1985 Subaru XT 4WD Turbo Embraces the Strange

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From the June 1985 issue of Car and Driver.

In case you haven’t checked in with Subaru lately, brace yourself. Respectable, reliable Subaru, the company that finished second in the J.D. Power Customer Satisfaction Index right behind Mercedes­-Benz, the company that led the rush to four-wheel-drive passenger cars, the company that has built its reputation on cars that are “in­expensive and built to stay that way,” is making a bold move. It’s going into the dream-car business.

But wait a minute. Don’t let yourself slip into the Lambo-Maser-Porsche mindset. This is something else entirely. Harvey Lamm, president of Subaru of America, says it best: “A lot of people don’t want to make the compromise for that sexy dream car. They might not want a car that’s hard to get into and out of, or one you need to wear a kidney belt to ride in. We want to build civilized dream cars, gentlemen’s sports cars.”

And that’s how the all-new Subaru XT coupe came to be. Well, all that and years of coaxing the home office into action. It was Lamm and his cohorts at Subaru of America who convinced Fuji Heavy Industries that it needed to build a sporting flagship for the U.S. market. For all intents and purposes, the XT was conceived in America and is being built for America. And that’s why Subaru chose America for the XT’s world debut.

The XT’s mission, then, is to serve as a symbol of Subaru’s move up to a more affluent market, from rural pack horses to high-tech city slickers. “We wanted the XT,” says Lamm, “to be everything Subarus are and everything they’re not.” Come to think of it, that’s exactly what the XT is—and isn’t.

Taking first things first, the XT is a two-plus-two sports coupe based heavily on the firm’s new line of sedans. It borrows the sedans’ port-fuel-injected, 94-horsepower, 1.8-liter, overhead-cam, horizontally opposed, all-alloy four-cylinder engine and their transaxles (your choice of five-speed manual or three-speed automatic). As with the sedans, you can opt for a 111-hp turbocharged version of the same engine. The fully independent suspension, consisting of struts and coil springs in the front and semi-trailing arms and coil springs in the rear, is also sedan-derived. Turbo models can be outfitted with part-time four-wheel drive, which is the kind not intended for dry-road use. All four-wheel-drive XTs are equipped with air springs and electronic height control.

So far, the XT is pure Subaru. Techno­logically, it’s typical of everything that’s evolved at the firm in recent years, and it breaks no new ground. That means you should expect the same kind of award-win­ning reliability and above-average dealer service that have long made Subaru owners staunch believers.

Once you get past the mechanical stuff, though, look out. This Subaru goes where its predecessors feared to tread. Inside and out, it’s designed to shock you out of any preconceived notions you may harbor about Subarus.

The new-wave design will certainly stir up controversy. The XT’s severe wedge shape is clearly striking, different from any­thing Subaru’s done before. Then again, we haven’t heard anyone accuse it of being beautiful. From the rear it looks ungainly, thanks to sharp tapering in the rear quar­ter-window area, a longish trunk lid, and a blocky rear bumper. Following the XT down the road, one is reminded of a Victorian-era bustle. The best we can say is that from some angles­—particularly the side—it’s aggressive and pleasing.

There’s no quibbling over the XT’s aerodynamics, however. This car is a four­-wheeled needle. The most slippery model in the line, the front-drive Turbo, registers a drag coefficient of only 0.29. That makes the XT the most wind-cheating car sold in America, about ten percent more slippery than the vaunted Audi 5000. As a matter of fact, the only production cars in the world with better drag coefficients are Renault’s 25 and Alpine, both of which register 0.28 in Renault’s wind tunnel.

Subaru claims that there’s no real magic in the XT’s shape but admits to a lot of careful detailing. As it turns out, the firm’s secret weapon in the war against the wind was an American. When the XT’s designer, Kyuchi Akari, was studying at the Art Cen­ter College of Design in Pasadena, he stayed at the home of Alex Tremulis, a free-thinking aerodynamicist and a design­er of both cars and airplanes. (Tremulis’s diverse list of automotive accomplishments ranges from designing the slope-nosed 1961 Thunderbird to consulting on Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America land-speed­-record cars.) “I gave Kyuchi a quick course in aerodynamics,” says Tremulis. “I just pointed out some areas to look at where there might be flow separation.” The rest, as they say, is history.

The XT’s exterior is certainly radical, but it was the interior where Subaru man­agement really gave free rein to its dream­-car fantasies. Although the coupe stretches to 175 inches overall (about the length of a GM J-car), no attempt was made to carve out room for four adults; the XT is a two-­plus-two all the way. Going for the racy look meant dropping the roofline about five inches lower than that of the sedans. The front-seat passengers sit a commensu­rate amount lower, with their legs out straighter. The only nod toward practicality is the fold-down rear seatback, which re­veals a large access hole to the trunk that enables you to haul long objects.

Three levels of trim are available: DL (the base model, which has no rear seatlet), GL (non-turbo, front-drive only), and GL-10 Turbo (the full-on electro-kinky model). Our 4WD Turbo test car’s interior was, well—wild, Jack. The Subaru guys really cut loose, pursuing the high-tech Holy Grail as if there were no tomorrow. From the driv­er’s seat, which is covered in eye-straining checked velour, the view around the cabin is heavily NASA.

The area directly in front of the driver is dominated by a pair of control pods that reach out from behind the wheel. The pods’ banks of touch switches operate most of the climate-control functions, the cruise control, the ride-height override, the lights, and the wipers. The stylized soft­-vinyl steering wheel has its thick spokes set at the three- and six-o’clock positions, and a couple more cruise-control switches re­side on the wheel hub. The soft-molded shift lever looks exactly like a video-game joystick, but instead of killing aliens when you press the red button atop the lever, you engage four-wheel drive.

Speaking of video games, it’s worth a trip to the dealer just to see the XT Turbo’s electronic instrument cluster, which goes way beyond the familiar readouts for speed, rpm, outside temperature, coolant temperature, and fuel level.

When you twist the key, the display screen comes to life with a pictograph of a car seen from the rear, pointing down a long, flat road that disappears into the dis­tance. The “sidewalks” paralleling the “road” are actually the tach and the boost gauge. As the revs and the boost build, the sidewalks light up in a way that makes the car appear to move down the road. When the XT’s air suspension jacks itself up for extra ground clearance, the pictograph rises on its wheel as well.

Once you get over the techno shock of sliding behind the wheel, you’ll notice that there’s no shortage of conventional luxury gear, either. All Turbos come with power steering, power door locks, power win­dows, cruise, A/C, a sunroof, a four-speak­er stereo, and much more. There’s even a speed alarm that trumpets your arrival at the double-nickel if you’ve activated it with its separate key. Subaru suggests that this is a good way to keep errant teenagers from exceeding the speed limit. Considering the awful racket this device makes, your kid will either (a) never get a ticket, or (b) go out and buy their own car.

When you’re ready to hit the road, dial­ing yourself into a comfy driving position is simple. The seats are nicely shaped and pleasantly firm. For fine-tuning, there’s a bottom-cushion rake adjustment. The steering column tilts and telescopes, and the instrument cluster and the satellite pods move up and down in unison with the column so that everything stays in line.

The driving experience, like everything else about the XT, has its high and low points. You won’t be five miles from the dealership before you discover the hard truth about the electronic instrument clus­ter. According to the sidewalk boost gauge, the turbocharger is either blowing for all it’s worth or not at all—and that just ain’t so. The sidewalk tach is just about indecipherable.

Subaru’s attempt at high-tech switchgear also falls flat. We’re not saying you’ll never adapt to the control-pod setup, but in one long day of driving we didn’t make much headway. We kept scraping the edi­torial knuckle on the left pod’s support when going for the turn signals, and some of the switches felt cheap. The sliding le­vers for the heater’s fan speed and tem­perature, located on the center console be­tween the seats, are out of your line of vision. The power-window buttons are hid­den in the edge of the armrests, where they’re difficult to operate.

We have mixed emotions about the XT’s powerplant as well. This engine has all the right stuff—turbocharging, port fuel injec­tion, overhead cams—but it ought to make quite a bit more power than it does. And it thrums when you press it to the redline. (The normally aspirated engine howls like a riding mower when you lead-foot it.)

The flip side is that the turbo four moves the XT reasonably well. Wind sprints to 60 mph eat up only 10.3 seconds, and top speed levels off at 110 mph. Many turbo cars feel flat at low revs, but the XT has plenty of pep around town. The gear ratios seem just right, and boost lag is almost un­detectable. The turbo four also keep its voice down on the highway.

Interstate travel, in fact, is one of the XT’s specialties. The driving position and the seat are comfortable for the long haul, the straight-line tracking is quite good, the ride is well controlled, and—thanks to the superior aerodynamics—wind noise is ee­rily absent. Our sound-level meter spotted the XT at just 69 dBA at 70 mph, which is bordering on luxury-car quietness.

The XT’s handling isn’t bad either, as long as you don’t ask it to do stunts. Hard chargers will find that the XT gets difficult in all-out canyon-road blitzes. The adhe­sion is all used up at a depressingly low 0.70 g, which is down at the lowly­-econobox end of the grip spectrum.

Looking at the XT purely as a sports coupe, it just doesn’t have the talent to run with the leaders in this class, cars like the Toyota Supra, the Mitsubishi Starion, the Honda Prelude, and the Audi Coupe GT. But when the road turns white—or ends entirely—it’s a whole new ball game. The electronically controlled air suspension raises the car an inch and a half for addi­tional ground clearance, and the XT makes you look like a hero. We have yet to find out whether the XT can do everything a Bron­co or a Blazer can, but we bet it handles it­self well enough off-road or on bad roads to satisfy most folks.

So it all boils down to priorities. For the XT 4WD Turbo’s fourteen-grand asking price—or a couple thousand less—you can find a slew of better two-wheel-drive sports coupes and sedans. The Honda Prelude, for one, can drive circles around the XT on dry pavement. If you require the added dimension of all-wheel drive, however, the superb Audi 4000S Quattro, at about four grand more, is the only other sporty con­tender below $20,000.

In the end, it’s a matter of your personal transportation needs. As we see it, the XT’s ability to press on regardless means that neither rain nor snow nor heat nor gloom of night will stay you from the swift comple­tion of your appointed rounds. The only thing you’ll be stuck with is being different.


Mixed messages with this one. I ap­preciate the bold step Subaru’s taken here, and I rather like the avant-garde styling. So do many: it’s a real eyeball snatcher on the street. I find the cockpit design appealing, too; I’m glad to see proper ergonomics receiving so much attention these days. The turbo gives adequate power with no detectable lag, and the four-by-four option is nice to have in all sorts of situations. Although rear headroom is a joke and the spare tire is intrusive, the overall cargo capaci­ty is vast and the little “Uzi bin” under the floor of the trunk looks very useful!

But. Although the styling and the side graphics say “sport coupe,” the car won’t take any leaning on at all. The suspension contrives to be both jouncy and floppy, the tires are pathetic, the understeer is truly gross, and the inside front wheel spins at the slightest provo­cation. Engaging the rear wheels semineutralizes the handling balance, but engagement and disengagement are sluggish. Oh, and the engine sounds a bit coarse.

I hope they haven’t finished this car yet. —Pete Lyons

Subaru executives make it clear that their XT coupe is not intended to do battle with serious sports cars. That’s good thinking, because the XT lacks the handling and the performance to do so. Unfortunately, the XT will find rough going even against those coupes whose sportiness is based more on image than on reality.

The major problem is its price. For the fourteen and a half grand the XT on these pages costs, one could acquire any number of very attractive cars. For example, an Isuzu Impulse Turbo, with its designer styling, excellent power, and avant-garde interior. Or a Mustang, a Camaro, or a Daytona, each overflow­ing with sporty features. You could even save a couple thousand on a Prelude, a car with refinement and handling leagues beyond the Subaru’s.

Of course, the XT’s ace in the hole is its four-wheel drive. None of its com­petitors can match that feature. For me, though, that single advantage doesn’t offset the XT’s shortcomings, especially its steep price. —Csaba Csere

They titter when I pull up to the pickup window; 5:30 in the morning, and they’re laughing at my XT. Hmmm . . . I’ll tell you one thing: oh-dark-thirty in the morning is no time to climb into this car cold. After an all-nighter at the word processor, you’ll think you’ve come to in a bad dream. Ye gods! Anybody who can make out these controls in the dark gets my vote for standing in when the captain of the Space Shuttle gets food poisoning. I cringe at the plastic of the unborn-alligator headliner, the window controls hidden in the sides of the arm­rests, and the temp and fan controls on the console.

In broad daylight, though, the rest of it actually begins to make some sense (help me, doctor). The Little Thrum­mer Boy engine runs fine, though it feels like a nickel vibrator, stressing the unexpected smoothness of suspension and handling, though I haven’t four­-wheel-driven yet, so I can’t gauge that. More cars should be this much fun. I laugh when I look at it.

At the pickup window they guessed it was a Pontiac. (Must have been backlash from the Grand Am.) They laughed louder as I pulled away. Were they laughing at me or with me? —Larry Griffin

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1985 Subaru XT 4WD Turbo
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front, 4-wheel-drive, 2+2-passenger, 2-door coupe


Base/As Tested: $13,768/$14,523 
Options: alloy wheels, $480; cassette deck, $200; floor mats, $75.

turbocharged flat-4, aluminum block and heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 109 in3, 1782 cm3
Power: 111 hp @ 4800 rpm
Torque: 134 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm 

5-speed manual


Suspension, F/R: struts/trailing arms
Brakes, F/R: 9.5-in vented disc/8.9-in disc
Tires: Bridgestone SF-237 Steel


Wheelbase: 97.1 in
Length: 175.2 in
Width: 66.5 in
Height: 52.6 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 52/29 ft3
Trunk Volume: 12 ft3
Curb Weight: 2640 lb

30 mph: 3.0 sec
60 mph: 10.3 sec
1/4-Mile: 17.4 sec @ 79 mph
100 mph: 39.7 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 15.2 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 13.1 sec
Top Speed: 110 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 208 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.70 g 


Observed: 15 mpg

City/Highway: 25/30 mpg 


Director, Buyer’s Guide

Rich Ceppos has evaluated automobiles and automotive technology during a career that has encompassed 10 years at General Motors, two stints at Car and Driver totaling 19 years, and thousands of miles logged in racing cars. He was in music school when he realized what he really wanted to do in life and, somehow, it’s worked out. In between his two C/D postings he served as executive editor of Automobile Magazine; was an executive vice president at Campbell Marketing & Communications; worked in GM’s product-development area; and became publisher of Autoweek. He has raced continuously since college, held SCCA and IMSA pro racing licenses, and has competed in the 24 Hours of Daytona. He currently ministers to a 1999 Miata and a 1965 Corvette convertible and appreciates that none of his younger colleagues have yet uttered “Okay, Boomer” when he tells one of his stories about the crazy old days at C/D.

Source: Reviews -


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