Fuji Heavy Industries Inc. and General Motors are studying whether to give Saab dealers a version of Subaru's Impreza WRX sport wagon, and Subaru dealers are unhappy.
The dissension bubbled up at the Subaru make meeting, which ran long because of complaints about the possible Saab version of the Subaru Impreza WRX. Leaders finally had to end the session to make room for an incoming Toyota meeting.
About 90 percent of dealers' comments were related to product sharing, said Dale Walker, a Washington state Subaru dealer and chairman of the Subaru national dealer council.
"The dealer body was just as emphatically disgruntled about shared product with GM as they were enthused about Lance Armstrong," Walker said.
Subaru told dealers that it has signed cycling champion Armstrong to endorse Subarus for at least the next three years. Dealers called the tie with Armstrong, a four-time winner of Le Tour de France, excellent.
TV commercials will begin in April, and Subaru will replace its longtime ad tag line, "The beauty of all-wheel drive," with "Subaru. Driven by what's inside."
But that positive news wasn't enough to distract dealers from the possibility of sharing products with GM makes.
"We think they should keep the line pure," said Jim Lyon, a Subaru dealer from Ogden, Utah.
Dealers had been told that core Subaru product would remain exclusive, Walker said, and many have invested in single-franchise and upgraded stores because of that pledge.
Fred Adcock, executive vice president of Subaru of America Inc., acknowledged that Subaru parent Fuji and GM are conducting a feasibility study on a WRX version for Saab. A decision is likely soon, Adcock said.
If it is approved, the Saab version would have a redesigned front and rear and be priced above the Subaru Impreza WRX, Adcock said. It could be a 2005 model, debuting in late 2004 or early 2005.
Subaru dealers sold about 23,000 Impreza WRX sedans and wagons in 2002, Adcock said, with wagons representing about 30 percent of the volume. Because Saab is a low-volume brand, with less than 40,000 cars sold annually, "the impact on the Subaru dealer organization would be minimal," he said. Subaru has nearly 600 dealerships and sold 180,020 cars in 2002.
Subaru of America, though, has and will continue to communicate the sentiment of the U.S. dealers to decision makers in Japan, Adcock said.
The turbocharged Impreza WRX has helped Subaru in its push to create a high-performance image. The 300-hp STI version of the WRX will debut in June. "Without a doubt, the Impreza WRX has been really the linchpin of our driving performance strategy," Adcock said.
Adcock also said that Fuji continues to develop a seven-passenger vehicle that is slated for the 2006 model year. Fuji and GM had been developing that product together, until GM backed out in 2002. The split leaves Subaru and GM still searching for ways to benefit each other. GM owns 20 percent of Fuji Heavy Industries.