Subaru Libero

Working out where East and West are should be relatively easy. West is where everything is developed and futuristic and made of plastic and freedom, and the East is hard and cold and poor and polluted. This is relatively simple when you are in Poland's situation, where West takes us towards Old Europe and East points us towards Russia. For the Americans, it's not so simple; New York is on the East Coast, but if you keep heading in that direction you get to Europe, which is in the West. And California is West, but go too far and you get to Japan, which is East.

At that point, definitions of Easternness and backwardness collapse, as the Japanese are far more advanced in almost every way except perhaps socially. The modern world's appetite for electronics and reliable cars would never be sated if it weren't for their industriousness, and aside from an inpenetrable language and some extremely dubious adult entertainment, they're an extremely pleasant nation to deal with.

The Japanese have an unwaning fondness for the small and cute; Pokemon, Hello Kitty and a rainbow of other candy-coloured cartoon characters are testament to their love of the minute. Combine that with their passion for technology, and you can start to appreciate how their auto industry developed the pocket-sized yet admirably practical Kei-class trucks; Kei meaning "light." I'm not sure if this is about being light-weight, or light-hearted; to look at them, you would never take a van of this size seriously.

That peak of Eighties Japanese gadgetry was the cartoon "Transformers", where humble household objects morphed into powerful beasts, and it's of this mindset that the Subaru Libero was born. Unleashed in 1983, it was Subaru's latest incarnation of their K-class van which had been running in various guises since 1961 as a multifunction tool for carting goods and people through Japan's ever-thickening traffic. Their tiny size, minimal fuel consumption and cutesiness had warmed them to the hearts of the East Asians ever since, and they benefitted from reduced parking costs as well as tax breaks. While superminis like the Morris Mini and the Citroen 2CV were little more than a Sixties fad in Europe, Japan had fallen in love with pocket-sized motoring, and an early romance had bloomed into a full-on, serious relationship.

At some point in the early 1980s, Subaru had a demented desire to imbue every single one of their products with four-wheel drive, and that included their Kei-class Libero van. This resulted in the mechanicals being ripped out of the Subaru Justy and put into the Libero backwards, so that the engine was rear-mounted and the driver could be afforded something of crumple-zone in the event of an impact. Now, while this may be useful in a mountain-goat sense, lugging crates of produce up and down Japanese many hills and having something to headbutt with, the urban practicalities (and tiny fuel tank) mean that, on the whole, 4WD just isn't that much use; it's murder for highway driving, and saps power from the drivetrain which is only powered by a 1.2litre unit at the best of times. So these little Liberos came with a switchable lever to disengage the 4WD system when needed. Which was all the time.

That main transmission layout did have some uses. Having a horizontal three-cylinder engine relatively low in the body meant that all sorts of cumbersome, top-heavy luggage, such as people, could be squeezed into it without upsetting the centre of gravity. This also afforded Subaru to plant on an extended roofline complete with glass visor area, making the Libero look like a VW Transporter that's shrunk in the wash. Unfortunately, it all proved so well in giving mountain-dwelling tourists a view of the spectacular scenery that Subaru decided to make the 4WD system a permanent thing, ditching the selecting lever and employing a single clutch instead.

These sorts of technological advances epitomise the Kei-class. When the Americans need more power they simply expand the size of their V8s; the crafty Japanese were instead experimenting with injection and turbos as well as their miniscule transmissions, which meant that even the naturally-aspirated 1.2 engine here could squirt out an efficient 52hp; more than enough for the 900kg this thing weighs.

In fact, these things are so practical it's surprising more of them aren't seen on the roads West of the East or East of the West of the East or wherever Poland is supposed to lie on the political map these days. Indeed, it was exported to a variety of places; it's a Libero in Europe but as a Domingo in its home ground, and in the UK it's known as a Sumo, which is ironic considering its weight. What we do know is that America, by far the largest consumer of imported vehicles, has pretty much outright banned Kei-class vans for a number of reasons. And before any anti-Yank diatribe about oil dependency forms in your brain, some of those arguments have some grounding. The teeny tiny wheels and that high top just aren't suited to the flat, open and windy terrain of the US, nor the engine to the yawning distances vans have to cover to get anywhere. But worst of all is the metal; to keep weight to an absolute minimum, the steel was pressed astonishingly thin, with two results. Firstly, any premise this thing might have of a crumple zone is an understatement; this thing would fold up like a chocolate wrapper on impact, especially if it were to come into contact with America's biggest selling truck, the F150, which weighs in at over two tonnes; far too much for our Sumo to wrestle with. The second, and far more devestating in the Polish climate, is that salt takes literally minutes to chomp its way through the skin of these little vans, and the sad explanation for this sorry little heap sitting in a Polish car park.


Anonymous said...

I love the blog. By the way, this is what happens to Subaru micro vans in the Western Isles...