1988 Subaru RX coupe: Traveling the road less traveled

1988 Subaru RX Coupe

1988 Subaru RX Coupe

The tale the road less traveled of the Subaru RX Coupe begins in the early ’80s. Subaru had earned a reputation for building reliable if funky four-wheel drive automobiles, characterized by the advertising tag line, “Inexpensive and built to stay that way.” Not exciting, and sort of like a plaid flannel shirt: L.L. Bean without the hip element.

But like everyone else in the ’80s, Subaru had discovered the turbocharger. With one slapped atop the horizontally opposed four, the four-door GL in ’85 became Turbo 4WD, renamed the RX sedan in ’86. That year Subaru introduced a three-door hatchback version of the GL, but it wasn’t until mid-year in ’87 that the natural connecting was made.

The Subaru RX 4WD three-door turbocharged coupe had its debut as a 1987 1/2 limited production model. Although undoubtedly sportier that the standard GL models, it was stylistically tame compared to the rocket-boy Subaru XT-series models that looked like they had been styled in a Japanimation studio. The RX was not nearly so wedgey as the XT, but it was still in the crisp-edged school of design popular among Japanese designers in the early ’80s, and featured a steeply inclined C-pillar and expansive rear window over the trunk. The whole of it raised on pneumatic struts, and with the 50-50 fold-down rear seats, the RX approached station wagon utility.

Lest the RX three-door appear too practical, however, Subaru stylists added the usual “sports” trappings of front and rear spoilers, and rocker and rear valence cladding. Because white was a popular color in Japan, the RX coupe came as white as a refrigerator, including special wheel covers (the RX shown has XT alloy wheels). A grey band encircled the RX coupe at bumper height, and a decal announcing “FULL TIME 4WD RX” announced what the car was and what it did.

Surprisingly, there’s no decal for the turbocharger. Just as well, as the 1.8-liter boxer four wasn’t radically tuned. It ran on regular unleaded, the turbo boosting output from 97 to 115 horsepower. That wasn’t a lot, even for the time. On the other hand, virtually no turbo lag is a virtue, as is the 134 lb-ft of torque, and if it weren’t for the boost lamp on the instrument panel, the driver wouldn’t know a turbo was under the hood.

1988 Subaru RX Coupe

1988 Subaru RX Coupe

The instrument panel, unlike the XT’s video screen, was a simple analog affair, and there another pair of indicator lamps for those who hadn’t examined the center console. One lamp noted when the center differential was locked, the other hat the low range of the dual range transmission was selected. The Subaru had a pair of shifters. One a conventional five-speed transmission’s gear lever. The other moved fore and aft to engage the 1:1 normal ratio or a 1.592:1 low range. A limited-slip differential was standard on all manual transmission RXs. A four-speed automatic did not becoming available until the ’89 model year). The manual transmissions also had Subaru’s hillholder feature which kept the car from rolling backwards when stopped facing uphill, ahead of the rest of the world by twenty-some years.

The RX coupe had a few options, coming already well-equipped with air conditioning, power locks, windows and mirrors, rear defogger/wiper/washer, tilt with memory steering wheel, sport seats with the driver’s seat manual height adjustable, a cargo cover and a 40-watt AM/FM/cassette stereo with four speakers.

The RX coupe was hard to position, however. It didn’t corner with the best of sports coupes, though its full-time four-wheel drive gave it all-weather/all-road capabilities that most sports coupes couldn’t match, aided particularly by its seven-inch ground clearance. Yet it didn’t have the full off-road capabilities of a sport utility.

By the numbers, the RX coupe should have had them banging down the walls. The Subaru RX three-door coupe had it all: A turbo motor, spoilers, four-wheel drive, and a list of standard equipment as long as an Obama speech, plus a well-balanced shape and a surprising amount of room inside.

Yet Subaru produced it in limited numbers–a mere 2,600 from 1987 to 1989–which, as it turns out, was the right thing to do. As good as the Subaru looked on paper–and good as it was in real life–it appealed to a limited number of customers, a subset of enthusiasts who were appreciative of a vehicle built for the road less traveled.