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How A Bad Review In 1969 Forced Subaru To Outmaneuver Critics

Car Culture / 9 Comments

And it's become one of the hottest-selling brands today.

If you've ever frequented the more rural parts of the northeastern or northwestern states, you may have noticed one automotive brand more prevalent there than anywhere else in the lower 48. Subaru, the manufacturer of go-anywhere, all-wheel-drive cars and SUVs, seems to have cracked the code for selling to New Englanders, so much so that it's sometimes called the unofficial car of Vermont. But how did Subaru earn that honorary moniker? As Road & Track's Bob Sorokanich explains, it all started with a bad review.

In the late '60s, serial entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin began his first automotive venture: importing Subarus from Japan for more frugal buyers in America. The car he decided on was the Subaru 360, partially because it was easy on fuel, but also due to it not requiring federalization as it was exempt from U.S. auto safety regulations by weighing below the 1,000-pound regulatory threshold of the day. The 360 didn't set the sales charts alight with customer interest, though. Gas was cheap. Everyone had money. Life was good. Not many people had a need for a diminutive, fuel-efficient compact. Even if they did, they bought a Volkswagen Beetle, which was larger, faster, and only slightly more expensive.

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Every Beetle sold by Volkswagen was a jab at the 360—an unrealized sale, a missed opportunity. After all these punches from Germany's "people's car," it was Consumer Reports that landed a uppercut squarely on the jaw of Bricklin's dreams. In its review, CR wrote the 360 "made most members of our staff psychologically as well as physically uncomfortable" and it was "the most unsafe car on the market." The consumer journal gave the 360 a Not Acceptable rating. Sales predictably dried up overnight. Instead of throwing in the towel, however, Bricklin came up with a plan to do an end run around Consumer Reports and win back buyers.

It was a clever plan. Bricklin focused Subaru on regions were CR was a less-known commodity and set up shop in rural areas where the reputation of local dealers held more sway. As Sorokanich explained, this meant Subaru placing emphasis on "places like Vermont, Minnesota, Washington state, New Hampshire and western Pennsylvania—where hardworking people on a budget might be willing to try a relatively-unknown brand offering cheap, frugal transportation." The plan worked, and the rest—as they say—is history, which you can read over at Road & Track.