TOKYO -- When Subaru arrived in the United States in the 1960s, ads used the unflattering slogan "cheap and ugly."
The brand has come a long way. But to critics, the concept of "Subaru styling" is still an oxymoron. Even loyalists describe it as "quirky"; the less charitable choose "bland" and "boxy."
Subaru is one of the few brands that have been unscathed, even growing stronger, during the U.S. recession -- and now it wants to build on its success. The company finally is getting serious about design, its Achilles' heel, and is turning to an outsider as the new point man.
Osamu Namba joined Subaru in 2008, hired from an independent styling studio he had founded a decade earlier. His mission is to unify the Subaru look across models and win new fans.
"We want to broaden the appeal to make it accessible to more than a small, loyal crowd," Namba, 54, said last month in an interview at the Tokyo headquarters of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., Subaru's parent company. "We need to add a more contemporary element."
Styling long played second fiddle to the Subaru brand's engineering must-haves: all-wheel drive, horizontal boxer engine and a functional interior.
Traditionally, the Subaru boxer engine's horizontally aligned pistons make for a low front profile. But they also lend the car a lower center of gravity, making it more agile. Tall roofs, meanwhile, offer plenty of cargo space for all the outdoor gear that Subaru fans tote around, while aiding visibility.
Performance came first -- and if the car looked funny, so be it. Previous attempts to improve design sometimes fell spectacularly flat -- most notably the widely panned, aircraft-inspired "propeller" grille of the mid-2000s.