Subaru was a relative latecomer to the U.S. market, with importer Subaru of America founded in February 1968. Rivals Toyota and Nissan (née Datsun) were already well established by then.
Subaru of America was founded by young Malcolm Bricklin, who later became famous for creating the Bricklin sports car. Bricklin saw an opportunity to offer the lowest-priced automobile in America by importing the tiny, two-cylinder Subaru 360 minicar. With a price tag of just $1,297, the midget Subaru was met with a fair amount of success, at least until Consumer Reports magazine tested one and called it the “…most unsafe car on the market,” which immediately chilled sales. The importer would have gone out of business had Subaru manufacturer Fuji Heavy Industries not stepped in to save Subaru’s reputation in America. It made the decision to bring the larger Subaru 1100 line of sedans and wagons to America. These new models enjoyed success, particularly the station wagons. Their big claim to fame was front-wheel drive, which endeared them to folks in the snowbelt. At the time, there were few front-drive models available in the United States.
With unusual styling and engineering, Subaru’s overall image was that of a builder of quirky sedans and wagons, which, if you think about it, was a pretty significant drawback. The situation apparently irked someone high up at Subaru, because by the early 1980s, company designers were put to work creating an image car for the plucky automaker. Management wanted something stylish, sleek and modern, something people would want to own because of its looks and prestige. Their designers came through.
Subaru introduces an image-maker
Introduced in early 1985, the sporty, new Subaru XT sport coupe was offered in three trim levels: DL and GL, both of which were front-wheel drive, and the 4WD Turbo. XT styling was dramatic with a wedge-shape profile using a sharp, low nose, a low roof, a high trunk and large wheel openings. Wheel covers were standard on DL and GL models; alloy wheels were standard on the Turbo, and optional on the others. Designed with the aid of a wind tunnel, the new coupe boasted a drag coefficient of 0.29, the lowest of any production car sold in America that year, according to MotorWeek. Flush glass and door handles and concealed headlamps additionally worked to provide the XT with the low drag coefficient.
Interior trim was intriguing, with form-fitting high-back bucket seats featuring bold fabric designs. GL and Turbo models included a small rear seat, although tight quarters meant it was for occasional use only — and then, only by small people. Standard equipment included a tachometer; quartz digital clock; tilt steering wheel; full gauges; and a turbo-boost gauge for the Turbo model. An AM-FM two-speaker radio was standard for DL; a 10-watt, four-speaker AM-FM electronically tuned radio (ETR) was standard for for GL; and a 20-watt, AM-FM ETR was standard for the Turbo. Other standard features included tinted glass; rear defogger; center console (except DL); and power windows and locks (except DL). Power rack-and-pinion steering was standard on GL and Turbo; the base DL received manual rack-and-pinion steering.
Power for the DL and GL was supplied by a fuel-injected, overhead-camshaft flat-four displacing 109 cubic inches (1781cc) developing 94 hp and 101 lbs.-ft. of torque. The 4WD Turbo engine, also displacing 109 cubic inches, put out 111 hp and 134 lbs.-ft. of torque. Although today these numbers sound a bit weak, for a small car in the fuel-conscious 1980s, they were good. A five-speed manual transmission was standard equipment on all; a three-speed automatic was optionally available for GL and 4WD Turbo models.
The body/chassis was an all-steel unibody type, which kept the weight down to just 2,270 lbs. on the DL, 2,415 lbs. on the GL and 2,610 lbs. on the Turbo. The XT’s wheelbase was a short 97-inches — the same as AMC’s two-seat AMX. Front suspension was MacPherson struts with coil springs, while the independent rear consisted of trailing arms and coil springs. Turbo models included a mechanism to control the ride height; the car automatically rose 1.5 inches on its suspension whenever four-wheel drive was engaged. Brakes were front disc and rear drum, except on the Turbo, which came with four-wheel disc brakes.
The price for all this? Just $7,889 for the DL, $9,899 for the GL and $13,589 for the 4WD Turbo. By comparison, a similar-year Nissan 200SX coupe was $8,999 for the base model, $9,199 for the XE coupe and $12,349 for the Turbo hatchback. Air conditioning was standard on the XT Turbo model, optional on the others.
Magazine reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with journalists praising the new styling, decent acceleration and nimble handling. Subaru was building great cars back then, and it showed in the 1985 J.D. Power Customer Satisfaction Index, which listed Subaru in second place, behind only Mercedes-Benz — and ahead of Toyota and Honda.
Of the three first-year XT models, the Turbo was, by far, the most satisfying to drive. With a five-speed manual transmission, it offered excellent performance while its four-wheel drive added safety and better adhesion in corners. Acceleration from 0-60 mph could be achieved in 11.0 seconds, good for that era.
Subaru tweaks the XT
The same three XT models returned for 1986 with few changes. By 1987, prices had risen to $10,195 for the DL, $12,195 for the GL and $12,195 for the 4WD model.
For the 1988 model year Subaru added two new models, the XT6 (priced at $16,995) and XT6 4WD (priced at $17,745). These were powered by the new Subaru six-cylinder engine, an alloy-block, overhead-cam, horizontally opposed six-banger putting out 145 hp for sparkling acceleration and improved smoothness. With the introduction of the six-cylinder models, the XT Turbo was discontinued.
The XT models continued in the Subaru of America lineup through 1991, but by then, the styling was becoming a little dated. Seven years is a long time on the market without a major change.
For the 1992 model year, the XT series was replaced by another boldly styled Subaru sport coupe: the SVX. The SVX sports car is known for its expansive greenhouse and oddball “side window within a window” feature. We’ll cover that car in the future.
If you’d like to buy a Subaru XT, you’ll find they’re rather rare these days, though they do regularly show up in online searches; you just have to be patient. The good news is that prices are very reasonable, ranging from around $2,900 to $8,900, depending on model and condition. Happy hunting!
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