative hatchback. And then, like a spaceship, the Subaru XT (aka Vortex and Alcyone) landed in Subaru showrooms.

The XT immediately challenged consumers’ perceptions on just what a Subaru was while simultaneously offering Subaru’s signature feature: four-wheel-drive. Subaru’s forward-thinking embrace of four-wheel-drive technology was in full swing by the time of the XT’s launch so, because of this and the XT’s Leone underpinnings, four-wheel-drive was optional. At launch, this was a part-time, push-button system activated by a button atop the pistol-grip shifter.

Unlike the Leone, the XT’s styling was utterly dramatic. Subaru claimed a drag coefficient of 0.29 and there were plenty of visible exterior touches that contributed to this, like flush “aircraft-style” door handles and a single-blade front wiper. Even though almost every Japanese automaker had a coupe with a sloping front end and pop-up headlights, the XT looked like nothing else. You either loved it or you hated it but, either way, you noticed it and that’s exactly what Subaru wanted.

The interior was as extroverted as the exterior. Beyond the slick, pistol-grip shifter, there was some lurid upholstery (toned down in later years) and steering column-mounted “pod” controls. On the left-hand side of the steering wheel were the controls for the wiper, washer and ventilation while on the right were switches for the lights and the rear demister. This set-up certainly took some getting used to but it was distinctive.

Even more novel was the digital instrumentation available in turbocharged models. Although often hard to see in the daytime, this “artificial horizon”, orange-backlit, liquid crystal display was probably the wildest digital instrumentation of the 1980s.

Though the XT shared much with the Leone range, including the same 97-inch wheelbase and track, there were some mechanical changes. The strut-front/semi trailing arm-rear suspension had a electro-pneumatic self-levelling system that adjusted by up to 1.2 inches at the front and 1.4 inches at the rear. Four-wheel disc brakes were also standard. The XT was also available with electro-hydraulic steering which used an electronically-controlled pump to provide the hydraulic pressure for the steering’s power assistance.

Initially, there were two engines offered, both fuel-injected, single overhead-cam units borrowed from the Leone range. Entry-level models came with a naturally-aspirated 1.8 flat-four with 94 hp and 101 ft-lbs. There was also a turbocharged version with 110 hp and 134 ft-lbs. The base engine’s power and torque figures were fairly competitive with rival coupes but the turbocharged model disappointed those who expected racy performance to match the wild looks and the turbo decals.

The turbo helped smooth out some of the harsh sounds coming from Subaru’s flat four, which could get rather noisy. Lag was relatively minimal, fortunately, considering how little the turbocharger actually added in power. Alas, the optional four-wheel-drive system added a bit of weight. Turbocharged 4WD XTs hit the scales at 2678 pounds, around 220 lbs heavier than a Celica or Prelude.

The Australian market saw Subaru’s new coupe use the Vortex name, exactly the kind of righteous nameplate a, like, totally radical 80s design like this deserved. Really, “XT”, Subaru North America? Ugh, gag me with a spoon.

Aussie journalists weren’t exactly endeared to this tubular new coupe, however. Leading magazine Wheels tested the 4WD Turbo and had this to say:

“Fun’s something the Subaru isn’t… It handles and corners well enough in a mildly understeer-y way that’s absolutely predictable and unemotionally dour.”

That seemed to be a common refrain, regardless of a review’s country of origin. Perhaps Subaru overcompensated. Just look at the competition. The first front-wheel-drive Celica was a huge improvement over its predecessor and a game-changer. The Prelude, even in Si guise, was left wanting in terms of power but its slick dynamics still made it a highly desirable choice. In a 1988 comparison, Wheels placed the 4WD Turbo 4th in a four-car comparison test, ranking it below the Celica, Prelude and Mazda MX-6. The reviewers argued it simply didn’t do anything brilliantly but for its dirt road handling where it “[revelled] in being driven with tail-sliding èlan”. Alas, the Subaru just didn’t feel sporty, from its propensity towards understeer to its overly light steering.

At least the XT had a superb short-throw shifter and generally quite comfortable ride quality. Though the 4WD system didn’t eliminate understeer, it removed torque steer and improved grip.

Competition in this part of the market was brutal. Let’s take a look at the US market in 1987, for example.

ModelBase MSRP with manualPowerTorque
Subaru XT DL$9,59394 hp at 5200 rpm101 ft-lbs at 2800 rpm
Dodge Daytona$9,013100 hp at 4800 rpm136 ft-lbs at 2800 rpm
Honda Prelude 1.8$11,995100 hp at 5500 rpm107 ft-lbs at 4000 rpm
Isuzu Impulse$12,05990 hp at 5000 rpm108 ft-lbs at 3000 rpm
Nissan 200SX XE (notchback)$10,849102 hp at 5200 rpm116 ft-lbs at 3200 rpm
Pontiac Fiero$8,29998 hp at 4800 rpm135 ft-lbs at 3200 rpm
Toyota Celica ST$10,598115 hp at 5200 rpm124 ft-lbs at 4400 rpm

The field of talent was even more impressive when you looked at up-level variants of sport coupes, typically featuring turbocharged four-cylinder engines like the XT GL-10 Turbo. At this price point, there were also larger coupes available like the Chrysler Conquest and Mazda RX-7.

ModelBase MSRPPowerTorque
Subaru XT GL-10 Turbo$14,573110 hp at 4800 rpm134 ft-lbs at 2800 rpm
Subaru XT GL-10 Turbo 4WD$15,648110 hp at 4800 rpm134 ft-lbs at 2800 rpm
Chrysler Conquest$14,417145 hp at 5000 rpm185 ft-lbs at 2200 rpm
Dodge Daytona Turbo Z$11,301146 hp at 5200 rpm170 ft-lbs at 3600 rpm
Honda Prelude 2.0 Si$14,945110 hp at 5500 rpm114 ft-lbs at 4500 rpm
Isuzu Impulse Turbo$14,439140 hp at 5400 rpm166 ft-lbs at 3000 rpm
Mazda RX-7$14,199146 hp at 6500 rpm138 ft-lbs at 3500 rpm
Mitsubishi Starion$15,469145 hp at 5000 rpm185 ft-lbs at 2200 rpm
Nissan 200SX SE V6$14,499160 hp at 5200 rpm174 ft-lbs at 4000 rpm
Pontiac Fiero GT$13,489135 hp at 4400 rpm165 ft-lbs at 3600 rpm
Toyota Celica GT-S$13,978135 hp at 6000 rpm125 ft-lbs at 4800 rpm

That’s some tough competition, and that’s excluding similarly-priced but less showy quasi-rivals like the Acura Integra and Mazda 626 turbo coupe and cheaper domestic fare like the Buick Skyhawk turbo. And though they were unlikely to be cross-shopped, the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird – even in range-topping trim with V8s under their hoods – undercut the most expensive of XTs. If the Celica didn’t appeal to you, Toyota also had the rear-wheel-drive Corolla Sport and mid-engine MR-2. And arguably these weren’t even the glory days of affordable coupes yet, that era arriving a few years later in the 1990s. Even in turbo guise, the XT wasn’t especially powerful while many rivals were more fun-to-drive. In markets like the UK where an Audi Coupe Quattro was only a couple thousand pounds more expensive, it was game over for the Subaru.

Subaru responded to cries for more power by introducing the XT6 in 1988. This used Subaru’s first six-cylinder engine, making the XT6 the first Subaru to exceed Japanese government engine displacement regulations and therefore be classified as a luxury car. The 2.7 flat-six was a direct extension of the regular XT four, with identical bore and stroke measurements but a 50% increase in displacement. The power peak was reached at the same 5200 rpm but horsepower was up to 145 hp and 156 ft-lbs. The XT6 was available in both FWD and 4WD, although Japanese buyers could only get the 4WD (as the Alcyone VX). Aussie buyers got neither – sadly, XT sales had proved so disappointing in Australia that despite promising to import the XT6, Subaru Australia just let the whole line quietly die.

The XT6 had numerous suspension tweaks and used Subaru’s first four-speed automatic, though a five-speed manual remained standard. The XT6 also heralded the introduction of anti-lock brakes and full-time four-wheel-drive to the XT line, though four-cylinder models kept the selectable part-time system. In the US market, the XT6 replaced the XT Turbo entirely, though the turbo lived on in other markets with the new 4WD system. The XT6 had more power, sounded better, and had a more sophisticated 4WD system. It was heavier still, however, and recorded 0-60 times don’t seem markedly better than the four-bangers – around 9 seconds, compared to just over 10 for the Turbo 4WD and over 12 for the naturally-aspirated model. European critics were able to get similar times from the new permanent 4WD Turbo model as their American counterparts could from the XT6 4WD, which was a bit disappointing considering the gulf in power and torque. Even the extra power didn’t earn the XT6 plaudits from the automotive press. Motorweek, for example, said they appreciated the extra power but it didn’t turn the Subaru into a sports car.

The Subaru may have had 4WD as a unique selling point in its segment – at least for a few years – but it wasn’t the most exciting car to drive and its fashion forward styling quickly became passé. Sales were disappointing, too. Besides being a flop in Australia, only 8,170 of the 98,918 XTs produced between 1985 and 1991 were sold in Japan.

Think of the XT as a Leone in a sharper suit and it impresses, even if its styling was flash-in-the-pan. Alas, as a holistic sports coupe experience, the Subaru simply wasn’t as satisfying as the front-wheel-drive Celica or Prelude. But did they look this radical?

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