Subaru’s first “real” car introduced the boxer engine and front-wheel drive. Quirky and innovative, it demonstrated Subaru wasn’t afraid to forge its own path.
The FF-1, which came to the States in 1969 just after the 360, was the first Subaru to use a version of the horizontally opposed boxer engine the marque became known for. But it was home to other nifty quirks, including inboard front brakes and a dual-radiator cooling system that eliminated the need for a fan.
Although the sheetmetal looks paper-thin, the FF-1 feels far more substantial than the 360, and with 62 hp from its 1.1-liter engine, it’s slow but not suicidally so. It’s also noisy (apparently Subaru had not yet discovered sound insulation) with a flat-four soundtrack any Volkswagen Beetle driver would find familiar. An ingenious center-pivot rack-and-pinion steering system mimics the 360’s feather-light feel. Primitive relative to today’s offerings, the FF-1 compared well with contemporary imports such as the Volkswagen Beetle, Fiat 128, and Datsun 510. Subaru sold just 325 the first year, but sales increased steadily, with 40,000 FF-1s finding homes over its five-year run. The FF-1 laid the groundwork for the 1973 GL/DL, which would adopt all-wheel drive in 1975 and set the pattern for Subaru’s future.
The Outback and Forester put Subaru on the map for a new breed of buyers, but the WRX brought the brand to the attention of serious drivers.
The WRX was born of Subaru’s participation in the FIA World Rally Championship. Introduced in Japan and Europe in 1998 and brought to the U.S. for the 2002 model year, its combination of 227 turbocharged horsepower and all-wheel drive made it a novelty, and the sub-$25,000 base price made it the best performance bargain on the market. After Automobile’s yearlong Four Seasons test of a WRX wagon, we chastised Subaru for not bringing it to the States sooner. “What on earth were they thinking,” we wrote, “to deny enthusiasts one of the performance-car icons of the end of the 20th century?”
Today, when buyers can choose from several humdrum family haulers that offer 250-hp turbo engines and all-wheel drive, the WRX’s specs seem unimpressive—yet the original is still a thrill to drive. Turbo lag, now regarded as a negative, adds a level of drama and anticipation, and the obtrusive gear whine evokes a racing machine tuned more for speed than refinement. Push the WRX into a corner, and it goes; push harder, and it goes faster, egging its driver on. Granted, a modern Honda Accord 2.0T is nearly as quick to 60 mph—but a decade and a half on, the original WRX still makes you grin like an idiot.