- May 12, 2016
50 Years of Subaru Boxers
Subaru Boxer highlights from the past 50 years
If there are two things for which Subarus are known, they're surely all-wheel drive and the boxer engine. In fact the Japanese automaker has made some 15 million vehicles with AWD by now, but even more – over 16 million – with its signature horizontally opposed engines.
Relatively obscure, the boxer or “flat” engine is essentially the same as a V setup, but with 180 degrees between the two cylinder banks. It sits lower in the engine bay and offers a lower center of gravity to the benefit of the vehicle's handling, and Subaru says the design makes its cars safer. True boxers with opposing cylinders oscillating in unison don't require balancing shafts, either. But they can be noisier and less refined, especially with fewer than six cylinders.
Karl Benz (of Mercedes fame) patented the design in 1896, and several automakers have employed it over the decades since. Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Citroën, Chevy, Ford, and Volkswagen have all used boxer engines. So did Tatra, Tucker, and Panhard. Ferrari used a flat-twelve in its Berlinetta Boxer and Testarossa lines as well. But few have embraced the design quite as emphatically as Porsche and Subaru.
Like Porsche, Subaru employs both four- and six-cylinder boxers, and has for many years. Subaru's first boxer-powered car was the 1000, which hit the scene on May 14, 1966. Which means Subaru has been producing its boxer engines for 50 years, and by now every model it makes (save for some obscure JDM kei cars) features that signature design. So to mark the occasion, we've gone back through the archives to revisit our favorite boxer-powered models in the company's history.
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Subaru Impreza WRX STIFor countless enthusiasts, boy racers, and rally fans around the world, the name Subaru is synonymous with the WRX, and its amped-up counterpart, the STI. The all-wheel-drive hot hatches and sedans owe their existence to the three World Rally Championships that Subaru won with various versions of the Impreza between 1995 and 2003. Like its rival Mitsubishi with the Lancer Evo, Subaru translated its victories on the rally stage into the road-going WRX. The first version was based on the first-generation Impreza, which never officially arrived Stateside in any form more potent than the 2.5RS. Americans didn't get the full-on WRX until the second generation. All of them have been powered by boxer engines.
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Subaru BRZThough it doesn't have all-wheel drive like most of its stablemates, the Subaru BRZ still packs a boxer engine. At its heart sits a 2.0-liter flat-four good for a nice round 200 horsepower and backed by 151 pound-feet of torque, transmitted to the rear wheels alone through either a manual or automatic six-speed transmission. The engine, like the rest of the vehicle, is shared with Toyota in the form of the 86, previously known on these shores as the Scion FR-S and overseas as the GT86.
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Lest we forget, the Subaru SVX was a contemporary of the Nissan 300ZX, Toyota Supra, and Mitsubishi 3000 GT. Only instead of aligning its cylinders in a V or in a line, the SVX put them in – you guessed it – a boxer orientation. The 3.3-liter engine was the largest Subaru had made up until that point, producing 231 horsepower and 228 pound-feet of torque. It could be had in front- or all-wheel drive, but was sadly offered only with an automatic transmission.
Powertrain notwithstanding, where the SVX really stood apart was in its design. Penned by the inimitable Giorgetto Giugiaro, the SVX was straight out of the Robocop era – right down to the split windows you'd otherwise expect to see on the supercars of the day. The design may not have aged all that well by today's standards, but when the 80s make their comeback, the SVX may yet return to the limelight.
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Where other automakers have gone big with their debut crossovers, Subaru started decidedly small with the launch of the Forester – and we applaud them for it. The original that arrived in '97 was delightfully boxy and refreshingly low-slung, standing just a couple of inches taller than today's Crosstrek. Four generations later, its successor has grown a bit in every dimension, but it's still a nimble machine – and crucially, it's still powered by an array of boxer fours.
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Before Volvo was doing the Cross Country thing and long before the Audi Allroad, Subaru (sorry, AMC) virtually pioneered the idea of the ruggedized wagon with the Outback. First hitting the market in the mid-1990s, the Outback was (and still is) based closely on the Legacy, but stands apart with a higher ride height and contrasting lower body cladding to bridge the gap between wagon and crossover. It also shares the Legacy's mechanical components, including its all-wheel-drive system and choice of four- and six-cylinder boxer engines. The first version offered only 135 horsepower from 2.2 liters, but the latest nearly doubles that output figure at 256 hp from a 3.6-liter flat-six.