It was worth a shot. After all, hadn’t Honda pulled it off recently with the Prelude? Why should Subaru not try their hand at a racy coupé? And try they did. It was a great try, too – a veritable fireworks of Fuji Heavy Industries’ technological and design prowess. They gave it the name of a star to top it off. But unfortunately, the market decreed it was no A-lister.
Before trying to figure out what went wrong, let’s tick off what Subaru did right. The first thing in this column would probably be the styling. This was not one of the marque’s traditional strengths, but a range-topping coupé, almost by definition, has to be an attractive proposition. While these things are naturally subjective, it’s arguable that the Alcyone was both very distinctive and very refined, not just a two-door Leone with extra mascara.
The second thing they did right was to only call this car Alcyone for the JDM. For the astronomically challenged, that’s the name of the brightest star in the Pleiades constellation – i.e. the one stylized in Subaru’s logo. I guess that could fly in Japan, where this sort of stuff elicits relatively positive “I learned something today” feelings. But don’t try to educate people with car names elsewhere, lest you will make potential clients feel they’re ignorant. Plus one would have to explain that Subaru is Japanese for Pleiades, blah blah blah. So in foreign markets, this was the XT or the Vortex.
Coupés come in either sporty or cruiser flavours, if one can be overly simplistic about it. It’s the BMW vs Mercedes kind of duality. The Alcyone was aimed at the cruiser category, so it required a sophisticated suspension. And it got that, at least in the higher VR and VX grades, in the form of air suspension. Apparently, it worked well and period tests were quite impressed. Base model VS cars made do with the same coil setup at the Leone, whose bones were used for this car.
I guess we can add that to the list, too. The Leone’s 1.8 litre boxer 4cyl., thanks to a turbocharger, provided a decent amount of power (135hp), driving the front wheels or all four, as per Subaru tradition. It’s a double-edged sword, really, as the Leone was anything but a sports saloon, the Alcyone was very aerodynamic but not particularly light and the automatic transmission, then already a must-have on the JDM, was a pretty pedestrian 3-speed unit.
But I’m in danger of prematurely slipping into the negative here. One last big point to the Alcyone’s credit: the interior. Nissan rightly got a lot of flack for their F31 Leopard’s blocky dash. Subaru, for their part, knocked it out of the park with this one. Asymmetric steering wheel, pods instead of column stalks, futuristic LCD display on some models, joystick-like gear selector – they really worked on this.
When the car was launched in 1985, the (rather symbolic) rear seats were upholstered in black vinyl. This was no longer the case by mid-1986. The more chequers, the merrier.
Turning to the minus points column, the wedgy design, though very well executed and aerodynamically efficient, had two major drawbacks. One was that it made the Alcyone look like a car from a different maker in Subaru dealerships. There was really nothing in common with the rest of the range. That certainly made it exclusive, but perhaps it was a little too out there for the type of folks who frequented Fuji Heavy industries’ fine establishments. Which brings us to the issue of integrating the Alcyone to the rets of the range.
Don’t forget that Subaru’s range in their home market was a little different from what it was elsewhere. About a third of people who were considering the star-studded cast above were looking at kei cars and vans. They might have been tempted by a Justy, but the Alcyone was not on their radar.
Things deteriorated further when Subaru added a couple of cylinders to the highest grade of Alcyones in 1987. This was the company’s first venture over the 2-litre size limit, and thus into the territory, size- and price-wise, of the Toyota Soarer and the Nissan Leopard – well beyond the Alcyone’s initial aim. The 2.7 litre flat-6 was exclusive to the Alcyone, bringing only an extra 15hp to the table and a lot of concerns (fuel consumption, tax, potential gremlins) otherwise. Most went Stateside – precious few stayed in Japan. Our feature car has a flat-4, of course.
But I wasn’t quite done with the styling yet. The Alcyone was unveiled at the Detroit Motor Show in January 1985 and only reached the Japanese market in June of that year. The wedge look, which was really hot in the mid-‘70s, was actually quite stale even before Subaru put these into production. After the first year or so, when enthusiasts and potential buyers had a chance to see these in the metal, the Alcyone looked positively ancient compared to the Honda Legend, which also debuted in 1985.
Subaru had no choice but to carry on regardless. In the US market, sales were initially pretty good, but this did not last very long. On the JDM, things just never took off for the Subie coupé. From the summer of 1989 onwards, the car was strictly made-to-order – the end was already near.
And when the SVX Alcyone was released in September 1991, the old generation was shown the door (see above). I was unable to find any production numbers for the Alcyone, but all Japanese sources I’ve read agree that the car did not do well in Japan. It figures that this was only the second one I’ve ever seen here, and that very few are for sale on the usual websites.
Pity the poor Subaru, a carmaker that could not decide whether their top-of-the-line coupé should be a cheap and cheerful Celica fighter or a luxury-laden Soarer rival. Lost in this Alcyone daze, the plucky wedge failed to make much of an impression in its home market, though it apparently did a bit better in North America. Sometimes, it doesn’t pay to wish upon a star.
Car Show Classic: 1985-90 Subaru XT/Vortex – The Brightest Star In The Constellation, by William Stopford
COAL: Not One, But Two 1986 Subaru XT Turbos, by Johnli