Subaru GFT Coupe
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 1
Long before the BRZ there was the GFT. And, much like the BRZ, one of the best things about the GFT coupe was its engine noise. At anything above 4000 rpm it emitted a sort of rapid-fire resonance which made it sound more like a five-litre sports sedan than a Japanese econo-coupe. The contrast between it and the Subaru GSR (which it replaced here in Australia) was total. The GSR was a free-revving little car, not exactly quiet in the engine but lacking in annoying resonance and valve thrash at high revs like most of the other small Japanese.
The GFT resembled the GSR only until the tacho
needle crossed the 4000 mark at the top of the dial. Then the engine noise built up until at the 6400 rpm redline the resonance was thunderous and the vibrations got to the driver's body through the pedals and the bucket seat. The GFT was a higher line model in Japan than the GSR, which continued in production for a few more years on home soil. The model change for Australia came about because Subaru's local executives decided that, to make the car more appealing, they needed the model with the extra gearbox speed and the cleaner, less cluttered body shape.
At the time, Subarus were considered revolutionary for the Japanese. The GFT had a flat four all-aluminium engine
ahead of the front axle line which drove the front wheels through a slick five-speed gearbox. The engine, with pushrod-operated valves
, delivered 69kW (92 bhp) and 106 kW (80 lb/ft) at 6800 rpm and 4800 rpm respectively. These were the same power outputs of the four-speed GSR although they were developed at slightly low revs.
Also progressive in Japanese (and Australian) terms was the suspension
system. It was unusual, given the cost of technology at the time, that Subaru took the harder road and opted for all-independent. But what really stood out was that the Subaru
engineers used MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms behind - two of the most popular systems among the world's "proper" car makers - and that put GFT in the Renault
class, on paper at least.
were big power-assisted discs at the front (to cope with the inevitable front-heaviness of the car) and drums at the rear. The handbrake worked on the front wheels - which explains why few Subaru owners from the time were able to become experts at the handbrake turn (most however became exponents of the handbrake plough). Though the mechanicals were progressive on paper, the body design didn't take advantage of them the way European manufacturer's would have.
Even though the important bits were grouped in the nose, the car's cockpit was short and narrow, the glass areas were small and the sills were high. The boot was tiny yet the overall length of 4035 mm was 145 mm more than the Alfa Romeo Alfasud - and although history would remember the latter for its rust-worthiness, it nevertheless remained a remarkably roomy two-door with an enormous boot, and just like the Subey it had a 1.2 litre flat four ahead of the driven front wheels.
If you looked in the GFT's engine bay you would see the mechanicals grouped close to the nose, then a foot of space between engine block and firewall, occupied only by the starter motor running back from the flywheel. A strange design which showed just how much space was being wasted. If the Subaru had of been designed in Europe, the firewall would be the foot further out and the stater motor would be mounted somewhere else. And instead of the narrow cramped cockpit, the Subaru coupe would have a roomy cockpit.
But lets not dwell on the negatives. The GFT's body shape was considerably better than the GSR's. There was still the unusual relationship between the front and rear overhangs - long in front, almost Citroen-short at the rear - and the body still had high slab sides, but the new quad-headlighted grille was cleaner than the GSR's and the C-pillar looked trick, even if it disturbed rear three-quarter vision. Road testers found that it would start well from cold, but if you were the kind who worried about engine wear, you had to push the choke back in as soon as she fired because it was more than willing to wind up around four grand, just on the choke. On the other hand it was hard to keep running below 1500, so you have to settle for a rather fast 2000 rpm as a warm up idle. The short stroke (bore was 85 mm, stroke was 60 mm) at least meant that the warm-up piston speeds weren't all that high.
On the Road
On the road, the engine revved beautifully, pulled from around 2000 rpm with strength in any gear, emitted little mechanical noise and spun like an illegitimate. One criticism was that Subaru
seemed to have made a big mistake with the GFT's engine mounting system. If you started the engine and revved it to six grand, it emitted remarkably little noise and certainly sets up no resonances which would find their way into the cockpit. But under load the engine's whole character changed. Above 4000 rpm it rumbled and vibrated like a big bent eight and finally, at the redline the resonance was overpowering. The common belief among motoring scribes was that the GFT had stronger, less resilient engine mounts or exhaust
system mounts than the GSR and that these transferred engine
vibes to the cockpit. It was a shame about the noise under load, because that was when the GFT was at its best. When allowed to rev out the roadholding and steering encouraged quick driving.
The excellent power and flexibility of the flat four were matched by a great little gearbox with five well-chosen ratios and a lightning lever. The ratios were close and competition-like with first gear higher than the first in the GSR four-speeder, second the same, third well below the four speeder's third; fourth, just this side of direct, was a practical top gear around town, while fifth was a fairly short overdrive - ideal for all open road cruising except wide open throttle passing manoeuvres.
The GFT was a little difficult to move off the line in traffic at first because it needed around 2500 rpm and a little clutch slip because of the high first gear. The clutch needed to be popped at 6000 rpm for a really quick getaway - with any fewer revs than that the wheels would refuse to spin and the engine would bog down on the line. The GFT put its power down terribly well. The standing quarter mile time of 19.3 seconds may not have bettered other small engined four-speeders like the Holden Gemini or the Chrysler Lancer, but then for the time these cars were very good performers too. The Subaru GFT had all the poke you needed for all situations except passing manoeuvres where your initial speed was above 110-120 km/h.
On the handling
side, the Subaru knocked every standard Japanese production car around with the possible exception of the Datsun 240K. It had sharp, sensitive steering and first-class roadholding. The technique for cornering quickly in the GFT was simply to wheel it into the given bend, as close as you could to the limit, keep the power applied, add more lock and give it heaps on the exit side. If a directional correction was necessary, you simply eased the power for a second and tucked the nose in a little. There was no violent reaction to throttling off, just a prompt response.
The steering had 3.75 turns from lock to lock and though this may sound a little indirect for such a small car, the turning circle was remarkably small for a front wheel drive car of this era. Its fairly short wheelbase helped here, of course. The GFT was a comfortable car - not exactly supple, but all the shocks which would jolt you in a Lancer or Corolla were cushioned and the body simply undulated. But if you were looking for good interior room, then the GFT would not have been the car for you. It was cramped, no matter how much seat adjustment you tried to make.
Knee room, foot room and elbow room in the front were at a premium. The boot was not much better, but not a complete disaster either, and you could fit a couple of reasonable sized suit cases into it.
Behind the Wheel
Behind the wheel you would find three main dials - a speedo
, a tacho
and a binnacle for warning lights plus ancillary gauges, The GFT had a rear window demister, a radio and most of the popular "options" - excluding of course a "tape deck" and air-conditioning (we are not sure if even an after-market AC unit could be fitted). These items aside, the GFT was a well equipped little car, especially for the launch price of around A$4150. The seats were typically Japanese, which meant they were not conspicuously well designed but they looked good and were durable enough. In this car you tended to spend more time arranging the limbs that hung off the seats rather than worrying about the seats themselves. The same went for the rear seat - the cushion and backrest could be comfortable for a very short ride, but anything longer and it was difficult to remain comfortable.
The Subaru GFT was a well-made car when the larger selling Japanese cars were losing some of their character and becoming the proverbial box on wheels - reliable yes, but exciting no. They were well made, the body bolted togther well and the paintwork was very well done even though the actual sheet metal felt thin - very thin. The Subaru's mechanical layout meant that it was not going to be the cheapest car of them all to have major work done on, but long term owners claimed it was not that much more costly than the Corolla. And it did offer a little bit of individuality.