After the diminutive two-cylinder Subaru 360 and the mechanically sound but somewhat blandly styled GL 4WD (known the Leone outside of the U.S.), Subaru showed the world that it didn’t feel constrained by convention when it debuted the XT in 1985. The car was introduced in the U.S. as the XT in February and in Japan in June as the Alcyone (named after the brightest star in the Pleiades cluster, which inspired the Subaru badge). In Australia and New Zealand, it was later marketed as the Vortex.
The XT adopted dramatic wedge-shaped styling from cars like the Triumph TR7, but in mechanical terms it was more unorthodox. Subaru realized that the flat-four overhead cam engine it had bought from Lloyd years earlier was ideally suited to a performance application since it presented an extremely low frontal aspect compared to other, taller engines. With its sharply sloped nose, the XT had a coefficient of drag of only 0.29, while the rising wedge also allowed for decent rear trunk space. Subaru’s experience with four-wheel drive also led to front- and part-time four-wheel drive being offered, and a turbo could bump power from a somewhat pokey 97 bhp in the 1.8-liter fuel-injected four to 115 bhp and even 136 bhp in Europe. The part-time four-wheel drive was operated by a red button on top of the gear shifter, like something out of a jet fighter, that read “AWD.”
In 1988 the XT6 was introduced with a 145-bhp, 2.7-liter six-cylinder engine with more robust suspension to handle the extra weight as well as adaptive power steering that changed the level of assistance depending on speed. Part-time four-wheel drive was available on 5-speed manual-equipped non-turbo cars, but the XT6 and XT models got the more advanced Subaru AWD system that is still in use today.
The XT may not have timeless looks, but it is a solid performer and is loaded with gadgets. The tilt-telescope wheel moves the instrument pod up and down, and the turbo models have an artificial horizon as well as an orange backlit instrument panel with tachometer, boost indicator fuel and temperature gauges in three-dimensional display, tilting away from the driver. The air suspension can be raised or lowered, the windshield features a single wiper blade, the headlights have washers, and the manual transmission models even have a hill-holder brake system. Oddly, the steering wheel has one vertical and one horizontal spoke. The XT6 has two electric fans for cooling, but lacks the digital “tilting” dash of the turbo models.
The XT and XT6 were eccentric cars, that proved to be a bit too eccentric to attract a mainstream audience. And although many of the features and the availability of all-wheel drive were novel, the performance numbers didn’t appeal to enthusiasts. Only 98,928 were sold during its production run before it was replaced in 1992 by the SVX, a high-performance AWD coupe that was like nothing that had come before, except perhaps the Jensen FF. With the XT, though, Subaru set itself on a course for building cars that were not just practical but also entertaining performers, and for that reason it is a very important car in the Subaru story.