Friday, March 2, 2018

A Day On Ice: Subaru Winter Experience

When I heard that Patrik Sandell of Subaru Rally Team USA was bringing his Flatout Sweden ice driving school to a frozen lake near me, I was already looking at my calendar to see when I could make it.  All that stood between me and spinning studded tires on ice was a 10-hour drive from my home in Nebraska to Eagle River, Wisconsin.  Game on!

The Subaru Winter Experience featured a day-long driving school held on Dollar Lake in Wisconsin.  Carved into the iced-over lake, 5 different courses were set to teach drivers in BRZs, WRXs, and WRX STIs how to handle these machines in frozen conditions.  Instructors from DirtFish Rally School in Snoqualmie, WA were also on hand to run the event alongside Patrik and his team from Sweden.

I took Friday to travel up to Chanticleer Inn, where the event was being hosted from.  Night was falling as I reached the snowy town in my STI, so I pulled up to the lodge to get an idea on where to go the next day.  It was easy to see where the Subaru Winter Experience would be based out of.  BRZs, WRXs, and WRX STIs clad in Method Race Wheels and studded ice tires lined the entrance to the lodge.  Inside I found drivers who had just completed their day on the lake.  They had nothing but praise for the course they had just completed and were excited to share their stories of Subarus out on the ice.  Talking with them got me even more excited for my chance the next day, so sleeping was a little difficult that night!

That morning I spent a good hour driving through snow-covered back roads around the area.  The scenery was postcard-worthy and my STI was loving the conditions with my snow tires.  After my morning joyride, I met up with the drivers and instructors at the lodge.  Once we were done with breakfast, they gave us a brief explanation of what to expect and sent us out to a fleet of Subarus to drive to the lake and start the course.  I jumped in a WRX STI with another student and followed the caravan through the narrow road to the lake.  Upon arriving, we jumped right in to some driving courses.  The WRXs and WRX STIs we were in started things off with accelerating and braking to feel out how the cars handled in the slick conditions.  I was surprised at how much grip these cars still had until I learned that 400 studs on each tire were likely responsible for keeping us glued to the surface.

Each run we made was followed by feedback from the DirtFish instructors who were keeping a watchful eye on us with each pass.  Radios in each car made instructions for our class easy to follow every time, so the course ran smoothly and efficiently the whole day.  I was impressed with their attention and observations made, even without being in the cars with us.  Everything from driving position to the movement of our hands on the wheel, they were able to pick up on all the details so we could make adjustments quick and make progress with every run.  It was great to have such insightful advice throughout the day as we moved from course to course.

As the day progressed, we changed from All-Wheel Drive courses for the WRX and WRX STI to rear-wheel drive courses for the BRZ.  Slalom courses and technical turns helped us dial in our tail-happy BRZs and open flowing courses let us put the AWD to the test with the WRXs.  There was plenty of time driving all of the vehicles, letting us make more adjustments each time and start mastering the basic skills we had started off the day with.  During the runs, we were also invited to explore the different traction control settings in the car not only from a safety aspect, but also to let us learn the limits of our cars without being towed out of a snow bank if we got a little too confident!

All the while, as we got to know our Subarus more, we also go to know each other more.  The camaraderie between the students and instructors made it feel less like a class and more like a good time out with friends.  Sharing the wheel with our fellow classmates, cheering each other on, and laughing at our mistakes kept the atmosphere light and fun.  Regardless of our driving backgrounds, our class collectively improved with each pass and it was rewarding not only to see that first-hand, but to feel your own skills getting dialed in with each run.

The last course had a bit of everything.  As such, we were invited to drive all three cars through as often as we liked.  Certain areas of this 2-mile long course favored the BRZ while other sections let the WRX and WRX STI shine, so we could appreciate both types of drive systems that we had been learning through the day.  My co-driver and I had been working our way toward turning the traction control nannies completely off to complete this monster of a course, so it was rewarding to make it through on skill alone.  Little did we know that we were about to go from feeling like Driving Gods to bed-wetting babies with the instructors parting gift.

Patrik Sandell rounded up the students and instructors one last time on the lake.  It was time for them to show us how it was really done!  One by one, each student got the ride of their life in a WRX STI and a BRZ with one of the instructors.  I managed to jump in with Patrik in a WRX STI and was absolutely floored at how effortlessly he drove through the course.  At a spot where I had managed to hit 52 mph, Patrik passed the same point doing 64... and he was sideways through most of it!  If that wasn't enough, Michelle Miller from DirtFish took me through the course in a BRZ and made poetry out of the course, transitioning each corner flawlessly.  It was a humbling experience in both cars!

I can't think of another time when I had so much fun and learned so much.  It was so easy to understand and feel the cars on ice, so I'm hoping the skills I honed on Dollar Lake will make their way into my rallycross driving at home.  More than that, it was such a great time enjoying a day of driving with my fellow classmates and our instructors.  The Subaru Winter Experience really lived up to it's name.  It's an experience I'll never forget.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Baja Blast: Heart Transplant

This 2006 Subaru Baja Turbo has a new lease on life.  Since October of 2017, I've managed to complete a long list of repairs, replacements, and improvements to turn back the clock on it's once dismal maintenance history (or lack thereof).  A new OEM short block now lies at the heart of this turbo truck along with a host of other goodies to help it along.  Here's the quick version of what we did!

Along with the new EJ25 short block, we rebuilt the heads, resealed valves, cleaned valves and valve seats as needed, and sealed it up with a OEM Master Gasket Kit. It's bolted up tight with ARP head studs. The turbo has been rebuilt along with a Perrin Up Pipe to delete one of the unnecessary catalytic converters.  To improve oil circulation, we replaced the stock oil pan with a '06 WRX STI oil pan along with a matching dipstick for proper oil level readings.  The Water Pump, Timing Belt, and all of the pretensioners were replaced as well as a handful of sensors and hoses that were going bad.  

After 1,000 miles of break-in, I'll put Full Synthetic oil back in and call it a day.  Outside of the head studs, up-pipe and STI oil pan, the rest of the replacement components were all OEM parts.  It took us awhile to get all of this done, but most of it was just waiting on parts to arrive.  Most of the major things were in stock but some of the hoses and lifters required a special order from Subaru.  

All-in-all with everything buttoned up, this Baja should be good to go for awhile.  Basic maintenance is easy for me to keep up on, so as long as this turbo truck is mine, it'll be running happy and healthy.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Subaru Ascent Pricing & Options

The 2019 Subaru Ascent is set to shake-up the 3rd-Row Crossover segment later this year.  February 15th marks Subaru's 50th Anniversary, so as a present, we get all of our pricing and options questions answered!  Here's all the details on the latest addition to the Subaru Family.

Right off the bat, the entry-level Ascent beats it's competition in price.  Coming with Subaru's EyeSight Driver Assist Technology as standard, the Ascent starts off at $32,970.  That's a bargain considering that it's got more passenger space than the  Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer.  The Ascent also boasts up to 86.5 cubic feet of cargo space with the second and third row seats folded flat. That’s more than Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Hyundai Santa Fe and Nissan Pathfinder.

Up from the starting point, the Ascent price adjusts accordingly with it's 3 other trim levels.  Premium starts at $35,170, Limited starts at $39,970, and the Touring tops out the trim levels at $45,670.  The jump might seem sudden between the Limited and Touring, but there are additional option packages that can still be added to the Limited that inch it closer to Touring price territory.

As with the 2017 Impreza and 2018 Crosstrek, the Ascent is built on the new Subaru Global Platform to optimize straight-line stability, agility and ride comfort with reduced levels of noise, vibration and harshness. The acoustic glass in the windshield and front door glass, coupled with additional soundproofing, provide a quiet ride for everyone.  This technology will continue it's way through the rest of Subaru's lineup as each vehicle is due for their refresh.  The 2019 Forester (coming in Fall of 2018) will be next after the Ascent.

While there's no 6-Cylinder option, the brand-new 260 horsepower 2.4 liter direct injection turbocharged inter-cooled Boxer Four engine lies at the heart of every Ascent.  With 277 lb ft of torque for towing, it still provides competitive fuel economy compared to other 3rd-Row Crossover SUVs.  Expect up to 500 miles out of a 19.3 gallon fuel tank, and that's still with regular unleaded fuel!

The Ascent can come dressed in a variety of color options as well.  Abyss Blue and Crystal White have already been showcased at the LA Auto Show when it made it's premier.  Crystal Black, Ice Silver, Magnetite Gray, Crimson Red, and Tungsten Metallic are all familiar colors on other Subaru models.  The Ascent will add Cinnamon Brown Pearl to those options.  Depending on the color you choose, Black or Tan interiors are available.  There's also a Touring-Level exclusive Java Brown Leather that goes with all colors.

Ordering is currently open at Subaru Retailers  with the first units arriving sometime in June of 2018.

Baja Blast: Time for a Short Block

When I picked up this 2006 Subaru Baja Turbo in October of 2017, I knew it needed some work.  Aside from being absolutely filthy inside and out, a lot of maintenance items had been neglected.  I changed the differential fluid, automatic transmission fluid, brake fluid, all four brake rotors and pads, and replaced the coolant when the new radiator went in.  But before I did all that I knew it would eventually need something more important: a new short block.  That's because when I bought this, it was already 2.5 quarts low on oil and was told the previous owner hardly ever changed the oil to begin with.

If you're unfamiliar with basic vehicle maintenance, neglecting simple things like changing the oil can be detrimental to the life of the engine.  In the case of my turbocharged Baja: it means the dirty oil, low oil level, and +100k mileage has taken it's toll on the piston rings.  It has been burning oil and, even with my monthly oil changes on the car, it wasn't enough to make it through the winter.  When the Check Engine Light came on for timing and AVCS, I knew I needed to do something soon.  It still runs, but a ticking time bomb means that if I were to "drive it into the ground" that I could be looking at even more expensive repairs.  

We'll rebuild the heads, reseal valves, clean valves and valve seats as needed, and seal it up with a Master Gasket Kit.  Figured it'd be smart to use ARP Head Studs as well to hold this sucker together tight.  While the engine is out we'll check out the turbo and make sure things are spinning well there and use a Perrin Up Pipe to delete one of the unnecessary Catalytic Converters.  A new OEM Short Block, along with a couple of other hoses, sensors, and parts will be making their way under the hood to give this Baja a clean bill of health and, as long as it's in my care, a good healthy life ahead of it.

Once this is buttoned up, it'll also have some other bits added to it.  I'll have a good update for the Baja Blast in March when it's ready!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Subaru ST-X Story

During the LA Auto Show in 2000 Subaru unveiled a concept called the ST-X.  Subaru was already confident from their success with the Crossover SUV idea with their Outback and Forester models and thought that their Subaru Truck Xperimental could bring similar success.  This concept was pitched as "the ultimate expression of the Subaru brand essence – fun, freedom, adventure, confidence, and control."  

Built around the Outback/Legacy chassis, the ST-X was in a class by itself with a four-door layout, extendable cargo bed with switchback design, four-wheel independent suspension, and a Supercharged 4-Cylinder Boxer Engine at it's core supplying power to their proven All-Wheel Drive system.  This concept embodied the exciting lifestyle it promoted with a bold aggressive exterior design wrapped in Solar Flare Orange paint.  That color made it's way to the interior as well, acting as upholstery and dash panel accents throughout the ST-X cabin.

The design of the ST-X already seamed feasible, as it was built on an existing Subaru model you could buy at the time.  As it was essentially a modified 2000 Subaru Outback, it was easy to picture this less as a fancy non-functional concept car and more as something that was actually possible.  Subaru even had a patent pending on the Switchback design for the car and looked poised to release this car with all the excitement the concept brought to the table.
Patent number: 6481772
Abstract: An automotive vehicle body including a passenger cab having a rear end, a cargo bed having a substantially horizontal floor extending rearwardly from the rear end of the passenger cab and a pivoted closure on the rear end of the cab. The closure is movable between an erect position to separate the passenger cab and the cargo bed, and a folded position to extend the floor of the cargo bed into the rear end of the passenger cab. In one embodiment, the pivoted closure is defined by a rear seat back in the passenger cab and that is capable of folding in a forward direction of the vehicle. A retractable window is slidable into and out of a top portion of the rear seat back when the rear seat back is in an upright position. In another embodiment, the pivoted closure is provided by a hinged door between the rear end of the passenger cab and the cargo bed.
Type: Grant
Filed: October 13, 2000
Date of Patent: November 19, 2002
Assignee: Subaru of America, Inc.
Inventor: Peter Tenn 

The ST-X Concept made it's way to retailers as a product called the Subaru Baja in late August of 2002 as a 2003 model.  In many ways, the Baja shared the main features that the ST-X concept had displayed 2 years earlier at the LA Auto Show.  Impressively, the bold exterior design remained mostly unchanged from the concept.  The other exciting aspects of the ST-X had been seemingly watered down with the production Baja.  Instead of a Supercharged engine, the Baja made its debut with a Naturally Aspirated 4-Cylinder engine.  The Baja also backpedaled on the Switchback design for the cargo area, only having a small opening below the back window instead of the larger opening of the entire back wall and glass.  The retractable canvas roof had been replaced with a standard power sunroof.  Solar Flare Orange had been diluted to Baja Yellow and the interior orange accents had been replaced with a more standard black with silver accents look.

Despite the watered-down aspects, Subaru still expected to sell 24,000 Bajas per year built out of their plant in Lafayette, IN.  With scarce advertising for this new model and a confused initial reception, the Baja was not off to a stellar start.  While it received awards for design and reliability, reviews of the vehicle were less than encouraging.  After it's first year, Subaru added a turbocharged engine option to give the sporty Baja some well-needed pep, but this didn't breathe much new interest into the already controversial design.  Over the Baja's limited 4-year sales period, a total of around 30,000 were produced.  Low sales reflected the underwhelming production design and, with the all-new 2005 Legacy and Outback being released in 2004, the Baja already seemed outdated among it's fellow Subaru models.

There are several problems one could use to explain why the Baja flopped, but it could attribute most of that to the expectations set by the successful ST-X Concept.  For a quirky Car/Truck design to work, the exciting adventurous spirit that the ST-X Team had put into the concept was a necessary component to it's success in the real world.  Unfortunately, when those elements were dialed back for the actual production of the Subaru Baja, it lost those stand-out features designed to propel it forward.  Ten years after the Baja's initial release, the Subaru XV Crosstrek delivered a bold compact crossover dressed in a familiar orange.  The Crosstrek has since become one of Subaru's top selling lines and continues to define and lead it's category.  It seems Subaru has learned the lesson for delivering an exciting new product to the market.  One can only imagine if the ST-X and the Baja's story may have been different had this formula been followed before.

Not all is lost.  The Subaru ST-X lives on in the Baja, which has recovered in popularity in it's age.  They enjoy strong resale value in the used market as the hard-to-find nature of this truck/car thing and enthusiast following have kept them alive and in-demand over the years.  The ST-X Concept was built around fun, freedom, adventure, confidence, and control.  Those ideas still ring true with the handful of Bajas being enjoyed today.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Higgins & Pastrana RC Cars

Several years ago Subaru teamed up with HPI for a limited release of Rallycross RC cars.  Bucky Lasek and Sverre Isachsen got 1/18th scale Micro RS4 all-wheel drive RC cars that were (and still are) a blast to play with.  So when I got an e-mail from Subaru about a similar set featuring Higgins Blue and Pastrana Red, I knew I had to place an order!

They're listed as having All-Wheel Drive, Four-Wheel Independent Suspension, Shock Absorbers, 100m control distance, and all metal gears.  The box art also has a "Waterproof" logo depicted, which would be fitting for rally cars!

The photos of these are clearly not of the actual product.  A quota of 2000 orders needs to go through before they start rolling these out, but the specs given and the computer-generated images seem promising.  1/18th Scale (identical to the previous run with Isachsen and Lasek's cars), these Subarus are depicted with their SRT USA Liveries from 2017.  The car specifications sound incredibly similar to a Micro RS4 car to begin with, including the identical battery size, transmitter frequency, and dimensions, but that could simply be due to the fact that they're the same scale.  The CGI Box image supplied doesn't give any clues as to who actually produced either of these products either, so it's anyone's guess as to what RC Car company is building these.

Each RC car retails for $101.30 Per Car and a Pre-Order window is only available until February 12th.  They're listed to be shipped on August 5th of 2018, so there's a hefty wait time for these to be produced and released.  Still, for the diehard Rally fan, these are something worth waiting for!

Currently these are only available to order as an employee of Subaru (you'd have an e-mail from Subaru about these with a link).  However, the previous run of HPI RC Cars for Bucky and Sverre were open to the public a few months after the initial pre-order period.  Keep an eye out for these becoming available to order in Spring of 2018!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Goodbye Subaru 6-Cylinder

I've heard it dozens of times at car shows.  "There's no replacement for displacement."  The bigger the better, right?  It turns out the Environmental Protection Agency disagrees and, as evidenced by so many auto manufacturers recently, the bigger engines are starting to disappear.  While Subaru has never really had anything like a V8 or a "big block" engine, there is a horizontally-opposed masterpiece that will soon fall victim to this recent industry trend.  The 3.6 Liter 6-Cylinder Boxer Engine is on it's way out.

Oddly enough, the signs that Subaru's H6 would leave us were brought about by the debut of their largest vehicle to date: the 2019 Subaru Ascent.  One would imagine that whatever powers the new leviathan of the 3rd-Row SUV segment would have to be just as big, but this is not the case.  Powered by an all-new Direct-Injected Turbocharged 2.4 liter Boxer 4-Cylinder, the Ascent will still be capable of besting the 3.6 Boxer 6 in the power department.  At 256 Horsepower, Subaru's H6 will fall short of the 260 estimated Horsepower of the new Turbo 2.4.  Subaru, and many other manufacturers, have been managing to make more power with fewer cylinders for awhile now.  But this isn't the only telltale sign of the H6's departure.

The next is an old favorite of mine.  The "Subaru Prominence 2020" plan has been in full swing for several years and it has outlined their progress as each year passes.  Every new design, advancement, and goal of the company in terms of growth and development have been checking boxes for the Prominence 2020 Plan.  With the clock ticking down on these plans, 2020 will mark a point for the company when the Subaru Global Platform will be at the core of every vehicle built.  This is the same platform that the 2017 Impreza, 2018 Crosstrek, and 2019 Ascent will share.  Further on down the line, the 2019 Forester, 2020 Legacy/Outback, and 2020 WRX/STI will all eventually share the same modular platform design.  The plan also outlines that every Subaru will have Direct Injection in their Boxer Engines.  With the 3.6 Boxer 6 using Port Injection and no signs of any advancement with the H6 platform (we would've seen it already in the upcoming 2019 Ascent), this where the H6 will leave us.  Turbocharged Legacies and Outbacks will act as the higher-output options, replacing the Legacy 3.6R and Outback 3.6R options.

It's a shame to see things like this becoming more commonplace for auto manufacturers to do.  Fewer Cylinders with similar fuel economy and improved emissions continue to drive the industry forward.  The last offerings of the current generation Legacy and Outback will be available for another model year before the redesigned models take on the Subaru Global Platform and the new direct-injected boxer engine.  So if the Turbocharged route isn't for you, find a 6-cylinder Subaru before it's a thing of the past!