Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., maker of Subaru, remains leery about bringing the rear-wheel-drive sports car it has co-developed with Toyota Motor Corp. to the U.S.

At issue is whether the well-known all-wheel-drive brand could support a RWD sports car such as the “Toyobaru,” as online enthusiasts have taken to calling it.

“We’re an all-wheel-drive brand,” Michael McHale, Subaru of America Inc. spokesman says in a phone interview. At question is whether brand loyalists would “forgive us a one-off exception,” he adds.

“If it doesn’t affect the core of the brand, maybe we’d bring it in as an interesting option.”

Fuji is leading engineering on the vehicle, which will have a Fuji engine and be built in its Ohta, Japan, plant.

Toyota, which owns a 16.5% stake in Fuji, is handling product planning for the car.

The design of the vehicle is shared, McHale says, adding that while brand differentiation will be present in the “front and rear, it essentially is the same vehicle.”

Those comments appear at odds with what a Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. official told Ward’s last week.

Bob Carter, Toyota Div. vice president, said he was not concerned about the Toyota and Subaru versions cannibalizing each other as there would be sufficient differentiation.

Meanwhile, McHale expects Subaru’s U.S. sales to reach a record 215,000 units this year. The previous record of 200,703 was set in 2006.

McHale points out Subaru, not Koreans Hyundai or Kia, has recorded the highest volume gain of any brand in the U.S. so far this year, up 13.6% from the first 11 months of 2008.

Hyundai’s U.S. sales are up 6.2% through November, while Kia’s have risen 7.8% in the period, Ward’s data shows.

McHale credits Subaru’s next-generation Legacy and Outback midsize sedan and wagon models, both all-new this year, for much of the increase.

Also playing a role was the opening of new Subaru dealerships in the Sunbelt region.

Subaru christened stores in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Diego and Jacksonville, FL, this year, in some cases in former domestic-brand dealerships.

“It’s not all about Boston for us anymore,” McHale says.

Subaru also enjoyed a positive bump in conquest sales from the “Cash for Clunkers” program, which McHale says was unexpected.

Of the 17,000 vehicles it sold during Clunkers, only 173 of those buyers traded in a Subaru.

The brand most commonly traded in during the program for a new Subaru was Ford, McHale says.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com