Sit-down with Subaru: Q&A with Dominick Infante, National Manager, Product Communications at Subaru of America

We ask everything we want to know about current and future Subaru cars.

By Rss | February 11, 2014
We recently traveled to the Chicago Auto Show, a fun event that is often overshadowed by other major shows in Los Angeles and Detroit. It was perhaps the perfect backdrop for the debut of the Subaru Legacy midsize sedan, which is often considered a dark horse itself in a competitive segment of the auto market. At this show, we talked with Subaru communications boss Dominick Infante and learned who buys these cars and why the Legacy doesn't have to compete with the Camry. We also got the scoop on the future of Subaru hybrids, boxer engines, and the WRX. What were Subaru's goals for the new Legacy? What has improved from the previous generation? Infante: Where we really knew we needed to up our game was the interior, the quality of the materials, and the new infotainment system, which pinches and swipes like a smartphone with a touchscreen. We didn't really want to make it bigger. We've actually made it better looking. It's three-tenths of an inch lower. It has a much better profile; it's a better looking car than the previous one. But safety is the main thing we always go for… It debuts a new airbag, a seat-mounted airbag that goes under your knee and what that does is stop you from sliding under the steering wheel. A lot of other companies will use a knee bolster airbag, but this one actually comes out from the seat in a bad accident and keeps you positioned properly so that all the airbags hit you at all the right places… It has our new EyeSight [crash avoidance] system, which is a new version of the existing EyeSight. It has 40 percent more depth [detection range] and side viewing angles and uses two cameras so it can see a lot more so it reacts a lot faster. How do you plan to stand out in this tough segment?
Infante: We've been in it for over 20 years. Sales of the Legacy have been increasing every year. This is the best-selling Legacy we've ever had, this last generation car. And to be honest, I think what helps us is we're standard all-wheel drive on this car. As other manufacturers start bringing out all-wheel drive to their products, it helps us get cross-shopped. So if people are looking for all-wheel drive and their shopping for it on other bands, they will come and look for us now. So having that competition doing what we've been doing all along helps us a little bit. We want to make this a very competitive vehicle in terms of looks, fuel economy – 36 mpg [hwy], which is very good in this segment, and safety. The market is moving towards more emotional styling and automakers are constantly evolving their designs. Some people said the styling on some of your new cars, including the WRX STi and Legacy, is a bit too conservative and not different enough. What do you say? Infante: First, WRX STi buyers are really unique. They always hate the new one. You can go back to the original Bug Eye [Impreza] which came out in 2002. People hated it. As soon as we got rid of it, people said "Why did you get rid of the Bug Eye? It's the best looking one you ever made." It's that way with any new technology.
Infante: Yes, those cars are so emotional and there's so much of an attachment to them that people have ownership in that car. For the Legacy, we just made it a lot better looking than the previous generation car, with a much more coupe-like styling. While it may be conservative, this is actually very sporty for us. The valences and lower valences are very sporty and those headlights are aggressive. We've got two very powerful character lines on the side and there are new taillights as well. We are probably more conservative than many other companies. But we don't consider this conservative. We think it's pretty stylish.
You have to understand our buyers and that goes across basically all of our segments: Our buyers can afford a lot more than they are buying. They can afford more car than a Subaru, but they are making a conscious decision to buy a Subaru. And by doing that, by buying a Legacy, they're really saying, "I'm not buying a Camry. I do my research; I'm smarter than that." We have very well-educated buyers. The majority of them have degrees and graduate degrees and they do a lot more research. So they are checking our reliability [ratings] and Consumer Reports. They're checking our NHTSA scores; they're checking our IIHS scores. They're doing all that homework before they buy the car and what they are basically saying is, "I'm making a smarter decision. This car is going to last longer, and it's going to be safer and it's going to be more of a value." It's a very good value in terms of a buying proposition. Subaru's resale values are really high. We always score very well with ALG. There's some strong loyalty among Subaru buyers. Infante: I think that partly that comes because of the way the cars drive, because of the all-wheel drive. With the all-wheel drive you get that feel safe handling and our cars have a low center of gravity so they feel less sticky so it's a better handling vehicle. The boxer engine is your core technology. Is that here to stay or are you going to be moving in other technologies?
Infante: No no, the boxer is our engine. That's kind of what says "Subaru." It's only us and Porsche, the maker of boxer engines and in terms of handling and safety, they offer a lot. Because of the packaging, it's actually better in terms of frontal impact than a V [engine] is. The V intrudes more into the cabin whereas we create a system so that the engine is square. When you get into an accident, we design it so it actually gets pulled down and goes down lower so we're trying to make sure that it doesn't intrude onto the passenger. It's got some great packaging aspects. It's a little bit more work, but [is good] in terms of balance, safety, and handling. Subaru wagons, which were the predecessors to crossovers, are a large part of Subaru's heritage. But some people were disappointed when the WRX wagon was gone. What was your strategy? Infante: To do the amount of work we wanted to do on the WRX in terms of modifying its chassis, because previous generations of the cars were based on an Impreza. This is more modified from an Impreza than it's ever been before. And just in terms of resources, we can afford to do a really fantastic four-door or do a less well-developed car and make it both [sedan and wagon versions]. So it was a conscious decision we had to make. Traditionally, the WRX has always been a sedan. It was only the last generation that offered the wagon, or the five-door as they call it. We had to focus on one thing. It upset some people, but hopefully, once they drive the car, they'll [realize] the difference is huge and the handling is so much better. So we never know, maybe down the road we can bring one out [another WRX wagon], but for now, that was all we can do resource-wise was to focus on that. Is Subaru still committed to wagons? Infante: Sure. There will be another Outback. That and the Forester are our best-selling vehicles. We like wagons, and we still have the five-door Impreza. So, we're not steering away from wagons. Subaru introduced the XV Crosstrek Hybrid. Are there any more hybrids coming down the pipeline for Subaru? Infante: Not in the near future, but we are definitely working on future hybrid technology. There will be more stuff coming, but not right away. Down the line, yes, we will have more. A lot of automakers are moving away from six-cylinders. What is the future of Subaru's six-cylinders?
Infante: This [the Legacy] will be available with a flat-six, a 3.6-liter flat-six engine and it is the first time we have ever offered that car with a CVT transmission. We have that new high-torque CVT that we developed. It can handle the power of the flat-six. We're not steering away from the six-cylinder. We love that. Who is Subaru trying to appeal to? What are the future goals of the company? Infante: Our buyer tends to be a cliché of what you think a Subaru buyer would be like. [They] like to mountain bike; they tend to do more outdoorsy stuff. We have one of the highest rates of people that take the cars off-road – 12 percent of people which is very high in the industry, up there with Range Rover and Jeep. People use these products; people tend to do things with them. When you look at a lot of our ads, our "dog-tested ads," we're not, like I said, going after a Camry buyer. On our buyers, [we look at] what is the main thing our owners do? Almost all of them have pets. And on that, the great majority have dogs. Our owners like to do good things. We came up with an idea [Share the Love campaign], and donated over $20 million now to charities from this event. Instead of giving you an incentive on the car, what if we said you can target a charity and give money to that charity? And it's been very successful. We run it every year. It's basically targeting our own people; it's something our buyer would do. Owners are kind of weird; they take pictures of their cars and send them to us. We understand they're different and they need to have this kind of connection with their car and we're very lucky to have that from a brand standpoint. Our goal is to get more of those people. Our buyers aren't going to buy this car and scream "Hey look at me I bought a Subaru" but if you ask them about it, they are much more inclined to be an evangelist for our brand. They tend to really identify with and like the car. You can drive through Connecticut and you'll see these $8 million homes and they'll have a Subaru Outback out front and you know they can have a Range Rover or whatever high-end product, but they like that low-key aspect of the Subaru. It's obviously a different buyer than STi, who likes the giant spoiler, but the majority of [our buyers] go for something that is different but conservative.

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