(first posted 10/22/2012) Nineteen eighty-five. The year of Back to the Future and The Goonies. The year of songs like “Born in the USA” and “Take on Me”. What better year for a small, quirky automaker like Subaru to stretch its wings by offering their first sporty coupe.
Enter the XT: A vehicle as different from the brand’s existing DL/GL lineup as one could imagine. There wasn’t a blunt curve, chrome accent or rounded window to be seen anywhere. It was almost as if a car had been dropped out of Blade Runner onto North American shores.
North Americans actually got this car in February 1985, a few months before its release in Japan, as the Alcyone. I’m sure that to a Subaru loyalist visiting their local dealership with a GL or BRAT to trade, the XT was the equivalent of a Lotus with Yugo badges.
Yup–the XT looked great for 1985. It had a great drag coefficient of .29, only one windshield wiper and even these neat little flaps, covering the door handles, that you had to push out of the way before you could open the door.
The futuristic theme continued inside. I think the XT is one of the first and/or only vehicles in which the HVAC controls moved along with the steering column. Depending on the model, instrumentation was either sensible analog dials or crazy LCD. And for those who’d reached the limits of their Atari game console, the shifter (whether manual or automatic) closely copied a joystick. The asymmetrical steering wheel looked like it would be more at home in a Citroën.
But after you actually got one of these on the road, any illusion of a car that would magically spirit you forward to 1999 was pretty much ruined. Initially, the XT engine was a flat 1.8-liter mill shared with the Leone (our DL/GL), in either 97-hp or 112-hp (turbo) guise. Neither of these variants provided the kind of otherworldly scoot promised by the exterior. Bear in mind that the XT, for all its futuristic looks, was no lightweight: It weighed 2,877 pounds with the all-wheel-drive system and six-cylinder engine (more on that later), and even the front-drive, non-turbo models topped out at more than 2,600 pounds. That’s just too much weight to make either 97 or 112 horses feel genuinely quick.
Probably in response to this lack of power came the XT6, in 1988. While its 2.7-liter flat-six did make the car feel quite a bit faster, it still was less than sportif with all that weight to drag around.
I remember the XT6 review in Daniel Heraud’s 1989 Road Report (Canuck car folk will recognize this publication). His biggest criticism of the vehicle was that despite the six-cylinder engine, it remained less a sports car than a “comfortable coupe.” He also pointed out that it was pretty expensive, difficult to get into and out of, and not very attractive.
I recall that when I was in high school, a young woman who lived not far from my school purchased an XT6 only a year or two old. Before I learned how they worked, its quirky door handle flaps were a source of much fascination. Hers was painted in that early-1990s calypso green color that would be found on many other Japanese (and North American) cars by mid-decade.
In any case, the XT (and XT-6) never sold that well for Suburu. Still, compared with less than 25,000 sales over six model years for its successor (the quicker, quirkier, pricier and more fragile SVX), the XT looks like a best seller.
(photos by Paul Niedermeyer)