The cars we loved.
It was difficult to stand out in the 80’s as a small car. The popularity of them had caught on and many were chasing Honda’s Civic or the VW Rabbit for inspiration. Subaru, of course took a different path. While others were squeezing more mileage out of their boxes or making them sporty, Subaru just wanted to make its Justy more useful. As its smallest car the Justy had a wheel base of only 90.8 inches, making it one of the smallest cars sold in the American market. As a subcompact it was a bit short on conveniences. It had no power steering, no cruise control and many lacked air conditioning. The Justy was all about efficiency, coming in sporty 3 door or more practical 5 door hatchback form.
From the looks of it you might assume it was not wind tested due to its high boxy profile. The angular theme carried on inside with squared off controls placed in a awkward position behind the steering wheel. The seats were not much better with poor support and a back folding seat that was better left in the folding position because it was too cramped for anything other than toddlers. Despite those drawbacks, the Justy stood out in a crowded small car market.
The thing that made the Justy stand out was its four wheel drive option. Almost unheard of on a small car or any car in America for that matter, the Justy (like all Subaru) had a on demand system that allowed the driver to switch from spinning the front wheels to to all four. A button on the top of the shift lever allowed the switch. The transmission was either a four speed manual or a continuously variable system. One of the reasons a CVT transmission was used over a more conventional automatic was the small engine. It had a rather conventional McPherson strut front and trailing arm rear suspension with disc brakes in front and drums in back. Thanks to a short wheelbase and 4WD, the Justy was a bit noisy and rougher riding than competitors like the Honda Civic and Toyota Starlet.
The 1.2 litre (1.0 in some markets) SOHC three cylinder was so small (and weak) that a standard auto gearbox would have produced too much strain. Some blamed the lack of a proper automatic transmission on poorly designed synchronizers, but the CVT option worked well. With 67 hp, the small engine on paper was similar to ones used by Honda in its early Civics (some of those cars could be had with a two-speed automatic). Subaru was not interested in following Honda, or anyone it seemed as it was the only auto maker selling a full line of four wheel drive cars in the American market. One of the benefits of having a small inline engine was that it put little stress on a chasis that was developed to accommodate 4WD under harsh terrain conditions.
The resulting combination made the Justy feel stable in either 2 or 4 wheel drive mode. With all wheels being powered, handling was said to be neutral, just what you would want in bad weather. It was no wonder that the Justy sold better in snow prone areas of the country and even became a popular rural route mail vehicle. One of the main reasons anyone bought a small car was for fuel efficiency. At 1727 pounds, the Justy was still considered lightweight, even with a four wheel drive system. The highway mileage in the high thirties was offset by the small 7.7 gallon tank, requiring frequent fill ups.
The Justy continued in America until 1994. By that time its power had grown to 73 hp, but was still a double digit 0 to 60 car. Its top speed stayed around the 87 mph mark. High speed stability was likely to be less than confidence inspiring with the narrow 12’ tires that came standard on base cars. Elsewhere around the world, the Justy continued, re badged by Subaru and built by Daihatsu. Although Subaru’s smallest car would be no more sold in the US after 1994, a re badged Justy continued in Europe and would also be sold in the US as a Suzuki built GEO Metro in the 90’s. The cost of standing out was apparently higher in the US market. There seemed to be higher demand for the continued Justy in Europe and Asia, but it became more conventional in the process.