Things are looking up for Subaru. Despite its aging Legacy lineup and a slow economy, the brand increased U.S. sales in 2003 over 2002.
Subaru last year was bolstered by popular models such as the redesigned Forester and Impreza STi.
And with new models coming, Dale Walker, who heads Subaru's National Dealer Advisory Board, says sales prospects are even better this year.
But while Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., parent company of Subaru, and its dealers have good communication, Walker sees one problem: Subaru tends to keep its models too long. The Legacy Outback is in its fifth year, and the next generation will go on sale this spring.
Says Walker: "You can't let a product get that old. It starts losing its appeal to customers." He spoke with Staff Reporter Karen Sharp.
How was 2003 for Subaru dealers?
It was a difficult economy. We had aging models. Our Legacy Outback was in its fifth year, so it made it difficult. But through all that, we were able to increase sales. It's always good when you can increase sales in a down year.
What is the hot product for Subaru?
The new Forester has been good for us. The Impreza STi has done a good job. It's like a rally-type car, and there probably isn't a real wide market for it out there. If we keep the volume right, it should do well for years.
What is the weak link?
The Legacy lineup; the Outback. It's in its fifth year.
The Baja has not taken off as planned. Was it a mistake, or is there still a buyer for a niche vehicle like this?
There is a buyer. I think several things went wrong. The end product is not what got the dealers excited several years ago. The initial launch didn't target the right buyer. We were looking at 35 and under; predominantly male. And we found out that the vehicle is more suited for 50 and older.
What new products are on the way?
In May will be the launch of the new Legacy Outback. At the same time, we'll be getting a new Legacy GT turbo sedan.
What is your dealer council's role?
To discuss issues with Subaru of America and their parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries. To make sure our goals are consistent and mutually beneficial. To keep the lines of communication open.
What is the top priority of the dealer council in 2004?
It's always the same: dealer profitability. It's amazing how other things fall into line when that's taken care of.
How involved is the dealer council in manufacturer-driven programs and decisions that affect dealers?
We're heavily involved. Our opinions are asked consistently. They want our input if we feel the right path is being taken. I'm not saying I always agree with (their strategy), but there's always open dialogue.
Is the involvement more than it has been in the past?
Yes. In November Fuji Heavy invited the executive committee of the national dealer advisory to Japan to discuss some long-term strategy and take a look a future product and drive or look at some products that will be introduced. That's a really strong sign that they want our input.
How effective is your dealer council?
It's getting better and better, and I think that can only mean a better franchise in the future.
What has been your biggest disappointment as dealer council chairman?
The sharing of the Impreza and WRX with GM. My role is over at the end of January. But it I think the primary goal for 2004 is to limit the product sharing and keep our product for Subaru dealers in the North American market.
What is the No. 1 thing the factory doesn't understand about your customers?
Subaru is a small car company, and there's not a huge amount of layers between the dealers and upper management at Subaru of America, so the communication is very good there. I think the management at Subaru understands the dealers very well. That's the benefit of being a small company.
What are the dealer council's top concerns?
Product, product, product. It's amazing. I've been talking a lot about the Outback being in its fifth year. You can't let a product get that old. It starts losing its appeal to customers.
Subaru and Fuji, if they do one thing wrong consistently, it's that they keep their products too long.
The product cycle is still five years. Subaru makes a good, dependable product, but they keep the production too long. We constantly talk to them about how we can shorten the product cycle. The issue is always money. When you make a new model, you have to produce so many of them to make money. Subaru thinks it takes five years to get the return they're looking for.