Think of Subaru today and, besides the excellent BRZ sports car it codeveloped with Toyota, you most likely envision outdoorsy owners happily shuttling Fido around in a boxy, all-wheel-drive wagon. But long before the BRZ, there was another three-letter Subaru sports coupe: the SVX. Never heard of it? You’re forgiven.
Subaru’s U.S. roots date to 1968, when the brand was established as a contrarian, would-be alternative to Volkswagen, Toyota, and Datsun. That’s when Malcolm Bricklin founded Subaru of America in the celebrated automotive hotbed of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. Bricklin is the same wildcatter who later produced a gullwing-doored sports car bearing his name in New Brunswick, Canada, and later imported the much-vilified Yugo to these shores.
By the early 1990s Subaru’s automotive business was taking off, and the automotive division of Fuji Heavy Industries decided to build a halo car to take on BMW. Yes, the brand associated with all-wheel-drive economy cars, most of which were station wagons, conceived a plan to offer a Subaru that could be a German luxury coupe competitor. And while the car maker was at it, Subaru figured it might as well poach some Lexus SC sales and maybe a few Mercedes-Benz SL intenders.
Subaru’s secret weapon was the SVX, an angular design by Giorgetto Giugiaro whose resume includes the BMW M1, DeLorean DMC-12, and Maserati Bora. How could Subaru miss with Italian design, seating for four, a very plush interior, a responsive six-cylinder boxer engine, and all-wheel drive? And smaller, operable windows within its larger stationary windows, like the DeLorean and Lamborghini Countach? The car was aerodynamically sleek, with an impressive drag coefficient of 0.29.
Giugiaro’s initial concept made its debut at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show. Response was enthusiastic, and the Alcyone SVX—the name a reference to the brightest star in the Pleiades cluster as seen on Subaru’s logo—entered production for the 1992 model year, looking very much like the original show car. In the U.S., the car was simply badged SVX (Subaru Vehicle X) for its five-year run.
The SVXs were uncommon, but they weren’t flamboyant in an exotic-car way, so the stir Subaru hoped to cause never really came.
As it happened, the SVX didn’t really bring that star glow to the rest of the line. It was something of an orphan within its own family, having little in common with the more run-of-the-mill Legacy and Impreza models. One of the car’s perceived shortcomings was the fact it came only with a four-speed automatic transmission, Subaru not having a manual gearbox capable of handling the 3.3-liter engine’s 230 hp and 228 lb-ft of torque. But the real problem was that the SVX retailed for almost $10,000 more than any other Subaru despite rumors Subaru lost roughly $3,000 on each one. Those unsustainable economics led to the car’s cancellation at the end of the 1996 model year with no successor planned. Subaru sold a little more than 14,000 in the U.S. despite expected sales of 10,000 per year. Cars were sold Stateside into the following year as 1997 models.
The SVXs were uncommon, but they weren’t flamboyant in an exotic-car way, so the stir Subaru hoped to cause never really came. But that’s changing. Scott King and Sandy Edelstein own the SVX finished in Polo Green seen here. “It’s an intriguing car, different and weird,” King says. “You’re a celebrity when you drive this car. People have no idea what it is, and the Subaru badging just adds to the confusion.”
Their car is a top-of-the line 1996 LSi that still looks somewhat anonymous after all these years, though that rear spoiler seems to have lots in common with the configuration seen on the Lotus Esprit, another Giugiaro design. The exterior is pleasing and smooth but visually engaging, while the interior is absolutely sumptuous. The seats are upholstered in buttery beige leather, but there are also rich brown suede-swathed door and dash panels.
That six-cylinder boxer engine might foster Porsche thoughts, and driving an SVX does offer a solid, almost Stuttgartesque experience. The steering gives weighted assurance without any jitters, irrespective of road surface. It’s a pleasant car to drive, accepting of an active driver’s input or a more laissez-faire approach. It is quick enough, scooting from 0 to 60 mph in a tad more than 7 seconds and onward to a top speed of 154 mph (reduced to 143 mph via a speed limiter in post-1993 cars). Torque-split for U.S. market cars is up to 50/50 front/rear in low-grip situations and 90/10 in normal driving; Japanese versions were more rear-biased. A handful of front-wheel-drive SVXs were sold in the U.S. for the 1994-’95 model years in lower trim models as a cost-cutting measure, but the option was unpopular and discontinued after just two years.
King and Edelstein bought the car from the original owners with just 53,000 miles on the odometer, and to most eyes it’s quite flawless. Edelstein, however, says it’s one paint job away from perfection. The SVX is best appreciated on highways and interstates, which is, after all, where grand tourers are meant to be. “It’s just a joy to drive, and you get a panoramic view you don’t get in any other car,” King says.
On a practical note, it has a big trunk with folding rear seats for trips to Home Depot. And even the window-in-widow design isn’t much of a hindrance. “We actually owned a DeLorean, and the SVX’s windows are much better for a drive-through restaurant. You can theoretically crawl out of it in an emergency.” Well, maybe if you have a 28-inch waist. With all that glass, it’s a literal comfort to hear King boast, “It has the coldest AC we had in any of our cars.”
The SVX is a rolling paradox. It is more than capable of providing the kind of enhanced driving experience associated with traditional prestigious makes, but its eccentricity is partially its charm. Today, it’s one of the better classic-car values going, and the odds of parking next to another one at cars and coffee are slim to none. With classic Japanese sports cars becoming ever more collectible, now is a great time to jump on the SVX bandwagon.
Living with the SVX
A positive aspect of SVX ownership is the active community of owners who keep each other posted on parts, service tips, and events. Mark Schneider, who lives in the Houston area, is one such enthusiast who runs the SVX Nation group on Facebook. His ’95 LSi had more than 189,000 miles on the clock when he bought it, and he immediately proceeded to use it on his 100-mile daily commute. He says he’s seen an SVX with 300,000-plus miles, one of 30 that showed up for the most recent national meet in Lafayette, Indiana, where Subaru builds the Outback, Legacy, and Impreza.
Schneider remembers being a child when a neighbor bought an SVX and—you could see this coming—“The windows blew me away. I was infatuated.” That love affair has blossomed now that he’s had a chance to spend quality time on the other side of those windows. “They’re just beasts on the highway,” Schneider says. “You can park it at 85 mph for thousands of miles. That’s its happy place.” Which is just what he did when he drove his car more than 2,000 miles to Lafayette and back.
The automatic transmission remains an image problem, but it can be a mechanical issue as well, especially on early production cars. There is, however, a solution that addresses both concerns: Remove it. Schneider fitted his SVX with a five-speed manual sourced from a later WRX. “The original intent and design precluded a manual,” he says, “but with one installed it’s a completely different animal and a hoot and a half to drive.”
As with just about any collectible, you are well advised to spend a bit more to get a well-cared-for example. Parts availability is getting to be problematic since there’s not a whole lot of interchangeability with lesser Subies. The throttle positioning sensor for a ’95 Legacy will set you back $55, and one for an SVX could be as much as $350. That said, SVX Nation is a great source if your local Subaru dealer isn’t. As Schneider notes, “A lot of the younger Subaru techs have no idea why this strange spaceship has rolled into the dealer’s service bay.” As a result, he urges new owners to find someone “who actually knows what it is” when it comes time to work on it.
The Market Perspective
With the SVX’s rarity and the uptick in general values for collectible Japanese cars, you might think that these sporty Subies have taken off in value. You’d be wrong; the market has remained virtually flat for the SVX, regardless of year or trim level. That means you should be able to find a solid example for well under $10,000. Start looking at the $5,000 price point to avoid bottom-feeder examples needing lots of overdue maintenance.—Rory Jurnecka
|ENGINE||3.3L DOHC flat-6/230 hp, 228 lb-ft|
|DRIVE||All wheel or front wheel|
|NUMBER SOLD||24,379 (globally, including 14,257 in U.S.)|
|ORIGINAL PRICE (U.S.)||$24,445 (’91 base SVX L), $36,740 (’96 SVX LSi)|