Subaru performance, safety push gets a reality check during Nurburgring’s punishing endurance race
Subaru took on the world’s racing establishment last month at Germany’s punishing 24-hour Nurburgring endurance race to showcase two things: the Japanese automaker’s plan to put more performance muscle into its vehicles and its desire to proclaim its brand focus on safety.
The effort went up in flames — literally.
As the world looked on, Subaru’s high-powered blue-and-red WRX STI race car came to a halt with just three hours left in the race when it erupted into flames and oily black smoke as it exited turn two.
Worse, it quickly became clear that Subaru had failed to think through driver safety.
The crew had taped the driver’s side door closed because of a fender-bender in the race. When the car caught fire, its rattled Dutch driver, Carlo van Dam, couldn’t open it from inside. He had no choice but to climb through the blaze that had engulfed the other side of the car.
But that door’s lever broke as he fumbled for an escape, van Dam said.
“You have to be a bit of a nut case to be a racing driver anyway on this kind of circuit,” van Dam said after getting out unscathed. “But when I saw the flames, it was the first time I really was scared.”
Is this any way to build a brand reputation for safe and sporty cars?
According to Subaru, it most certainly is.
Subaru has a reputation for safe, if utilitarian and somewhat frumpy, vehicles. But it wants its street cars, such the Outback, Impreza and Legacy, to be sporty too. Taking on circuits such as Germany’s grueling Nurburgring, known for its dangerous blind curves, narrow track and incessant ups and downs, provides an unparalleled crucible to fuse both traits.
“I want to make our brand safe and exciting,” says Yoshio Hirakawa, president of the carmaker’s Subaru Tecnica International racing and performance division.
“For Subaru STI, the most important thing is verifying that our racing expertise can be utilized in normal production car development,” he said. “Crashworthiness, for example, must be achieved for real-world conditions. Just assessing performance in a test facility is not enough.”
The mantra manifests itself in Subaru’s corporate slogan: “Enjoyment and Peace of Mind.”
But as the Nurburgring mishap shows, turning a vehicle brand into a leader in performance and safety technology is hard work.
Off track, Subaru has long worked to polish its safety credentials, much like Volvo did in decades past.
Thanks to Subaru’s pre-crash automatic braking system, marketed under the name EyeSight, its vehicles routinely earn Top Safety Pick+ ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A new and more rigid global platform is being introduced to better resist and absorb collisions.
But Subaru wants to simultaneously lift brand value by making its cars sportier.
That’s where Hirakawa’s STI brand comes in. Subaru Tecnica International has been around since 1988, but Subaru is rapidly ramping up marketing and product offerings to emphasize it more.
Subaru tests its STI mettle through motorsports activities such as Global Rallycross in the United States and the Super GT series in Japan and at Nurburgring.
The STI business also produces complete car models and individual performance parts. STI editions usually get any combination of special chassis tuning, responsive steering, heavy-duty brakes, bigger wheels, aero kits and pipped engines. Subaru has sold STI editions of the Legacy sedan, Forester crossover and BRZ sporty coupe in Japan. It has also offered a “tuned by” version of the Exiga minivan. Most were sold in limited editions of around 300 vehicles.
Outside Japan, STI has less awareness. Subaru gives the STI treatment mostly to the WRX, although Australia also got a Forester tS, which designates tuning by the STI division. The United States is the biggest market for complete STI vehicles. But until now, only an STI version of the WRX has been offered. Subaru says it sold around 8,000 of them in 2016.
Subaru said this month that it will add two STI variants for 2018 in the U.S.
A 2018 WRX STI Type RA builds on the standard WRX STI’s 2.5-liter turbocharged boxer engine with a cold-air intake and high-flow performance exhaust to boost horsepower to around 310. A carbon fiber roof, Cherry Blossom Red accents and 19-inch wheels sweeten the package.
Meanwhile, a 2018 BRZ tS will come decked in STI flourishes, including underspoilers, a carbon fiber rear wing, 18-inch wheels and the Cherry Blossom Red trim.
Both variants arrive early next year, each in a limited run of 500 vehicles.
The numbers are small. But any incremental vehicle volume is icing on the cake for a brand expecting its ninth straight year of record U.S. sales. This year through May, Subaru’s U.S. sales were up 8.5 percent from the year-earlier period, after climbing 5.6 percent to 615,132 vehicles in 2016.
Hirakawa said the two STI variants are part of a rollout meant to boost STI’s U.S. profile. Eventually, he wants to introduce STI versions of every Subaru nameplate.
He also sees the need for a Subaru halo car from the STI family.
“We should have a hero car at the top of our product lineup,” Hirakawa said. “For example, an STI model with autonomous driving features that enable top times at circuits.
“STI models should have both superior driving performance and safety.”
Hirakawa dangled a vision of a high-performance car akin to the modified WRX STI model raced at Nurburgring, but equipped with the latest, greatest safety technology. The Nurburgring racer carried a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder twin scroll turbo generating 335 hp. Because Subaru has cemented its safety DNA, it can move more aggressively on performance, he said.
“If Subaru didn’t have good safety ratings, cultivating a sporty racing image would be meaningless,” Hirakawa said. “By adding the sporty racing image on top of the safety offering, product appeal will be highly enhanced.”
‘Felt like crying’
A victory at the May 27-28 Nurburgring was supposed to solidify STI’s track cred.
It would have been Subaru’s third-straight class win, against such rivals as the Audi TT RS2 and Lexus RC, and its fifth class win since the STI team began racing here in 2008. Subaru even brought a small clutch of reporters from Japan to witness the victory.
What they saw instead were Subaru pit crew members scrambling with shocked and morbid faces to comb over the charred remains of their car for clues to the sudden engine blaze. Adding insult to injury, as the pit crew pulled down the paddock flaps for privacy to work on the car, a gust of wind blew through the garage area and tore the top off Subaru’s tent.
The pall was palpable as Audi took top in class and Japanese rival Lexus finished second.
“I felt like crying. I was so disappointed,” mechanic Takanori Murai said after the race. He was one of six mechanics recruited from regular Subaru dealers across Japan to travel to Germany to work on the car. The slots are highly competitive and considered a retailer incentive tool.
Team Manager Shigeo Sugaya pledged to avenge the loss next year, if tapped again as leader. Van Dam, one of four drivers, praised the WRX STI, despite the engine blaze. In past races, he said, its all-wheel drive gave better handling and stability in hailstorms and oily track conditions.
“Of course, safety comes first, but sometimes you do a bit of compromising,” van Dam said. “But the car in general has been very safe. There have been a lot of hairy moments over the last few years, and because of the driveability of the car, we always escape.”
But, he added: “We still have some homework to do.”
Fuente: Automotive News