Curbside Classic: 1992-97 Subaru SVX – A Tasty Surprise

Custard apples are a delicious fruit with an intriguing, creamy texture. They were an occasional treat during my childhood in the 1990s but, especially in recent years, they’re rarely found in produce stores and supermarkets. So, I was surprised and delighted to find them the other day at the local markets and I promptly bought 4 pounds’ worth. As I was leaving, I found another sweet treat from my early years, something even rarer than a custard apple: a Subaru SVX, the only one I’ve ever seen in the metal. To quote a certain Ice Cube song, also from the same era, “I got to say, it was a good day.”

Custard apples – related to the sugar apple and cherimoya – are rare because a lot of people don’t know what they are and they don’t seem to be commercially viable for farmers to grow and sell. When they do reach produce store shelves, they tend to be a lot more expensive than a more humdrum banana or apple. Consequently, they’re overlooked except by those in the know. And even those people might balk at the pricetag.

It was a similar story for the Subaru SVX. While Subaru had offered the outlandishly wedgy XT coupe for several years, the SVX was a big step upmarket. At $26k in the US, it was priced $10k higher than a base Legacy and cost around $8k more than the old XT6. At the SVX’s launch in 1992, Subaru was still selling the dated Loyale and titchy Justy. It was a shock to see a luxurious grand touring coupe in Subaru showrooms and even more of a shock to see the pricetag attached to it. (In Australia, it was almost double the price of the top-line turbo Legacy)

Like a puzzled shopper picking up the exotic, unfamiliar custard apple in the produce section, the SVX’s appearance elicited surprise and confusion. It wasn’t immediately clear this was a Subaru. Can you see any Legacy DNA in those lines? No other Subaru had those trick windows, the glass wrapping around the outside of the roof pillars. Remarkably, the SVX looked little different from Subaru’s concept SVX from the 1989 Tokyo Auto Show. The slippery lines gave the SVX a drag coefficient of just 0.29, which helped keep fuel economy at a competitive 17/25 mpg.

The SVX concept had featured active suspension, four-wheel-steering, traction control, and all-wheel-drive. The production model would only retain the latter two features, although the concept’s engine did make it to production. An all-new, 3.3 flat six sat underneath the low hood, producing 230 hp at 5400 rpm and 224 ft-lbs at 4400 rpm and reaching 60 mph in 7.3 seconds. This engine wasn’t a carryover from the XT6 and was instead derived from the JDM Legacy’s EJ22 twin-cam flat-four, internally referred to as the EJ33 and marketed as the H6 (‘h’ for horizontally-opposed).

Unsurprisingly, the flat-six was smooth and responsive and boasted a terrific soundtrack, as Subaru engines are wont to do. Power was routed through a four-speed automatic as Subaru didn’t have a manual transmission that could handle the torque. That was disappointing but the auto was responsive and had a hold option on each gear – toggled by a button on the side of the shifter – for greater control. Unfortunately, the transmission proved to be one of the SVX’s weak spots as it had a habit of overheating.

The SVX had a 60/40 weight distribution front/rear, but Subaru’s AWD system shifted power when needed and was tuned to deliver more aggressive handling than in other Subarus. The suspension set-up was rather conventional: all-independent with MacPherson struts all round, separate subframes and anti-roll bars front and rear, and a viscous limited slip differential at the back. Anti-lock brakes were standard.

All early SVXs had a black roof that blended in with those dramatic windows, somewhat resembling an entirely glass roof. The cabin was pleasantly airy with good visibility. The only annoyance to some drivers may have been the rubber strips of the windows appearing in their sightlines. The windows only opened below those strips, resulting in a rather limited aperture and a potential inconvenience at the drive-thru or the pre-EZ Pass toll booths of the 1990s.

The cabin had a very driver-oriented dashboard, the center stack angled towards the driver. The stereo system was hidden behind a panel of rather unfortunate plastic wood. A faux suede material known as Ecsaine was used on the dashboard, wrapping around onto the door panels. The two rear buckets folded down in one piece to allow access from the cabin to the trunk. A $3000 touring package added leather seats, steering wheel and shifter, an 8-way power driver’s seat, premium stereo with CD player and a power moonroof. The package also included electronic, speed-variable power steering.

Some critics noted the flat-six was a little weak at the low-end, although the car would subsequently come alive with a healthy surge of power. But the SVX was a heavy car at 3580 pounds and, although it handled capably and with only mild understeer and little body roll, it felt more like a luxury grand tourer. The suspension soaked up large bumps well and the flat six relished highway driving. Critics were unanimous in their praise of the SVX’s dynamics. Road & Track said the SVX had “the wonderfully flat ride of a skilfully buttoned-down sports car… For a car with such disciplined roll, dive, and squat control, the ride is surprisingly comfortable.” Wheels even said, “Lexus aside, this luxury coupe boasts arguably the finest ride/handling balance of any Japanese car this country has seen.” Speaking of Lexus, another review said the flat six rivalled the Lexus LS400’s 4.0 V8 for smoothness.

When spy photographers scooped the SVX undergoing testing in 1991, they noted it appeared to be undergoing evaluation against the Ford Thunderbird and Acura Legend coupe. That curious assembly of vehicles highlights the SVX’s odd positioning as it had no direct rivals. The all-wheel-drive variants of the Mitsubishi 3000GT and Dodge Stealth were a good $5k more expensive, as was the more sport-focussed Nissan 300ZX. And neither the Thunderbird nor the Legend offered four-wheel-drive, while smaller Japanese coupes like the Mitsubishi Eclipse lacked the comfort of the SVX.

Although it offered a very different package to its nominal rivals, the SVX was still another coupe in a very saturated market. To make matters worse for Subaru, the SVX arrived during a recession and just as the Japanese bubble economy was bursting. The rising Yen was also forcing up Japanese car prices, further hampering any chances of success for the SVX.

Although Subaru kept the SVX in one highly-specified trim in Australia, an acknowledgement of its niche appeal here, they sought greater fortune in the US. Or, rather, they sought to charge a smaller fortune. MY1993 production had been delayed due to an over-supply of SVXs. For MY1994, Subaru introduced cheaper, front-wheel-drive variants—the AWD model was badged LSi while the new entry-level variants were L and LS.

Still well-equipped, these new trim levels didn’t offer leather trim, woodgrain trim, or a moonroof. The L also lacked anti-lock brakes and the new passenger airbag of the other trim levels. However, unlike base models of other coupes like the Eagle Talon DL, the cheapest SVXs looked no different from their pricier counterparts. And from 1994, all SVXs came with a body-color roof except for those painted white, which kept the black roof.

Although the new, entry-level models lacked the all-weather capability of the top-line SVX, they were around 200 pounds lighter and felt nimbler. The base SVX also cost a whopping $10k less than the fully-loaded edition.

The SVX was badged Alcyone in Japan, after the brightest star in the Pleiades cluster depicted in Subaru’s logo. Unfortunately, the SVX’s star was dimming. In its debut year, just over 5000 SVXs were sold in the US. That was disappointing for Subaru, who had projected 10,000 annual sales. Sales then dropped to 3,859 in 1993. The arrival of cheaper trim levels should have helped but the downward slide continued, 1,666 SVXs leaving Subaru showrooms in 1994. Subaru axed the FWD models from North America after just two years as they couldn’t salvage SVX sales. By 1997, sales were down to a dismal 640 units; that year, the SVX was priced from $31-37k in the US.

In total, 24,379 SVXs were sold worldwide from 1992 to 1997. Of that number, 14,257 were sold in the US, 2,478 in Europe, around 5,880 in Japan and just 249 in Australia. Subaru was losing money on the car and so ended production in December 1996.

Subaru debuted a concept car in 1991 called the Amadeus, a sport wagon based off of the SVX. While attractive and no doubt appealing to Subaru accountants as a way to amortize development costs, the Amadeus probably would have had niche appeal at its hypothetical price point.

The SVX was like a custard apple among plain banana Legacies and Loyales. Unfortunately, shoppers weren’t as enthusiastic about exotic fruits during and after the recession and, if they were, there were plenty of exciting rambutans and dragonfruits like the RX-7 and 300ZX to try. However, those that tasted the sweet SVX would have been very satisfied.

Related Reading:

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

Curbside Classic: Subaru XT – Forward To The Future In 1985

Curbside Classics: 1991-99 Mitsubishi 3000GT and 1991-96 Dodge Stealth – The King of Diamonds

Curbside Classic: 1993 300ZX Convertible – Out Of Touch, Out Of Time