Subaru XT/Alcyone/Vortex – Subaru’s First Sports Car

If you’re anything like me, then one of your hobbies is browsing listings on your local car sales websites.

Here in New Zealand, most people buy and sell cars on a platform called TradeMe (it’s a bit like eBay), and for my sins, I spend too much time browsing on TradeMe, looking at all sorts of weird and wonderful cars I wouldn’t mind owning.

The other night my eye was caught by a car that – to be honest – I had totally forgotten even existed in the first place.

For sale at the time of writing is a 1986 Subaru Vortex XT 4WD Turbo:

In today’s era of rounded shapes and curves, the blocky, angular bodywork stands out (as do the somewhat cheese grater looking wheels).

If Gordon Gekko hadn’t been so rich, he wouldn’t look out of place stepping out of this.

Seeing this car sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole, and after some late night reading I figured it would be good inspiration for another instalment of ‘Forgotten Heroes’. This is also a hybrid article, as I had thought about making it a ‘Cool Cars For Sale’ article but to use the listing more as general inspiration.

What You Need To Know About The Subaru XT/Alcyone/Vortex

The Subaru XT as it was called in North America and Europe was sold in New Zealand and Australia as the Vortex and Alcyone for the Japanese domestic market.

It’s a two door sports coupe, with a 2+2 configuration (i.e. the rear seats aren’t somewhere you’d want to spend too much time).

You can even argue that this was Subaru’s first ever proper sports carThe Subaru XT was a rather radical development for Subaru, as it was one of their first cars that wasn’t built with practicality in mind for either private or commercial use.

Instead, Subaru invested effort into producing a highly aerodynamic, performance-oriented coupe – and the result was rather special.

Contemporary feedback from the time of launch was that the wedge-shaped design was appealing and attractive, particularly compared to older Subaru offerings.  In my view, it is somewhat reminiscent of the MK1/AW11 Toyota MR2.

When Was The Subaru XT Made?

The American launch was in 1985, with a launch in Japan coming a few months later.

In North America, you could have had your XT with one of three trims:

  • DL – base
  • GL – middle
  • GL-10 – top spec, with all the bells and whistles.

In Japan, you had two trims/specifications for the Alcyone.

  • Alcyone VS – base, non-turbo
  • Alcyone VR – turbo, more options

I couldn’t find much information about the Australia/New Zealand trims for the “Vortex”, but going from the car for sale here it is clearly badged as a Subaru Vortex XT – I talk a bit more about the XT badge later in this article.

Production continued until 1991 when the car was discontinued. In 1988 there was a refresh, when the top of the line XT turbo was replaced by the XT6. More on that later.

Subaru XT Engine Options

At launch, there were two engine options, the EA82 and EA82T.

No points for guessing that the “T” denotes “turbo”.

The base engine is a 1.8L (1781cc) flat four/boxer engine – the type of which Subaru is famous for using. NA cars produced 97hp, with American-spec turbocharged cars producing 112hp and later 115hp. In North America and some other markets, power of the turbocharged model was lifted to 134hp – a substantial step up.

Automatic and manual gearbox options were offered:

  • 3 speed auto in Japan only
  • 4 speed auto
  • 5 speed manual

In 1988 the turbo engine option was replaced with a 2.7 litre flat/boxer six that produced around 150hp. This was actually the first Subaru to exceed Japanese engine displacement regulations, resulting in its being categorised as a luxury car and attracting higher taxes. Interestingly enough, the 2.7 H6 was the only water cooled flat six engine in the world at the time. These cars were badged as “XT6”.

The Subaru XT was discontinued in 1991, and replaced with the SVX (which carried the Alcyone name on in Japan).

What’s So Interesting About It?

Apart from just how 1980s the Subaru XT looks, t0 borrow from Doug de Muro, the Subaru XT came with a number of “quirks and features” that are still rather interesting all these years later:

  • Like all 1980s sports cars, it has the ubiquitous pop-up headlights. Clearly fun wasn’t allowed unless it came with the added risk of impaling any pedestrian unlucky enough to be hit.
  • As you’ll no doubt be aware, Subaru is famous for its near universal use of permanent AWD on cars (learn more here about whether all Subarus have AWD). However, non turbo cars were front wheel drive (this did become an option in 1988/99), whereas turbo examples could be specified with front wheel drive or part time four wheel drive. Note how the badging on this car makes it clear it is a four wheel drive (4WD) and not AWD car. The 4WD system could be engaged or disengaged using a push button located on top of the gear shifter/selector. By the time the flat six engine rolled around, the part time 4WD system was replaced with a permanent/full-time system, similar to what Subaru started using more ubiquitously in the 1990s.
  • While Saab is probably the most famous manufacturer to try and take inspiration from aircraft cockpit design and layout, Subaru leaned heavily on aeronautical inspiration as well. As mentioned above, the pistol-grip shifter had a thumb button for activating the 4WD system, similar to an aircraft control stick. You could almost imagine pressing the button and firing off a missile or two at some pesky MiG. The instrument cluster tilts with the steering wheel, and the controls for lights, AC etc are mounted in pods around the steering wheel.  Higher-than-base grade cars like the one for sale here also got an exceedingly cool digital dash display, that looks like something out of a video game from the era – with orange lighting, digital rev counter and more. Even the graphic of the car is meant to resemble a plane on the runway. What’s most disappointing about the shift to the later XT6 cars is that these dropped the digital dash. I would personally have the “inferior” XT Turbo just for the digital dash alone.

  • The steering wheel itself is a testament to 1980s quirkiness, and is not exactly symmetrical in design. Speaking of steering, later XT6 cars had a form of adaptive steering that altered the level of power steering based on the car’s speed. This sounds great in principle, but requires the use of a different form of power steering fluid that will be more expensive to replace. This system, known as ‘Cybrid Power Steering’ was a computer controlled system that provides superior feel and feedback. This article on Subaru Idiots has an excellent amount of detail on the system. Finding the fluid can be a real challenge these days, because these cars are now so old and rare that even Subaru dealers aren’t clued up on them. From what I can gather, the part number is K0209A0080 and it can be purchased from some retailers online. On Subaru forums, owners have variously complained of dealers either not knowing that the power steering fluid for the XT is different to normal, or that some outlandish bulk buy has to be made:

  • Subaru went to town on XT to improve aerodynamics. The wedge-like design was thoroughly tested to be as aerodynamic as possible, and other features included fully flush door handles with retractable flaps for opening, a single oversized front wiper blade, and rubber wheel well spoilers (mudguards) that helped to smooth airflow. According to Brian Long in Subaru Impreza: The Road Car & WRC Story, the Subaru XT was one of the most aerodynamic production cars of its time, with a drag CD of 0.29.
  • Cars could be fitted with pneumatic suspension with height control, similar to the type of suspension that Citroen was using in the era to produce a stable, compliant ride (I’ve owned a hydropneumatic Citroen, and it remains the best riding car I have ever had the privilege of driving). The idea was also to be able to lift the car up slightly when driving off road. I’d strongly recommend watching the following video by ‘My Old Car’ for more info on the history of the Subaru XT & XT6, which contains rare footage of the XT’s optional adjustable suspension in action.

  • In the late 1980s, the car was gifted to Super Bowl “MVPs”. From a PR/marketing perspective, this actually backfired somewhat. Firstly, some of the MVP recipients were actually too big to comfortably fit in their XTs. Secondly, because the car was not particularly expensive and prestigious – and by this point top pro footballers were earning big bucks – most of the award cars were given away to friends, family and associates, which led some to feel the car wasn’t all that good.
Super Bowl XX MVP winner Richard Dent with his 1986 Subaru XT.
  • The XT badge – meant to denote higher performance – continued to be used on some later Subarus, most notably the Forester where XT variants were the sportier, turbocharged versions of this popular family load lugger (read our Subaru Forester buyer’s guide here for more information). The XT badge is actually coming back in some markets such as Australia for a revised model of the current Subaru Outback, and will be a 2.4L turbocharged variant offering better performance.

Why You Should Consider A Subaru XT

If you’ve got some money burning a hole in your pocket for an interesting, unique classic car from the 1980s, here are a few reasons to consider the Subaru XT/Vortex/Alcyone:

  • It is peak 1980s in terms of design (particularly the XT Turbo with digital dash). If you are a fan of the “decade that taste forgot”, then you could score yourself a Subaru XT, stick on your Van Halen mix tape and have a blast.
  • The car was technologically innovative and cutting-edge for its time. It’s packed with 1980s gadgets and gizmos.
  • Although these cars are nothing like as quick as modern turbo Subarus (i.e. 1990s WRX, Legacy GT etc) the XT Turbo and XT6 do have sufficient performance to be fun. I’d personally avoid a non turbo example unless you really just like the shape or it’s a total bargain.
  • Compared to something like an AW11 MR2, it’s more practical with some limited rear seating, larger trunk space, and the optional part-time/full-time 4WD.
  • Prices are getting higher but because these cars have largely been forgotten, there is less demand and so you’ll potentially enjoy better buying than many other 1980s sports cars with more prominent reputations.
  • You are getting into something as rare as hens’ teeth, and it’s a rare and genuinely interesting car.

I’m not going to lie – if I had the garage space and the spare cash, I’d be seriously tempted … if only because with the particular Vortex example for sale here, it’s a chance for somebody to preserve a crucial part of Subaru’s history.

Reasons To Avoid Buying

The main reason to consider NOT buying a Subaru XT is due to the rarity/age (which, paradoxically – at least in terms of rarity – is also the reason to buy one).

There weren’t a huge number of these cars sold back in the day. Age, time and mileage have all taken their toll. The problem is now that getting spare parts could be challenging indeed. Who is likely to stock spare panels, trim, mechanical components etc? Imagine trying to source yourself a Cybrid control computer the best part of 40 years later

It might be easier in North America, but certainly in New Zealand you’d potentially find yourself in a scenario where something breaks and it cannot be fixed. You might also find that actually getting work done on the car is challenging, at least in terms of finding a skilled expert.

Personally, I don’t care that the Subaru XT is down on power versus later turbo/performance Subarus – there’s more to life than going fast. On the other hand, you might have a need for speed, in which case you are better off buying even an early 1990s performance Subaru like the original Legacy RS.

For me, apart from the cost of buying, the primary factor putting me off making a whimsical purchase is that nagging question of getting myself into a car that cannot be fixed when it breaks.

About This Particular Subaru XT For Sale

The Subaru Vortex (NZ name for the XT) in question is a rare car indeed on Kiwi roads.

According to the seller, it is actually the only one left in roadworthy condition in the whole country. I can’t verify this, but certainly I have never seen one in my life on the roads here before. There must definitely be some others that have been on the roads in the past, because I found a few old NZ Subaru forum threads with people talking about their XTs and XT6s, but whether those are still on the road or not, I don’t know.

The car has had four owners from new, and was sold new in New Zealand (so it is not an ex-Japan import).

With 175,000 km on the clock, it’s clear the car has been well used and loved, averaging just under 5000km per year. However, there’s something to be said for buying a classic that has actually been used and enjoyed, as opposed to some ultra low mileage “garage queen” that you’ll be too scared to take out for risk of damaging.

The seller has stored the car for the last nine years, and the owner before that for four. However, the seller says the engine has been refreshed, which is important after a car has spent substantial time in storage.

At the time of writing, the seller is asking $29,000 NZ dollars.

I haven’t personally inspected the car, but from the photos it does appear to be in excellent condition and would be an interesting purchase. Probably the biggest issue with a car like this is going to be finding parts if/when something breaks. These cars weren’t exactly commonplace, and nearly 40 years later parts will be hard to come by.

This car is certainly a vanishingly rare piece of Subaru’s history. The Alcyone name lived on in the JDM-spec SVX from the early 1990s, which was itself hardly a massive sales success and an increasingly desirable piece of Japanese automotive history.

In many respects, this Subaru XT for sale represents the “genesis” of what Subaru came to be known and loved for – the combination of boxer engine, turbocharged power, and confidence-inspiring AWD grip. It is an integral part of the origin story of the Japanese brand that perhaps best stands for real world performance.

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