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50 years ago, Subaru rolled out their first all-wheel drive car

Do you know what it was?
Subaru 50 years of AWD
PHOTO: Subaru

Subaru is perhaps best known for having all-wheel drive in just about everything they make. The BRZ and a few kei-cars aside, almost every Subaru that rolls out of their assembly lines can put down power to all four wheels. But have you ever wondered how long Subaru has been fitting all-wheel drive to their vehicles?

The answer to that is 1972. Yes, 50 years ago, Subaru put all-wheel drive in one of their cars, and they’ve been doing that ever since. So, let’s take a look at the first Subaru that had it, along with the other models that defined the brand. Not only that, Subaru also made a sweet little video that celebrates their all-wheel drive history. You might even recognize a few icons there too.

How a small Subaru wagon changed the company’s course

Subaru Leone 4WD Wagon

Subaru was far from the company it is now in the ‘70s. At the time, folks only produced five models to date. These were the 1500, the 360, the R2, the Sambar kei van, and the 1000. So, when it was time for them to introduce the Leone in 1971, they decided to to something a little different. Aside from offering it in different body styles, they thought it was a good idea to make all-wheel drive an option for the wagon.


The result is the Leone 4WD Estate Van, Japan's first mass-produced AWD passenger car. It came out in late 1972 and paved the way for future all-wheel drive for the brand. It was a bit of a success too, having a bit of success in the US and proved a popular option for those who lived in snowy states.

Subaru Leone sedan

Sure, it didn’t sell in the millions, but it was enough for the automaker to make all-wheel drive an option for the next two generations of the Leone. And here’s a fun fact for you, the second-generation Leone was Subaru’s first rally car. That paved the way for another thing Subaru became known for, motorsport.

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Going sporty

Subaru Alycone

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With the Leone raking in decent sales for Subaru, the company decided to make something a wee bit sportier. In 1985, Subaru surprised the world by debuting the unmistakably ‘80s-looking XT. This was Subaru going bold and daring, grabbing attention from mainstream automakers. Subaru even followed it up with the SVX in the 90’s. Sadly, it was a move that didn’t exactly pay off for the brand, but at least they didn’t five up on all-wheel drive.

Legacy: The turning point

Subaru Legacy

So, sports coupes didn’t pan out for Subaru, and they still needed something with greater mass appeal. Sure, the Leone was selling well, but it was already an aged product by the late ‘80s. But rather than be conservative and keep churning out Leones, they made another gamble.

Subaru wanted a slice of the mid-size sedan market, a strong and competitive field in the US at the time. But Subaru had never made a larger sedan before, let alone a car for executives.


Subaru Legacy 1989

Nonetheless, Subaru soldiered on and the Legacy was born in 1989. The gamble paid off too as the Legacy spiked Subaru sales in North America, and was a hit in Japan and Australia too (as the Liberty). Because of the Legacy, Subaru’s all-wheel drive sales went through the roof. That was more than enough motivation for the brand to keep using all-wheel drive.

If that wasn’t enough, Subaru also entered the Legacy in the World rally Championship, launching the WRC career of a certain Scotsman named Colin McRae. More success would follow for Subaru, its all-wheel drive system, and its motorsports pedigree.

The Impreza and motorsport

Subaru Impreza WRX

Subaru realized that it can’t rely on the Legacy as their sales driver. At the same time, the Leone was outdated, especially compared to contemporary models such as the fourth-generation Honda Civic and the seventh-gen Toyota Corolla. Boosted by the success of the Legacy, Subaru retired the Leone and went to work on their next-generation compact car, the one we all know and love as the Impreza.

The Impreza was launched in 1992 and was yet another success story for Subaru. But the real party started when Subaru decided to stick a turbo on the Impreza. Like the Legacy, it was entered in the World Rally Championship, and the lighter and nimbler chassis of the Impreza put Subaru and its team drivers on the world stage.

Subaru Impreza WRC 2003


The Impreza gave Subaru their first manufacturer and driver title in 1995 with Colin McRae and Nicky Grist. That was followed by two more manufacturer titles in 1996 and 1997, winning the constructors title three years in a row. The second-gen Impreza, launched in 2000, then gave Richard Burns and co-driver Robert Ried their championship trophies in 2001. This generation of Impreza also helped Petter Solberg and Phil Mills clinch the 2003 championship.

But beyond the success in rallying, the Impreza helped make Subaru a household name. Admit it, if you were a child of the ‘90s, chances are the Impreza was the first Subaru you ever heard of. Oh, and a few first-gen WRXs were officially sold here too.

Entering the crossover market

Subaru Forester first-gen

By the mid-’90s, a new kind of vehicle was climbing up the sales charts. The sport-utility vehicle was talking the world by storm, and Subaru wanted in on the action. Subaru’s first attempt was in 1994 with the introduction of the Outback. Simply put, it was a Legacy wagon with extra ground clearance and body cladding to make it look more like an SUV. It’s a formula Subaru still follows today with the current Outback.

But the real breakthrough arrived in 1997 in the form of the Forester, and it’s more than an Impreza wagon on stilts. The Forester had a different body, tuned suspension, and more utility than the Impreza. The first-gen model was aimed squarely at the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, making the Forester one of the pioneers of the crossover as we know it today.

Subaru Forester third-generation

But there’s another thing that made the early Foresters special. Subaru followed the Impreza playbook and gave the Forester a turbocharged option. As a result, the Forester could do what most SUVs and crossovers couldn’t do at the time, offer a sporty driving experience. The boosted Foresters were, essentially, WRXs that can carry more of the family and their luggage. What’s not to like?


What’s next?

Subaru WRX 2022

These days, Subaru’s product portfolio is more diverse than ever. We now have models such as the XV, Levorg, and Evoltis. But one thing hasn’t changed in the last 50 years, and that’s offering all-wheel drive in just about everything. What used to be a quirky and niche feature is now a norm for the brand. The BRZ aside, can you imagine walking to a Subaru showroom and not expect an all-wheel drive model?

Subaru Solterra 2022

As for the future, Subaru is pushing for electrification with a wider range of hybrid vehicles. We can also expect more EVs from the automaker, a move initiated by the Solterra.

And in case you have to ask, the Solterra has all-wheel drive too.

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PHOTO: Subaru
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