Subaru isn't running under the radar any more

2011_subaru_wrx_sti.top.jpg By Alex Taylor III, senior editor at large


FORTUNE -- Subaru, which makes a habit of beating expectations, has done it again.

For October, Subaru saw its sales jump 25% in a month where auto sales as a whole rose only 13%. In the year to date, its sales are up 23% vs. the industry's 11%. With two months still to go, Subaru has already beaten its own yearly sales record.

Subaru doesn't grow by selling the deal instead of the car. According to Edmunds.com, its incentives in October were the second-lowest in the industry at $474 per car, representing 1.8% of the sticker price.

After more than two years of outperformance, Subaru is no longer autodom's best-kept secret.

Indeed, a to-be released study of word-of-mouth referrals by nearly 100,000 people, conducted by New Jersey-based Keller Fay Group, showed that Subaru got the highest percentage of favorable mentions of any auto brand and the fewest negatives -- besting BMW.

How does Subaru do it? It presents no surprises. It is steady, consistent and predictable. It sells the steak, not the sizzle.

More than most American subsidiaries of Japanese automakers, Subaru is a mirror of its parent, which goes by the distinctly unglamorous name of Fuji Heavy Industries.

Fuji Heavy is a no-frills company of engineers. Designers, marketers, and product planners take a back seat. Its corporate mission statement calls for the need to first "create advanced technology on an ongoing basis." Only after that is established does it mention any concern for the customer.

All that technology essentially gets focused on four car lines with two body styles: four-door and five-door/crossover. Note the absence of coupes, convertibles, and minivans. Fuji doesn't let itself get distracted by product niches and it does what it does very well.

(There is a fifth vehicle, Tribeca, that was conceived in a spasm of creativity a few years ago, but its sales have tailed off to a few hundred a month and represents less than 1% of sales).

Besides making the same models year after, Subaru has been run by the same people year after. Its top executives understand its customers inside and out, they are on a first-name basis with its 600 or so dealers and they play the long game.

Tom Doll, who is both chief operating officer and chief financial officer, joined Subaru in 1982 from Arthur Young and brings an accountant's sensibility to his job. He is realistic, focused, and detail-oriented. When asked to name the three main appeals of a Subaru, Doll listed "practical" first and "reliable" second. Only then did he add "fun to drive."

Chief marketing officer Tim Mahoney signed on in 1984. After 15 years with the company, he was lured away by the glamour of a job at Porsche, but soon returned to sensible Subaru as Doll's right-hand man.

It doesn't hurt that the chips have been falling Subaru's way. Crossovers are the fastest-growing segment of the market, so Subaru finds itself in the sweet spot. The strengthening yen makes Subaru's plant in Lafayette, Indiana, where it makes two of its best-selling models, all the more valuable. And customers are beginning to appreciate the benefits of all-wheel drive, which Subaru has made standard since the 1990s.

To be sure, playing a pat hand is not a winning strategy for the long term. Subaru will be vulnerable when crossovers are replaced by the next hot thing. As customers seek better fuel economy, it will need to add small cars to its lineup, and it will be challenging to maintain its brand identity when it does. And it needs to add some alternative-fuel vehicles to its lineup to maintain its eco-friendly image.

A turbo-diesel version of its bestselling Outback crossover would be a natural.

Around Subaru headquarters in New Jersey, there's a saying that sums up Subaru's appeal: You may date a Saab (or substitute the sporty, unpractical brand of your choice), but you marry a Subaru.

In a difficult and uncertain economic environment, owning a Subaru is the equivalent of comfort food. And Subaru's savvy managers have the recipe down pat.

Full disclosure: First my mother and now my son have become Subaru owners To top of page

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