Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 1
The Subaru Leone made its debut in June 1971
, and the Subaru Leone 4WD Station Wagon followed in September 1972
. Both sedan and 4WD wagon shared the same suspension
and engine, at the front was strut type independent suspension
, while at the rear was a semi-trailing arm type independent suspension
Many credit the Leone 4WD as the car that introduced the world to the concept of the SUV - as nearly all 4X4's had been - up until that time - limited to off-road vehicles. The mass-produced 4WD variation of the Leone remained an ordinary passenger vehicle - made extra-ordinary by having (somewhat limited) off-road capabilities.
When the vehicle was first put on the market, demand came mainly as a result of the special applications the car could be used for, such as commercial use in snowy and mountainous areas. However, the car was highly praised in both the domestic (Japanese) and overseas markets for its originality.
It competed with the Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sunny, Honda Civic, and the Mitsubishi Lancer. The Leone introduced a long established Subaru tradition of frameless side windows for all models. In 1974
the unconventional "Boxer" engine was increased in capacity to 1.6 litres, giving the Leone a much needed boost in power.
So successful was the 4WD Leone that Subaru was to invest heavily in their 4WD technology, and this was the forerunner to Subaru's current AWD technology so widely praised today. While Fuji Heavy Industries
has gone on to manufacture high quality, high performance and extremely well polished cars today, during the 1970's the Leone was not all that well sorted.
The car lacked refinement, NVH was high, the seats uncomfortable and the frameless doors added to the feeling of the car being very "lightweight and tinny". Soon rust
would become the early model Leone's biggest enemy, and seeing one on the roads today would be an extremely rare occurence.
Subaru Leone GFT Hardtop Coupe
The most satisfying Subaru, for the more enthusiastic driver, was the GFT – however it was by no means perfect. Costing just over A$4000 when launched, the vehicle faced strong competition from the TX Gemini SL
at $3988, the $3985 VW Passat 1300
, the $4160 Mazda Savanna RX3
or the Toyota Celica 1600
(five-speeder) at $4240. If you were prepared to spend a little extra, cars such as the Galant GC 1600 GL ($4439), Passat 1500 TS ($4460), Datsun 180B SSS
($4568) or Fiat 128SL at $4647 could have also ended up on a buyers shopping list. For our money, it would have been hard to overlook the RX3
– however they all offered four seats and four or five-speed transmissions. The Passat was probably the roomiest. Equipment levels and visual impressions were all relatively similar. The Subaru GFT therefore competed on price, being cheaper than all but the Gemini.
The styling was dictated in part by the normal demands of the Japanese market. Many of the Japanese roads were exceptionally narrow, which explains why so many of the Nipponese cars were also narrow. At the time car manufacturers such as Subaru were not in an enviable home market position. Because Subaru was then directly challenging market leaders Toyota
, it had to equate progressive engineering with the conventional expectations of 'normal' buyers. And the end result was a body
that was in line with the then current Japanese style theme, built around the "different" flat-four front-wheel-drive engine.
Fuji Heavy Industries
had been locked into the Subaru's mechanical concept since 1968
. The Leone was, in some ways, reminiscent of the Borgward
designs and had grown from 1000cc to the 1400cc by 1975
. Subaru flirted with mechanical innovation and a very good torsion bar suspension
with inboard front disc brake system - although it did not work in practice, because of high unit costs and service problems. It turned out that you had to remove the motor to change a lower control arm if one was bent, and the sporting advantage of unsprung weight and cooling of inboard disc brakes
was negligible in normal use.
So the vehicle Subaru sold in Australia was a return to more practical engineering, along with the theoretical advantages of Front Wheel Drive
. On paper the engine was brilliant. It was all-alloy, horizontally opposed and sat nicely between the McPherson struts. It was a willing revver, and had been extensively competition tested by factory engineers in the Total Oil Southern Cross rally three times. The truth was that these were really only proving runs as the Subarus gave away a power advantage to the works Datsuns and Mitsubishis. Subaru buyers did benefit, however, because the machine was strong, had a reliability record and many people owners said it drove well.
But the truth was not quite so good. Having owned one for several years and racking up plenty of kilometres, the Leone was a little agricultural. The merits of the challenging body
style and a high-waisted look were only a matter of opinion. The engine did rev well enough, but you also heard it strongly once past the 100km/h barrier. For a water-cooled flat-four motor it was very noisy. The five-speed gearbox did make the most of the power available, the Fuji engineers having done their homework well and, thanks to the choice of ratios, a driver could obtain a reasonable performance for a 1400cc motor in such a heavy body
The Subaru used rack and pinion steering
which was reasonably precise. Even so, the torque feed-back under acceleration was noticeable - the Subaru was not in the same class as the Alfasud or the Lancia
- or, further down the price scale, the Mini
. It was best described as passable, despite almost four turns lock to lock. Braking was adequate for normal suburban conditions but the car would be lost when stacked up in a braking contest against the Europeans.
For touring it was alright, but panic stops demanded attention to make sure it stopped straight and true. The suspension
was able to cope with most situations. The front struts soaked up bumps, allowed a fair bit of body
roll, but did not offer great adhesion levels. At the back the torsion bars did a good job and the layout permitted a roomy boot design. The fuel tank was tucked away under the rear seat with the torsion bars cradling around it. With 50 litres capacity the coupe was good for 500km-plus touring.
Behind the Wheel
Inside the thin looking seats were actually quite reasonable, comfortable without being brilliant. They adjusted for rake and tipped well forward for rear access. The styling was the easy-to-make tombstone design and this seemed to contribute to the claustrophobic atmosphere. The heating and ventilation system was well up to standard, and dealers were able to fit air-conditioning when requested. Normal driving was sufficient to cool the motor, but, to make sure, Fuji Heavy Industries fitted a thermostatically controlled fan to handle traffic jam conditions. Because there was no fan, and the motor was water-cooled we cannot explain why the engine was so noisy. One trait that drivers found a little disconcerting was the cars ability to intermittently spin wheels when accelerating around a tight corner. The 155 x 13 Bridgestone radials fitted were very good, keeping the car glued to the road and they were easily the match for the performance on offer - they hung on well, even when suddenly backing off during hard cornering or savage braking. So, given the tyres
were not the issue, the blame for handling deficiencies must have been due to either the spring rates and damping or the overall vehicle balance.
Subaru was using the same basic motor designed as a 1000cc unit and there was no vast weight gain in the growth to 1400cc - or even 1600cc. But the body
had grown over the years and by 1975
was around 900kg against the original 745kg, and despite suspension
changes it seemed to have out-grown the design concept. It was a little disappointing, as the initial Subarus could beat Minis at their own game. There was no doubting that performance had taken a hit – despite the extra engine capacity. Some no doubt would have described the Coupe as a more “mature” vehicle. There was no boy-racer acceleration, but performance was reasonable. The five gears allowed rapid overtaking, the cars were brilliant on the dirt, and the handling would transform if the car was driven aggressively.
Because of the relatively long wheelbase and clever design of the overall vehicle the boot was quite capacious, but access was not good. The spare wheel was located under the bonnet, which helped keep as much weight as possible over the driving wheels. This location advantage allowed front-wheel-drive vehicles from the mid 70’s to generally track better than 'conventional' economy cars. Front-driven wheels tended to pull the car around corners faster than other methods and provided a great degree of driver satisfaction when the system became familiar. About the only disadvantage came when a FWD
vehicle faced a very slippery incline and the weight transfer moved to the rear - then the front wheels could spin wildly and, often, the only way up was in reverse.
One thing that really appealed to us at the time, apart from the price, was the Subaru’s individuality. Not that you had any street cred when you drove one, but at least you were not simply following the pack. And the Subaru was basically a good car, produced by a company responsible for brilliant aerobatic aircraft. Back in 1968
the company became part of the Nissan group, and since then its front-wheel-drive technology had been expanded by co-operating in the manufacture of the Nissan Cherry, with its four-in-line transverse motor.
By the mid 1970s annual Subaru production ran to around 150,000 vehicles - three times as many as Lancia
, 10,000 more than Ford Australia's output. Whilst this demonstrated the company was by no means insignificant, it also highlighted the fact that it was a specialist vehicle builder. The GFT was well engineered, well finished and well equipped. There was some lack of sophistication but overall the car did represent value for money, offering good accommodation for four people and plenty of luggage.