auto

Car buyers keep Subaru humming

Tara Baukus Mello In a year where sales by automakers are down 27 percent on average so far, little Subaru has continued to plug along, steadily keeping its sales on an upward trend thanks to some new products that are a hit with customers and an aggressive marketing campaign designed to catch new buyers' attention.

So far, 2009 Subaru sales are up 10 percent through September compared to last year. In 2008, it was the only full-line automaker to log an increase in sales for the year. Its sales success can be directly attributed to the niche it has carved as a leader in all-wheel-drive technology in cars and crossovers that also are affordably priced.

Its most popular model is the Subaru Forester crossover, a five-seater that was redesigned in 2009 to look less like a tall wagon and more like an SUV. With a price starting at $20,295, it is powered either by a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder or a turbocharged, 2.5-liter four-cylinder that produces 224 horsepower. It received a 2009 Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as well as numerous other accolades including being named one of the "Best Family Cars" for 2009 by Parents Magazine and Edmunds.com and a 2009 "Best Bet" for SUVs and Crossovers by Cars.com.

Two of Subaru's five models were redesigned for the 2010 model year. The 2010 Legacy sedan went on sale in July and has seen a 20 percent increase in sales through September compared to last year. Starting at $19,995, the redesigned Legacy is larger than the previous version, which is especially noticeable in the back seat. It comes with a choice of a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder; a 256-horsepower, 3.6-liter six-cylinder; or a 265-horsepower, turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder.

The Legacy's sibling is the Outback, a wagon that starts at $22,995. With its 2010 redesign, the Subaru Outback was enlarged in almost all dimensions, giving it more interior space and making it less like a station wagon and more like a crossover. The Legacy's nonturbocharged four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines are available in the Outback, though the four-cylinder version is paired with a continuously variable transmission, which improves fuel economy over the 2009 model by 2 mpg.

Rounding out the lineup is the Tribeca and Impreza. The Tribeca, which has just not caught on with car shoppers, is Subaru's lowest-selling model. The seven-seat crossover starts at $29,995 and is powered by the same 256 horsepower six-cylinder that is offered in the Legacy and Outback.

The Impreza is a compact car that comes as a sedan and as a five-door hatchback. Priced to start at $17,495, the Impreza comes in a variety of engines and trim versions that suit different tastes. For example, the Impreza Outback Sport has a more rugged appearance and a heavy-duty, raised suspension, while the WRX is a sporty model with a higher-performance engine. The WRX STI is a true high-performance model with a 305 horsepower, 2.5-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission. It has been recognized for its good value by Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine and by Kelley Blue Book, which rated it a Top 10 Coolest Car Under $18,000.

While Subaru has built its reputation on its all-wheel-drive technology and offers it standard in all its models currently, it plans to deviate from that plan when it introduces a sixth model -- a sporty coupe -- to its lineup in the next couple of years. The sports car, which it has been developing jointly with Toyota (the rival automakers actually own nearly 17 percent of Subaru's parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries), is expected to be a four-seater with rear-wheel drive. The car, which is still in the concept stage, will most likely be offered as two distinct models from Subaru and Toyota.

Toyota is slated to show a version of the jointly developed sports car at the Tokyo Motor Show which opens later this month, while Subaru plans to show a hybrid concept car that it says provides a glimpse into the company's future product and design direction.

If you have a car question, e-mail it to us at Driving for Dollars. Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories.

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