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The Subaru SVX

Got 20k-odd to spend on a car that's a little different? The early '90s Subaru SVX is an orphan that deserves attention!

By Michael Knowling

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This article was first published in 2003.

The early '90s was a time of major change for Subaru. Not only had the aging Leone design been replaced by the world-class Liberty/Legacy range (including the stunningly quick RS turbo) the, er, interestingly styled Vortex was axed to make room for an all-new niche coupe - the SVX.

It's no secret that Subaru had copped plenty of flack about the appearance of its 1980s Vortex, so there was considerable effort put into making the SVX more aesthetically pleasing while also remaining distinctly Subaru. The man that scribbled Subaru's styling solution was none other than Mr Giugiaro - the world-renowned stylist from the house of ItalDesign.

So let's get the SVX's distinctive styling out of the way before we tell you what lies beneath.

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Perhaps the most eye-catching part of the SVX is its side 'window within a window' set-up. The intention of this arrangement (aside from adding a styling centre point) is to minimise wind noise; the downside, though, is limited access through the buzzed down lower section of glass. It'd be a struggle to fit through a large Maccas 'shake, for example.

Given its low slung design that includes subtle aero touches such as a rear deck extension, flush glass and 'ramped over' wipers it's no surprise that the SVX is a slippery sucker - its claimed 0.29Cd is well and truly right up there with comparable niche vehicles released ten years later. The standard wheels are fairly inoffensive looking 16 x 7.5-inch alloys clad in 225/50 tyres (Michelin Pilots were factory fitted to Australian SVXs).

When it comes to outright performance it's important to bear in mind that the SVX was not intended to compete with Supra Turbos, RX-7 Turbos or 300ZX TTs - it's built as a luxury GT cruiser with a good balance of acceleration, stopping power, handling and safety.

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Under the bonnet you won't find a turbocharger or intercooler tucked anywhere, but you will find the largest capacity engine Subaru has ever manufactured - a 3.3-litre boxer six (using 97mm bores and a 75mm stroke). Built with an alloy block and heads, the EG33 motor incorporates double overhead camshafts, 24-valves, a variable capacity intake system and a compression ratio of 10.0:1. A hot-wire airflow meter, direct-fire ignition, twin knock sensors and sequential fuel delivery are also part of its mechanical make-up.

Peak power (of the Australian version) is listed at 172kW at 5600 rpm, while peak torque is a WRX beating 304Nm at 4800 rpm - and there's plenty of torque at low revs too. Note that these outputs are attainable only using premium-unleaded fuel. In most urban conditions, fuel consumption hovers around 11 - 12-litres per 100 kilometres, which - with a 70-litre fuel tank - gives you around 600 kilometres between fills.

The standard 4-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission - no 5-speed manual available, sorry - is an obvious pointer that Subaru never intended the SVX to take on the Supra Turbos of this world. And, although very well behaved and smooth, the lack of a tiptronic style selector is an obvious shortcoming in this day and age.

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Interestingly, the SVX rides on a suspension arrangement that looks very similar to that found beneath the rally-bred Liberty RS turbo - you'll find MacPherson front struts with lower L-arms and a swaybar long travel, while the rear uses trailing links and dual parallel rear links plus a swaybar. Weight distribution is 59:41 front-to-rear.

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It should be no surprise, then, to learn that much of the driveline is based on that of the Liberty - the AWD system in particular. As far as we can determine, the SVX uses a viscous centre coupling to apportion torque to the front and rear axles depending on slip - the axle with the most traction receives the most torque, allowing the car to accelerate safely. The benefits of AWD have been well trumpeted by Subaru over the last few years, so there's no real need to clobber you over the head with it again; just a point of interest, though, the SVX feels very similar on the road to the Liberty RS.

When pushed through a corner the SVX shows mild understeer but is very willing to tighten its cornering line with a slight throttle lift-off. We can't imagine the SVX oversteering unless you do something a bit crazy - it's way too sure-footed and stable to do anything like that. Oh, and - given our long association with turbocharged four-cylinder Subarus - the SVX's strong low-to-mid rpm throttle response is a pleasantly refreshing change.

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The braking system - 4-channel ABS controlled 302mm ventilated front discs (with twin-pot calipers) and 290mm solid rear discs (with single-pot calipers) - slows the SVX's substantial kerb mass reasonably well in most road conditions. The rpm sensitive power assisted rack and pinion steering, meanwhile is nicely weighted, linear and offers good feel. It is also quite direct with just 3.1 turns lock-to-lock.

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With an all-up kerb mass of 1615kg, the SVX is reasonably hefty but its ample traction and torque ensure it is no slouch - Subaru's official 0 - 100 km/h time is 7.6-seconds but, more typically, road testers achieved high-8s or 9.0-seconds flat. And that's about how quick the SVX feels to us; kick-down performance, however, is stronger than these figures would suggest. Subaru also quotes an optimistic quarter mile time of 15.6-seconds but, again, road test figures were significantly slower - mid 16s were closer to the mark. Top speed - thanks to those slippery panels - is around 235 km/h.

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Once onboard, the SVX's front space is generous and the rear accommodation is not too bad - a knees-out position is essential, but there's certainly more space than in a 2 + 2 Nissan 300ZX for example. The soft, leather seats are also supremely comfortable - the ideal pews for a long-distance GT. And, although already quite open and airy in the rear, the rear quarter windows can be buzzed down for great comfort - the rear quarter window on, say, a 300ZX is fixed.

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Standard features include power windows, mirrors and aerial, a decent 4-speaker CD sound system, central locking, twin illuminated vanity mirrors, cruise control, electronic climate control, electric driver's seat adjustment, rake and reach adjustable steering column and an electric sunroof. There's also a curious flip-down cover - trimmed in fake woodgrain - to protect the sound system. Instrumentation is fairly basic, with just a speedo, 6500 redlined tachometer, coolant temp and fuel level gauges - no oil pressure or voltmeter for ya. You don't get any airbags either.

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Open the rear hatch and you'll notice the SVX offers more than just a token cargo area - with a space saver spare wheel under the false floor, there's way more carrying capacity than found any comparable Nissan models. For extra carrying capacity the rear backrest can also fold forward.

With production kicking off in 1992, it is said that Subaru manufactured around 25,000 SVXs prior to its wind-up in 1997. The sexy Subie debuted on the Australian market priced at a substantial $67,950 and didn't prove much of a sales success - its high (for a Subaru) pricing and adventurous looks meant sales never really took off. This is despite overwhelmingly glowing reviews in motoring magazines. So - largely unloved and forgotten - you can now pick up a tidy SVX for only around $25,000; that's a whole lotta car for the money.

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For those contemplating parking their own SVX in the home garage, there are only a few mechanical problems to look out for - transmission wear, noisy wheel bearings and warped discs. It is said that adding a fluid cooler extends transmission life but, in any case, transmission replacements aren't too expensive. It appears that the auto transmission that comes attached to JDM import Liberty twin-turbo motors is very nearly the same as the SVX's and potentially interchangeable - these are often available very cheaply, since most people transplanting a twin-turbo motor usually ditch the auto trans. Note that we've also seen complete JDM SVX half-cuts for $4500.

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Given that the standard SVX transmission can handle only so much torque, we reckon it'd be wise to keep any power-up mods fairly mild. A free-flow air intake and exhaust should be enough to increase power to around 190kW - more than enough to scare the 'awesome' locally delivered Liberty B4 twin-turbo!

For those with a little more creativity - not to mention spare cash! - we reckon it'd be cool to trick up the trans (as used by the world's fastest WRX "All Kneel!") and whack in either a turbocharger (there's plenty of space immediately in front of the firewall) or a supercharger. Stuff, say, 10 psi boost through an intercooler and into the 3.3-litre boxer six and you'd have to be talking 250 - 300kW!

Quick - where's a Supra Turbo?!

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