Cinderella Subaru goes to the ball: Roger Bell tests the SVX, an improbable but worthy flagship

SUBARUS were once regarded as Japanese wellies on wheels: unpretentious mud-pluggers, bought by country folk who wanted something more comfortable (and cheaper) than a Land-Rover. When they got dirty, you did not wash them down but hosed them out.

Subaru still makes budget-priced, utilitarian off-roaders, starting at pounds 7,072 for the Justy. But it has also moved on, successfully, with the Legacy estate, a handsome four-wheel-drive family middleweight notable for style and spaciousness, and turbocharged Legacy saloons which have done well in rallying.

In its quest for upmarket recognition, Subaru has now leapfrogged into uncharted territory with the SVX, a showcase luxury express on which a Porsche badge would not be misplaced.

The importer, IM Group, does not expect to sell many SVXs, which are earmarked primarily for the United States. Most British buyers with pounds 28,000 to spend on a show-off car - and the SVX is a poser's delight, as conspicuous as it is technically innovative - will go for a more recognisable symbol of prestige.

Ignore the snob factor and the SVX, billed as a 'luxury high-performance sports coupe', has a lot going for it. It is a voluptuous, big-booted car, roomier than most coupes, its cockpit enclosed by a smoked-glass canopy that affords ample headroom but not quite the panoramic view you expect. Air-conditioning is standard. So are cruise control and leather-trimmed seats - the driver's is adjustable at the touch of a button.

Its muscular flat-six engine is similar in design and capacity to that of a Porsche Carrera and drives all four wheels through an electronically controlled transmission system that delivers more power with more hold - Subaru knows about traction. Anti-lock brakes further reduce the risk of the car losing grip. Roadholding is strong, the car's balance and composure impressive. Accomplished though it is, however, the SVX is not an inspirational car of great agility and elan. Nor is it especially fast.

Efficient streamlining gives it a claimed maximum speed of 146mph, but the weight of all that luxury equipment blunts the acceleration. So does the four-speed automatic gearbox (there is no manual alternative) which slurs the shifts.

Smoothness and refinement impress more than speed. The only noisy intrusion comes from tyres that roar disagreeably, just like a Porsche's, on coarse surfaces.

Inside, the SVX is conservative. Apart from some suede trim and mock wood, the decor and wraparound dash could be that of any up-range Japanese car. The SVX is to be sold through just 20 dealers appointed to promote Subaru's improbable but worthy flagship.

SPECIFICATIONS

Subaru SVX, pounds 27,999. Engine: 24-valve, 3.3-litre flat-six; 226bhp at 5,600rpm. Transmission: four-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive. 0-60mph in 8.3 seconds. Fuel consumption (unleaded): 19-26mpg.

COMPARISONS

Audi S2 coupe, pounds 28,940. As discreet as the SVX is flashy. Performance of turbocharged five-cylinder engine sharper than Subaru's. Strong four-wheel-drive traction and roadholding. Handling marred by wispy steering. Beautifully made.

BMW 325i Coupe, pounds 21,750. Looks more like a two-door saloon than a coupe, but understated styling disguises dynamically accomplished driver's car. Strong performance from fine engine, excellent handling.

Jaguar XJS 4.0, pounds 32,115. Elegant aristocrat feels less overweight than it looks. Big and ostentatious, but comfortable and refined with it. Nifty, too. Strong, effortless performance from big, six-cylinder engine.

Nissan 300ZX, pounds 32,775. Formidable high-performance sports coupe with punchy V6 turbocharged engine. Faster than SVX but trickier to handle, with more power, less traction.

Toyota Celica GT-Four, pounds 23,824. Well-rounded four-wheel-drive coupe with a 2-litre turbocharged engine. Performance below expectations, although acceleration matches SVX's. Excellent handling, grip and security.

Volkswagen Corrado VR6, pounds 19,895. One for the budget-conscious connoisseur. Dumpy body is roomier than it looks. Wonderful silk-gloved V6 engine. Lacks visual charisma of SVX, but more rewarding to drive. Great handling.

(Photographs omitted)

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