Subaru Seeks to Improve, Unify Design While Maintaining Engineering Focus

As most other major automakers have struggled to survive the recent U.S. recession, Subaru is among the few to actually grow its sales and gain market share. Now, the automaker is focusing on improving its designs to broaden its appeal and build on its recent gains.

Charged with the task of coming up with a unified style is Osamu Namba, who joined the company in 2008.

In an interview last month, Namba said of Subaru’s goals, “We want to broaden the appeal to make it accessible to more than a small, loyal crowd. We need to add a more contemporary element.”

Over the decades, Subaru has focused its attention on the functionality of its vehicles, equipping them with such features as all-wheel drive and a horizontal boxer engine, at the expense of their styling.

The economic upheaval of the past couple of years has heightened U.S. consumer’s appreciation for substance over style and led to double-digit sales growth for Subaru. During the first six months of this year, Subaru’s U.S. sales climbed 35%. The company expects 2010 to mark its second consecutive year of record U.S. sales and it is ramping up production capacity to meet the demand at its only U.S. factory in Lafayette, Indiana. The Subaru Outback was recently awarded Motor Trend’s 2010 Sport/Utility of the Year.

Despite the recent sales boon and accolades for engineering excellence, company executives and dealers alike fell that more appealing designs would take the company to the next level.

Ernie Boch, Jr. owns one of the Japanese automaker’s two distributorships in the U.S. He said, “They had the engineering down. Design was the final frontier. It’s absolutely crucial.”

Namba’s designs include the Hybrid Tourer concept vehicle which was unveiled at the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show. The first production model to bear his stylistic stamp will be the Subaru Impreza. Subaru has not announced a launch date for the redesigned vehicle which last had an overhaul three years ago.

Namba began his design career with Suzuki Motor Corporation in 1979 and worked on the first-generation Wagon R which is currently one of Japan’s best-selling vehicles. He formed his own design studio, HUB Design Engineering Limited, in 1994. HUB did consulting work for Subaru as well as a number of other Japanese and Korean automakers.

Namba said Subaru is already well on its way toward the goal of a unified design language and points to the Outback wagon and Legacy sedan as examples. He said he intends to build on those models instead of completely overhauling Subaru’s style or detracting from its utilitarian focus.

Namba said, “We have to show the function through design with simple, clean lines. I want a very simple design that exhibits strength.”

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