By the year 2028, no Subaru user should die in his or her car. This is what the Japanese car manufacturer Subaru has set out to achieve. The pioneer and global market leader in passenger car four-wheel drive technology recently won prizes for price/performance, safety and even the editors’ special prize for the “Innovation of the Year 2022” in Auto BILD’s annual major purchase decision study “The Best Brands in All Classes”. What is the secret of the Japanese manufacturer? J-BIG talked to Volker Dannath, Managing Director of Subaru Germany, about the technological features of Subaru and the origins of the company, which were not in car manufacturing at all.
J-BIG: Mr Dannath, what makes Subaru stand out in particular?
Volker Dannath: Subaru is a car manufacturer that produces high quality four-wheel drive cars. Last year, we produced our 20 millionth Subaru, making us one of the top four-wheel-drive car manufacturers in the world. We are very proud of that. Overall, we stand for safe mobility, comfortable travel and reliability.
J-BIG: How did it all start at Subaru?
Volker Dannath: It started very, very early; but not under the name Subaru. In 1917, an experimental laboratory for aircraft construction was founded in the Japanese town of Ota, which is in Gunma Prefecture. Gunma is located about 100 km north of Tokyo inland. Subaru still has its car manufacturing facilities in Ota today – Subaru’s headquarters are in Ebisu, a district of Tokyo. I like to call Ota “Subaru City”, because you immediately notice that the city has something to do with Subaru. There is a very large Subaru dealership there, extremely large even by Japanese standards. And then there are the huge factories. There are three in total, but you don’t notice that from the outside because everything is built together. There is also a development and design centre, and a large museum, where I have been several times, which tells the story of Subaru very impressively.
J-BIG: What happened after the launch of the experimental laboratory?
Volker Dannath: A lot has developed from this small laboratory. At that time, the company was called Nakajima Aircraft Co Ltd and supplied the Japanese Air Force with engines and fighter planes. And it is recorded that by the end of the Second World War, about 26,000 aircrafts of various types of weapons had been manufactured. When the Second World War ended, no more aircraft were allowed to be produced. In 1950, the company was finally divided into twelve companies. This was ordered by the American military administration at the time. Three years later, permission was granted for several companies to be united under one roof again. That had been strictly forbidden until then. Of these five companies, one was involved in automobiles – thus Fuji Heavy Industries was founded on 15 July 1953. And it was against the background of this development that today’s logo was created.
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J-BIG: Can you tell us more about the logo?
Volker Dannath: The logo you see on our cars is still symbolic of the parent company and shows a constellation. This constellation is the Pleiades. These are visible from Earth with the naked eye. If you look at the Pleiades from Germany, you see a so-called seven-pointed star. From Japan, however, it is a six-star. That is why we do not have seven stars in our logo, but only six. The big star on the left represents Fuji Heavy Industries and the five smaller stars represent the subsidiaries, including Subaru.
J-BIG: What happened after the founding of Fuji Heavy Industries?
Volker Dannath: Of course, the production of automobiles began at some point. It was 1955 when the first Subaru was produced, the Subaru 1500 with 55 hp. At that time, however, there were still major problems with the production facilities and with the plants as such, so that only twenty pre-series vehicles were built of this car. Then, in 1958, a Subaru 360 was produced. Internally, we call this car “Knutschkugel” (bubble car) because that’s what it looks like. It had 16 hp and a two-cylinder, two-stroke engine. The name 360 comes from the fact that the engine only has 360 cubic capacity. This makes the model one of the so-called “Kei-Car vehicles” and the first “Kei-Car” from Subaru. In 1966 the Subaru 1000 was introduced, a particularly important model because it was the first boxer engine that Subaru brought onto the market. And it did so in combination with front-wheel drive, which was not at all common at the time. This vehicle had 55 hp, weighed 670 kilograms and was fast up to 130 km – which was pretty good for the time. At that time, we at Subaru realized that you can stand out from the market with USPs, like a special drive. Then, in 1972, we launched the first four-wheel-drive model, the Subaru Leone, also known as the L-Series, in the Japanese market. This specific development went on and on, with bigger fuel capacity, more horsepower or sportier models. We quickly realized that the Leone with the all-wheel drive concept embodied the real Subaru brand and Subaru could become a real all-wheel drive brand. The focus of future development was clear: boxer engine and four-wheel drive.
J-BIG: Why do you focus so much on the boxer engine in your combustion cars?
Volker Dannath: One advantage of a boxer engine over a classic engine is that it is so flat. That offers a big advantage, especially in terms of safety. Because assuming you had a nasty head-on crash, with a conventional engine it’s very likely that it would be pushed into the interior of the vehicle. With a boxer engine, that’s pretty much not going to happen because it’s so flat that it would slide under the driver’s seat and not enter the passenger compartment. Also, the flat, low-mounted engine has a completely different centre of gravity. The advantage of this is that there is much less leverage when going around a corner at high speed, because you are much flatter and not subject to such large physical forces. Of course, the four-wheel drive also brings additional safety because not only one axle is driven, but both axles are in fixed connection with the engine. It’s almost as if the Subaru is running on rails. All these factors make a significant contribution to vehicle safety. This is particularly high at Subaru. We want to ensure that by 2028, no Subaru user will be killed in their car. That is what we have set out to achieve.
J-BIG: Until the 1970s, your focus was on the Japanese market. When did the company become more international?
Volker Dannath: At that time. We entered the American market with the Baja pick-up model. The American market is a very important market for us, so important that Subaru also operates a plant in Lafayette, in the state of Indiana, where it produces exclusively for the American and for the Chinese market. Our European products, on the other hand, are exported from Japan. We have also developed many other models that were ahead of their time. For example, the SVX, which you could open and close with a programmed code. That was a sports model that was also available in yellow, with automatic climate control and 230 hp – and that in the 90s. Yes, that was something special that caused a sensation. And that’s what distinguishes Subaru. Besides, our Forester was and is very popular. It’s celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and is already almost sold out for this year. The Forester has all our features, for example our award-winning driving assistance system “Eyesight”, which does not work with radar or sonar technology as usual in automotive engineering, but with a stereo camera system. Subaru again goes its own way here, as the system can recognize colours and is therefore unimaginably accurate. In addition, on certain Forester models, the air conditioning can be operated via gesture control.
J-BIG: When did Subaru enter Germany?
Volker Dannath: We started in Bad Hersfeld on 10 October 1980, in a simple car dealership. Today it’s in the middle of Germany, but back then there was still the GDR and the place was right on the border. Subaru took the first steps and later the Swiss Emil Frey Group took over as importer. In 1984, we moved to the beautiful town of Friedberg in the Wetterau region, where, by the way, Elvis Presley was stationed during his time with the U.S. Army. Our premises cover approximately 55,000 square metres, with a large spare parts warehouse, because of which we have such a huge amount of space. However, we do not have a new car warehouse here. Instead, we operate an importer warehouse, which is located in Rotterdam. Rotterdam has the largest seaport in Europe, to which the cars are delivered directly from Japan. We have large parking garages there, where the cars can be stored really well and neatly. This is practical in case the cars are not directly loaded onto trains or lorries to get to the respective end customers.
J-BIG: How big is Subaru Deutschland GmbH at the moment?
Volker Dannath: In Germany, we have a dealer network of about 400 contractual partners, with which we are very well positioned and are supported by a technical and commercial field service. Our head office in Friedberg employs around 80 people who ensure that our contract partners receive their ordered new vehicles as well as spare parts and accessories in a timely manner. The whole Subaru team attaches great importance to quality, order and punctuality and wants our most important customers, which are our dealers, to be satisfied with our work. Our dealer network is a high and important asset for us.
J-BIG: What is your exact role in this structure?
Volker Dannath: I am Managing Director of Subaru in Germany and therefore ultimately responsible for the Subaru brand.
J-BIG: How exactly does the cooperation between the Subaru headquarters and you work?
Volker Dannath: Before Corona, I was in Japan four to six times a year. Besides that, we work together on a daily basis: by email, by video conference, by phone. We give feedback on what is happening in the German market and coordinate with each other. Over the many years, a close and very pleasant cooperation has developed with our Japanese colleagues.
J-BIG: What about Subaru is particularly Japanese, even in Germany?
Volker Dannath: Everything that has to do with quality. We have very high standards. We have internalised this idea of quality here as we try to pass it on to our dealers, end customers and in conversations with journalists every day: that quality and the resulting satisfaction with our brand is extremely important to us. We don’t just want to satisfy the customer. We want to satisfy the customer very much. And that makes a world of difference. That is one of the most important things for us, because very satisfied customers come back. We do everything for that. And when a customer calls here, there is no agency in between that first records the data. Our aim is to help the customer immediately, no matter what it is. Furthermore, our employees are absolutely loyal to the company. And they don’t come here just to work, they live Subaru. It’s always a pleasure when we see how new, young employees internalize this idea relatively quickly. We are a big Subaru family, with very flat hierarchies. Here at our site, we are also very interested in training people. This is not only about people who are new to the profession, but we also train our own employees very strongly. And for this we do and invest a lot in every respect. Because if we didn’t make an effort, it would be like standing still. And we definitely don’t want that.
J-BIG: What is changing for you now with the introduction of electric cars and where do you want to go with Subaru in the future?
Volker Dannath: We have about 48 million cars in Germany. I doubt whether so many new cars will be added. From that point of view, Germany is a saturated market. On the other hand, it is a growth market. We are in the middle of a transformation process with new technologies. With our Solterra, we have a fully electric model in our range and, in addition, three vehicle types with mild hybrid drive. We are firmly convinced that with the Solterra and with everything that will follow, we will conquer new customers and continue to grow here in Germany and of course in Europe. After all, Subaru is committed to becoming more and more environmentally friendly. By 2030, at least 40 per cent of total global sales are to be accounted for by electric drive technology. And we intend to reduce CO2 emissions by 90 per cent by 2050 compared to 2010 levels. At some point it will be the case that we only produce emission-free vehicles. There are already many developments for this in our production facilities in Japan. Because it is the future for us.