NURBURG, Germany — Subaru took on the world's racing establishment last month at Germany's punishing 24-hour Nurburgring endurance race to showcase two things: the Japanese automaker's plan to put more performance muscle into its vehicles and its desire to proclaim its brand focus on safety.
The effort went up in flames — literally.
As the world looked on, Subaru's high-powered blue-and-red WRX STI race car came to a halt with just three hours left in the race when it erupted into flames and oily black smoke as it exited turn two.
Worse, it quickly became clear that Subaru had failed to think through driver safety.
The crew had taped the driver's side door closed because of a fender-bender in the race. When the car caught fire, its rattled Dutch driver, Carlo van Dam, couldn't open it from inside. He had no choice but to climb through the blaze that had engulfed the other side of the car.
But that door's lever broke as he fumbled for an escape, van Dam said.
"You have to be a bit of a nut case to be a racing driver anyway on this kind of circuit," van Dam said after getting out unscathed. "But when I saw the flames, it was the first time I really was scared."
Is this any way to build a brand reputation for safe and sporty cars?
According to Subaru, it most certainly is.
Subaru has a reputation for safe, if utilitarian and somewhat frumpy, vehicles. But it wants its street cars, such the Outback, Impreza and Legacy, to be sporty too. Taking on circuits such as Germany's grueling Nurburgring, known for its dangerous blind curves, narrow track and incessant ups and downs, provides an unparalleled crucible to fuse both traits.
"I want to make our brand safe and exciting," says Yoshio Hirakawa, president of the carmaker's Subaru Tecnica International racing and performance division.
"For Subaru STI, the most important thing is verifying that our racing expertise can be utilized in normal production car development," he said. "Crashworthiness, for example, must be achieved for real-world conditions. Just assessing performance in a test facility is not enough."
The mantra manifests itself in Subaru's corporate slogan: "Enjoyment and Peace of Mind."
But as the Nurburgring mishap shows, turning a vehicle brand into a leader in performance and safety technology is hard work.