(first posted 4/9/2013) 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.
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.
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.
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?
(They were sold here; here’s the evidence. – Ed.)
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.
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.
It was such a success in the UK that I’d never heard or seen one til now!No doubt it’s “not a real Subaru” to enthusiasts/anoraks
The Justy was never sold in Australia – instead the Sherpa/Fiori was sold, which featured 4WD, but with a smaller 547cc engine.
The thing I remember the most about these cars were the TV ads screaming “Justy time for Christmas”. Ugh.
I don’t remember seeing many of these on the roads, despite the ads. Most of the Subarus that were driving around my hometown at the time were the Loyale wagons.
I remember “We have Justy, the solution for you” or something similar.
” It’s Justy the right car at justy the right price “.
Still see these occasionally around Tahoe or other snowy parts of California. Usually driven by service workers who need low cost 4wd to get to work before the plows are out. Used to see AWD Tempos and Colt Vistas in that role also but they’re disappearing. I saw a Justy mail delivery car in Hong Kong this year … presumably not AWD.
Which often makes me think it’s too bad that there aren’t really any cheap AWD runabouts anymore, although I suppose this gets back into the eternal divide between what people need and what they buy.
There is/was the Suzuki SX4 but nobody bought them.
I guess that one’s definition of “cheap” is relative. My 2012 Impreza went out the door with heated leather seats, automagic tranny, auto climate control and sun/moonroof for $22,800. Get rid of the frippery and the car would have come in for under 20 big ones. Trying to find an Impreza as a stripper is difficult in SLC or anywhere else in the US. As the dealer said, “nobody wants a stick”. But why Subaru has seen fit to equip Imprezas with $200+ Z-rated tires I have no idea. Great turn in, though.
In my rounds in Truckee and N Tahoe I’ve seen five of these, three of which are runners.
There are still a handful of other 80s Japanese AWD Popemobiles from Mitsu, & Nissan.
Back around 1990, when I ended up buying a Ford Festiva, I seriously looked at one of these. I seem to remember it was the five speed manual with AWD (if my memory is faulty, it was five speed with FWD, definitely manual transmission). Drove nice, decent little car, the off-putting part was the $9000.00 sticker, when I was looking at a high end Festiva which priced out something like $7500.00.
I suspect part of the problem was the trend in dollar-yen exchange rates, which to one extent or another hit all of the Japanese automakers doing business here.
In 1987, I was in this market and had to decide if I wanted my first new car to be a Festiva or a Justy. This is why I chose the Festiva.
The Festiva was a Mazda 121. After seeing how awesome the Mazda GLC/323 was, I knew the Festiva was designed with the same level of expertise. It was a safer choice to get a Mazda 4 cylinder than a new Subaru 3 cylinder.
The Festiva had an incredible 5 speed manual transmission, the Subaru was being touted for it’s new CVT automatic. It was more fun to drive a Mazda engineered 5 speed, than a Subaru CVT. (There was no Festiva automatic available in the States in 1987 – that arrived later.)
The Festiva was larger where it mattered. The Festiva LX had as nice an interior as other Mazda products at that time. The Subaru interior was spartan with materials that looked cheaper.
Finally, the price. The Festiva LX, with every option available – including rear window wiper, duo electric side mirrors, spilt rear seats, passenger seat storage box, wider 12 inch wheels, tilting steering wheel, tinted windows, rear hatch cover, four speaker stereo with cassette, center consolette – $6999.
The Justy – $8181
The Festiva is still on the road with over 400,000 miles on it. I sold it 14 years ago in town, and I still see it. Since it is a rare LX model that I customized with a very nice well-placed rear fender scrap that compliments the fender nicely, I definately know where to look when I see it to ensure it is really the same car!
I got $1000 trade in on it in 1999. The last time I saw it for sale, the dealer wanted $900.
It was fortunate to have a Chevy Avalanche parked next to the Justy for a reference of scale.
I test drove one of these in late 1987 (start of MY ’88). I was looking for a cheap car, and the Justy was certainly cheap.
I took my test drive in a FWD base model with a 5-speed. Given the very economical price, I didn’t expect much, but it was a blast. The 67 bhp was more than sufficient in such a small, light car. It was rolling proof of the slow-car-fast vs. fast-car-slow cliché. The salesman had just given me the keys and wasn’t interesting in tagging along, so I drove it like I stole it, and it never complained.
I didn’t buy the Justy, though. Seemed kind of silly not to buy a car with fuel injection by then. All of the Japanese competition (except the Colt, I think?) had EFI already. I also was worried about how such a small car (and its passengers) would fare in an accident.
I got a base model 323 sedan instead. It was the right decision, but that little Mazda was not as much fun to toss around.
I just remember the commercials, hood and door slamming, touting its durability. I had a friend that owned one so naturally every time she drove us somewhere we slammed doors and hood. Nothing about that car sticks out as memorable just 80s cheap.
I remember seeing a handful of these during my childhood years in Wisconsin—I was enough of a nerd to know that the Justy was still going on in Europe as a rebadged Suzuki, so I just assumed the same for the original. I had no idea they were very much their own car, and like most Subarus all the more interesting for it.
I’m pretty sure a number of Subaru owners today would welcome a sub-Impreza—pretty much every Subaru owner in my family is disappointed in the new Impreza (of course, these are the same group of people who buy new manual wagons, so it’s not exactly a representative sample). I doubt the economics would really work out, though—I imagine the B-segment’s a hard arena to recoup development costs, which is why Subaru’s just appended the Justy name to other automakers’ products (and other automakers are willing to have another sales channel for their product).
My one memory of these is that they were the often the grand prize on a game show callled Concentration back in the 80’s.
Saw one just recently in Austin. Don’t know the story but it was clean. Think I trashed the picture I took. Didn’t think it had an application. Sorry.
That must’ve been me! I bought her with 40,000 miles from a little old lady who had garage kept and drove about 350 miles a year or less. Had every maintenance record even the original buyers guide from the window. Sticker price was like $7654
I LOVE my justy. She’s not AWD but front wheel and very peppy. I had great fun driving her all over the country the last 5 years. Still have less than 112,000 miles
Got 42 mpg in the Colorado mountains
Congratulations Mr. Saunders, one of your photos has been featured on Jalopnik! Enjoy your 15 seconds of fame:
I sold Subarus in 1989. We had a few Justys, even one in the showroom. I don’t believe I ever spoke to a customer about one. I did make a point of taking a CVT for a spin. I’d been reading about them for years, particularly the efforts by Van Doorne to create CVTs for the Fiat Uno and Ford Fiesta while I lived in the Netherlands. DAFs were quite common there at the time, and they had dual belt variators, which made up for belt issues by using one for each rear wheel. I suspect having two transmissions replaced the differential too. The DAF cars were just as fast in reverse as they were in drive. They weren’t particularly quick in drive, but 90 mph in reverse was plenty. Reverse races were(are?) a Dutch pastime as a result. I was excited to try a CVT finally, but the Justy CVT/3cylinder combination didn’t turn out to be much fun. The least boring thing about it was that it sounded marginal, so I was concerned about getting it back on the lot without becoming as popular with the service department as the guys that took new Saabs to lunch, which always came back with problems, when they made it back at all.
I owned a black Justy RS- it was a great car, 4wd with gold hubcaps. It was done at 180k mile, the u-joints on the rear drive shaft were shot and they aren’t serviceable- you had to buy a new prop shaft, cool car though. Love the 3 cyl warble. Reminds me of the pixies!
Cringe car! The Justy is another one of those cars in the auto parts biz that is referred to as a ‘Cringe Car’ (you cringe every time someone comes in wanting Justy parts because you know the outcome isn’t gonna be good..). Take the water pump as an example-most normal cars, you buy a replacement water pump and be done with it,. Not the Justy: ask for a water pump and you receive (drumroll, please) a water pump rebuild kit. Replacement struts–good luck! Blow a head gasket–be patient-it’ll take a couple of weeks to get a new one (if it isn’t backordered until the year 2357…). The ‘Fun Justy’ (trim package from the early 90’s) is a lot less fun when you are trying to keep this thing running. I thought these cars were kinda cool in a funky way when they were new. Years later, after dealing with dead & dying Justys, reality kicked in. Too bad the legendary Subaru reliability and indestructible-ness weren’t applied to the Justy.
My friends who were former Audi owners, and now Subaru owners, recall going to the Audi dealer and being told they needed a new water pump. No biggie, right? Water pumps are regular replacement items. Except on Audis. In order to get to the water pump on 4 cyl A4s you essentially have to disassemble the entire front end of the car. Sorta like a Citroen DS19. A $50 part but $2450 worth of labor for the job.
Some people have a problem with this.
Well, they call it ‘service mode’ where you use some pieces of all-thread to extend the nose of the car 6″ forward so you can actually get your arm in there. Seasoned Audi mechanics are well-practiced at this!
My mother-in-law had one. A four door. It was a real penalty box to ride in, but driving it was fun in bad weather. The all wheel drive made it a decent Seattle car over the rain slick streets and hills. They traded it for a Ford Focus.
Subaru called their automatic the E-CVT, since it had an electronically controlled powder metal clutch.
What’s a powder metal clutch? As described to me, it was a drum connected to the engine and filled with very fine iron filings (the powder). The drum also contained a fan, and when the powertrain computer energized an electromagnetic field, the field locked up the metal, held the fan in place and transferred power to the CVT.
I always wanted to ride in an E-CVT equipped car, just to experiece the clutch engagement, but only ever saw manual transmission models.
Never saw these out here, but Subaru did sell their Fiori (aka Rex) Kei car for a year or three in the early nineties, plus I think the Sherpa (earlier version of the same thing) in the early eighties. The Fiori had the distinction of having a 4cyl 650cc engine rather than the 3cyl that all the other Kei’s had.
Neat little car, never see any up here in western Mass though, they probably all rusted out. I’m surprised that Subaru hung on to the carburetor until 1992, didn’t realize that any cars had carburetors after ’90. I had always thought the olds 307 was the last of the carburetors. Guess you learn something new every day!
Some of these are about locally whether 2 or 4wd I have no idea I’ll have to look but theyre most likely used JDM imports
This was the first new car I ever bought. Mine was an 88, fwd 5 speed. At the time, I was a courier in the DC area, driving my mom’s 84 Sunbird until I killed it. Thus the Justy. I think the sticker was around 7500, and the radio was optional. I didn’t get it. Drove it for two years as a courier, which was a brutal job for a car, especially in DC traffic. Ended up, the head gasket developed a leak, and not knowing anything about cars at the time, I figured out that if I kept the heat on full blast, it would keep the temp down. Don’t ask me how, but I managed to drive it this way for several years, one of which I was still a courier, doing about 50k miles annually. Really kept my weight down in the summer.
Ended up selling it for $400 in 1994, and replaced it with a 74 Celica, orange with a brown hood, and no trunk floor, for $500. Loved that one.
I too sold Subaru parts for a short time back in the late 80’s+. If I had to just absolutley had to have a Justy I guess it would be a final year 1994. IIRC that was the first year for EFI on the 1.2. Tried to sell a lot of parts for them but OEM Subaru parts were(still are) super expensive and never in stock at the PDCs. IIRC the powder clutch was past $1K but under $2K. And they would also eat the belt on the CVT. IIRC that had a MSRP close to $1K. And they ate motor mounts at a alarming rate. But I also sold GM parts at the same time and these prices were about par for the GEO Metro 3 cylinder. Some comparison pricing. AC compressor=$700-$900. Auto transaxle minus torque converter=$2K. Torque convertor=$1K. Well at least you could have ordered a manual transmission and AC was an option on both cars. I hardly see any Justys or 1st and 2nd generation Metros in the boneyards anymore. But just like kittens and shotguns I’d almost bet there is somebody up in the PNW that has a hoard of Justys packed away behind the double wide.
Flipping through my JDM car rags and catalogues of early-to-mid 90’s, it appears that every moving object on 4 wheels, sans lawn mowers, had a 4WD option in those times. Pity most of them never left the island.
As for 12″ wheels and getting stuck – you will be surprised how far this thing will manage to crawl with its ultra-low weight and locked center.
Having owned a manual full-time 4WD AE-95 Corolla Wagon (Carib in JDM speak) through several proper winters, I can assure you they are almost unstoppable on the right tires.
The 4wd Justy is the only proper Subaru to have. It beats all the posh WRX STI-s and Mitsubishi Evo-s hands down on the ice track with street legal studded tires. Yes, I do own one myself 🙂
I just wanted to quickly point out that I just bought a 1991 Subaru Justy GL 4 door with fuel-injection. I bought it in New Hampshire, so they definitely existed in this market.
We have a 1991 2-door Justy. (“Rusty the Trusty Justy.” aka ‘Deathtrap.”) Like others of its kind, it idles poorly, runs warmer than we’d like, and it hates going up hills. It’s been pretty crabby lately, and took about 20 minutes to start today again. Kinda sad.
I own a 1990 4×4 ECVT Justy.I paid $500,purchased it three years ago and it’s still on the road.Like a lot of other Justy owners,I’ve got a love hate relationship with this car.I own another Subaru which is much newer,bigger and nicer but I choose to drive this one most of the time.I live in a small town in Alaska and I rarely see any other cars like this one but I have had people stop and tell me about when they owned one and all the fun they had driving theirs.I plan on driving this one until it stops.
I own an 88 Justy GL. I rebuilt the engine as the old one for some reason threw a rod and that’s when I got it cheap. This Justy only has 33K miles on it. Still has a factory shine! and the interior is near mint. I only have $1200 in it. It’s a crazy little car and is fun to drive, but I think it’s a death trap. I will sell this car with in the year and will hate to see it go, but I have 4 cars as it is. This car is great on the Big Island of Hawaii, where it is!
I bought a 1990 Justy in ’98. It appeared to be in excellent condition, with a thick file of service records, though none recent – it had been off the road for two years, and so the owner had decided to sell it off for a mere $500. What neither he nor I knew was what ancient coolant can do to an alloy cylinder head … which started disintegrating on my first drive to work. The dealer’s estimate was about three times what I’d paid for the car, so I had it towed to my son’s house and found a rebuildable head online for $100, plus shipping from Wisconsin. A good friend offered to rebuild the head if I bought the parts: gasket set (aftermarket, after I’d priced the factory one) and several studs. That was Monday. He called Tuesday morning to say it was ready – he’d rebuilt it on his kitchen counter while he watched Monday Night Football!
The car was a real hoot to drive in winter conditions. After one snowfall I found a residential street blocked off from through traffic, and practiced the kind of Fun With FWD shenanigans I’d learned forty years before in Alaska. In early Spring my local office was shut down, and we all had to commute from Nashville to Bowling Green for our last month or two. That was about 130 miles per day, and the mileage allowance meant that I was getting a substantial raise, even though I was flogging the Justy hard enough to make it well under an hour door-to-door – this in spite of a serious elevation rise on the morning segment.
We had decided to leave Nashville for SoCal, however, and while the Justy was a sweetheart it was the Alfa Milano that was going to make the trip. So I gave the Subaru to my son, as his daily driver was a motorcycle, and despite the wretched electric carburetor he and the excellent mechanic he’d found kept it running for several more years.
Anyway, if another one were to show up for sale in this part of the world, I would definitely be interested in renewing the acquaintance …
Our 1990 fun justy. First new car we bought as a married couple. Great for Pittsburgh hills in the winter.
While the article that started all this discussion is pretty comprehensive, there are some interesting points that didn’t get covered, the main one being that the water pump for these engines is internal – it’s located below the crankshaft, driven off the balance shaft. The only other pump-in-sump engine I know of is the 2.6 liter V8 in the Alfa Montreal, and that’s a dry-sump engine; this one is right there in the oil. Since it’s not driven by belt and pulley like most, it’s not likely to run its bearings and start leaking, and heaven knows it’ll be well-lubricated! And since water warms faster than oil, and oil runs hotter than water, any heat exchanging down there will be all to the good.
I liked that little engine so much – mine was the 1.7 liter 72-hp version – that I got to thinking about what you could swap it into with a bell-housing change. My favorite dream job was a Bigeye Sprite …
I have a chance to trade my 81 diesel Rabbit for an 87 Justy. I drive 50 miles roundtrip for my full time job and deliver pizzas in the rabbit. The mileage is pretty good in the rabbit but there are a lot of hills where I deliver and driving it in the winter time in the great pacific northwest means getting stuck and walking uphill with a bag full of rapidly cooling pizzas. The Justy is an RS with the five speed and 52,000 miles plus push button 4wd which will come in handy if we get another winter like the one we just had (they closed down the roads coming down the mountain from work and my coworkers and I had to spend the night in our shop.) So hopefully the trade goes smoothly and I can post a picture of my new to me Justy and show there’s still a place for these little bastards.
I’m in the u.k and I was looking for one of these justys around 2006. I had just moved to the South Wales valleys where the winters typically see lots of snow. The roads are steep and without 4wd you ain’t getting home. I couldn’t find a Justy mk1, Rust killed them all off. I did manage to find one of the rebadged Suzuki cultus/swift AWD Justys though. These don’t have selectable 4wd, but are mainly fwd until the fronts loose traction, then power is applied to the rear wheels too. What a car! The only thing limiting its ability in snow was the ground clearance, but it never ever once got stuck. Even on crappy budget tyres the traction was amazing. It saw 5 years of arduous year round driving for my wife’s job in the community before we decided to get rid of it when we moved away. We sold it on in 2011 and it’s still going strong with its new owners. Having said that, unless you specifically need Awd, it’s really too small, uncomfortable and thirsty for its size. But for a budget winter beater, they are superb. The satisfaction of trundling past a 50k BMW stuck on a snowy hill in your £500 banger cannot be overemphasised.
One fact missing from this otherwise comprehensive article is that Subaru based the body shell off of their home-market Kei car, the Rex. Widen and lengthen a Rex and the Justy is the result
It is not widely known that these were not sold in Australia because of me.
I would only allow the name to be licensed for something large, profligate, handsome, tasteful, mechanically advanced, generally superior and expensive. As they no longer make large Lancias, nothing has yet fit the bill.
And if you think this tale is tall – and Australians generally prefer their tales to grow beyond their organic height – try and find a Burger King store in Oz.
Years ago, some canny person here registered the BK name realising BK would one day turn up and pay the ransom he would then demand.
They did. And they didn’t. Pay, that is.
They just called it Hungry Jacks, as it still is all over the country.
I wondered about this, I’m surprised they didn’t jump on the fact that you use a lower case j as justyfication for ignoring your rights. 🙂
I learned how to drive a standard transmission in a Justy. Yes, it was cheap and material quality in the interior was way below late 80’s standards. But I loved chirping the tires.
Legit a 1984 black suburu justy was my first car. Push start automatic. 😆 I loved the sh$$tty little car though. It was great with gas ($12.50 to fill the tank in 2007/2008).
My friend sold to me for a $1 but got four flat tires in a parking lot that didnt like it and I couldn’t gather enough money in time they towed it charged $200 and I said nah . But now I’m wishing I tried for it.