NEW YORK — Amid all the global industry mergers, acquisitions and takeovers, George Mueller, president and chief executive officer of Subaru of America Inc., remains calm. “Some are searching for soul mates,” he says. We at Subaru simply want to form our own niche. Today, all-wheel-drive is all that we do.”
Subaru in 1994 introduced a new breed of vehicle with the Outback, which, Mueller says, combines the best of crossover and hybrid vehicles. “Since we already have (these models), we now can focus on a new generation of all-wheel-drive vehicles, like the 2000 Legacy GT, that others don't have.” Legacy sedans arrive in U.S. showrooms this fall.
In addition, Mueller says,Heavy Industries Ltd., Subaru's Japanese parent is studying whether to produce a crossover-type sport/utility vehicle on a truck chassis to compete with the X5 and Lexus RX 300. The company in 2001 does plan to introduce a new Impreza that will come with a 4-cyl. turbo engine — the first real enthusiast's vehicle for Subaru to sell in the U.S. market. Fuji also is considering a turbo 4-cyl. or a V-6 for the next-generation Forester, and will give Legacy a 6-cyl. next summer.
But as long as everyone else is talking marriage, what are Subaru's chances of getting hitched? “We've carved out a market niche that doesn't overlap with products from other companies,” Mueller says, “so that we can remain independent if we want, or combine with another.”
Mueller admits, however, that Subaru will suffer some product shortages in preparing for the new Legacy as conversion to the redesign means several weeks of downtime at its joint venture plant with AmericanMotors Inc. (Rodeo) in Lafayette, Indiana, where Legacy and Outback are built. The Impreza and Forester are built in Japan.
“We'll crank it up in the second half of the year,” Mueller says. “We'll get 90,000 vehicles this year. We haven't expanded beyond plant capacity as yet, but if the 2000 Legacy is successful, we will push for a capacity increase.”
Industry observers in Japan, however, don't sound quite so optimistic., they say, is beginning to weigh its options in light of the recent tie-up between Motor Co. Ltd. and French automaker SA.
currently holds a 4.1% stake in Fuji, which produced Nissan cars on a consignment basis through 1995, helping Fuji to improve its performance.
It's unclear howwill view the ambiguous relations between Nissan and Fuji. Maintaining relations with Nissan has been an unending task, Fuji officials say in a published report. In the late 1980s, Fuji's president sought greater independence from Nissan, leading to financial difficulty for Fuji. The Industrial Bank of Japan then requested that Isamu Kawai, who had reconstructed Nissan Diesel Motor Co. Ltd., be installed as Fuji's president.
The fear now, reports suggest, is whether Fuji is capable of surviving on its own. Even with weak domestic demand, however, the automaker reports increasing domestic orders for its popular Legacy and the new minicar, the Pleo.