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Does Subaru risk losing its identity to Toyota with joint venture projects like the 86/BRZ and bZ4X/Solterra? | Opinion

The BRZ is the brand's only rear-drive model, but does that make it less Subaru?

In a sea of me-too SUVs and a globalisation that has led to a homogenisation of the cars we drive, brands like Subaru are a breath of fresh air.

The company has stuck resolutely to its twin guns of a boxer engine layout and all-wheel drive (in Australia at least, if you don’t count the BRZ) for its passenger cars, and with halo models like the WRX that have graduated to icon status, there’s a real flavour that many brands simply can’t match.

But is there a danger that Subaru could stand to lose that mojo – that individuality – as development costs force it to snuggle up to other manufacturers in the name of economic viability? The forthcoming Solterra electric vehicle will possibly be the acid test in this regard.

Given that the Subaru EV is a restyled Toyota bZ4X, it’s clear that the joint-project was a welcome chance to split development costs between the two brands. But scratch a bit deeper and it appears that Subaru’s contribution was mostly that of a viable all-wheel-drive system; something with which it has decades of experience (then again, so has Toyota).

It has also been reported that the exteriors and interiors of both versions of the e-TNGA platform are similar, and early shots of the Subaru confirm as much. So what will prevent the Subaru becoming a niche model against an ocean of Toyota EVs? More critically, what can save the Subaru-ness of the Solterra given there’s so much Toyota in it?

The first thing to remember is that joint ventures don’t always turn out the way we think they might. That’s just the car industry for you. Secondly, it pays to remember that Toyota and Subaru already have a joint-venture car between them, the 86/BRZ twins.

Even though the 86/BRZ is a case of the boot being on the other foot with Subaru doing the heavy development lifting (Toyota’s contribution centring on the complex fuel-injection system), the end result had to be acceptable to both companies’ philosophies and targets. Which, of course, both versions were, but it’s still interesting to recall that the end result – despite the badge fitted – felt, sounded and even smelled strongly of Subaru. From the sound of the engine, to the snug clack of the gearstick as it shifted gears, the 86/BRZ was every inch a Subaru to drive.

Given Toyota’s rather dreary line-up at the time, that may have been a calculated end result. Similarly, the move to a degree of Toyota-ness for the Solterra might just be, given Toyota’s stellar success with mid-sized, all-wheel-drive SUVs of late, a master-stroke.

The other thing to remember is that all bets are off as far as brand familiarity is concerned in this case. The move to an all-electric driveline changes everything for both carmakers concerned. Consumer perception is more likely to centre around what will be a totally alien experience, rather than a hair-splitting session over whether the carpet smells like Toyota’s or Subaru’s.

There are also plenty of precedents for brands actually benefitting from joint venture development projects. Back when Jaguar was on its corporate knees in the late 1990s, for instance, Ford’s buy-out and subsequent stewardship (not that Toyota has bought Subaru, but it has, since 2019, owned 20 per cent of Subaru) didn’t sit too well with all stakeholders.

But it arguably gave the British brand the lifeline it needed. And while the X-Type Jaguar that used the Ford Mondeo platform wasn’t a universal reason to cheer, by adapting that floorpan to all-wheel-drive, Jaguar came up with a mid-sized luxury car with a real point of difference when it came to rivals the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes C-Class.

And what about Lamborghini’s adoption into the VW-Audi family in 1998? Without this take-over and change of leadership and, crucially, the working capital and business savvy that came with it, Lamborghini may well have wandered aimlessly around the automotive desert as it had been doing for years, fumbling from one under-funded, misguided management change to another. But under VW-Audi, Lamborghini’s products began to improve, with each year’s Gallardo better than the previous, and launching the V10 car on its way to becoming the brand’s best-selling model in history (until the philosophically similar Huracan replacement arrived).

Lamborghini under VW also saw some clarity of future product including the decision to build the Murcielago in favour of other less promising concepts floating around Lamborghini’s design studio at the time.

It doesn’t, of course, always turn out so nicely. Witness General Motor’s complete demolition of the Saab brand in the last part of last century. With the Swedish brand facing mounting development costs and a niche clientele, GM managed to acquire 50 per cent of an already stricken Saab in 1989. By the turn of the century, GM had increased that to 100 per cent and was well down the path of serving up ho-hum GM platforms dressed as Saabs. The public weren’t buying it (literally) and the once proud Saab badge, to all intents and purposes, disappeared into history in 2011.

However, we should not forget that, in happier times, Saab was the beneficiary of a joint venture deal called the Type 4 Project back in the 1980s (first mooted in 1978) where Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo and Saab got together to co-design their next big-car platform. By splitting the design and development costs, each maker was able to achieve more than they would have going solo.

The Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema that resulted were also-rans, but the Alfa Romeo 164 and Saab 9000 were global cars of note. The Saab outlived all the others, with production lasting until 1997 and is, arguably, the last of the `real’ Saabs.

We must also mention the BMW Z4/Toyota Supra phenomenon; a subject that has launched a million online taunts. In this case, of course, the Toyota-bodied version has been pilloried by many as a rip-off of the Z4.

Rip-off is a harsh term, but even if you allow for the sentiment that the end result is all BMW and very little Toyota, does that dilute the qualities of the end result? Consider for a moment that without the joint venture in question, an all-new Supra would possibly have never progressed beyond the in-house think-tank.

Clearly, there’s a fine line to be trod here. The reduction of development, engineering and testing costs must be played off against a whitewashing of what makes each brand special. For a pair of brands with the marketing chops of Toyota and Subaru, getting that equation wrong in 2021 seems pretty unlikely.