Subaru Justy: The Little Guy

It was basic transportation in the eyes of American consumers. As small a car as you could get, with as small an engine as many of them could remember. The Subaru Justy, which arrived on American shores in 1987, was just 139” (353cm) long, wore narrow 12” (30cm) wheels, and was powered by an 1,189-cc triple.

Only the Chevy Sprint had a smaller engine. Even the Yugo had four cylinders. To young buyers in the 1990s, in pat who Subaru was aiming the car at, the Justy was decidedly uncool.

The triple held the Justy back, marketing-wise, but among the smallest and cheapest cars you could buy, the tiny Subaru quickly became something very unique.

That was down to two innovations. First, within a year it was equipped with optional four-wheel-drive, already fitted on JDM Justys and a Subaru staple. Second, in 1989 it got an optional continuously variable transmission (CVT), something most Americans had never seen (though it was not, as we’ll discuss, the first CVT car in America).

It wasn’t fancy or fast, but it was something unique. In five-speed form it also proved surprisingly robust for a car perceived as being cheap, tinny, and disposable.

The story begins in 1981, with an even smaller Subaru, the Rex, a distant descendant of the only comparable previous Subaru in America, the 1960s 360. The Justy, you see, is the offspring of a Kei car.

Rex to Justy

Subaru’s tiny 360 was its first volume-production vehicle. Like Mazda and Suzuki, Subaru started small with a Kei-class vehicle geared to the budgets of 1950s Japanese consumers. 

The 360 was famously imported to the U.S.A. by Malcolm Bricklin, who would later be responsible for the importation of the Yugo, but the 360 came and went fairly quickly in America and proved a hard sell. Subaru’s American sales wouldn’t really get going until the Leone arrived in 1972.

By 1968 the 360 was feeling its age and new competition in Japan had arrived, so a year later it was redesigned into the Subaru R-2 – a heavy rework of the original. The R-2 was in turn replaced by a mostly new design, the Rex (latin for “King”), in 1972.

Despite its much more conventional appearance, the original Rex was still a rear-engine vehicle and still powered by a 360-cc two-stroke twin as demanded by Kei regulations. It was heavier and bigger than the R-2, to accommodate buyers who wanted something less basic, but it was also slow. Kei sales plunged in the mid-1970s as emissions regs made them ever slower and Japanese buyers had more money to spend.

The first Rex was gradually upgraded to meet emissions rules and given enlarged engines as the Kei formula was widened. In 1973 it got a 358-cc four-stroke with the “Subaru Exhaust Emissions Control” system, and as Kei restrictions were changed it grew to 490-cc and then 544-cc. The Rex weathered the downturn fairly well but soon felt old. Subaru began working on reinventing the vehicle in 1977. 

For its next generation it would be a front-engine, front-drive vehicle, an arrangement which made for much better packaging and which almost every Japanese manufacturer was looking at for their early 1980s Kei replacements. Daihatsu, a key rival, got there first – with a new front-drive Mira Cuore in the summer of 1980.

The new MkII Rex arrived in the summer of 1981. Only the engine remained from the old car, now transversely mounted. The body was compact and simple, available as a three or five door, but relatively nondescript in appearance. The transition made it much easier to equip the Rex with what was becoming Subaru’s defining feature – four-wheel-drive, which the Rex got in 1982. A turbo version was also added. 

In just two years, the Rex had become one of the most advanced Kei cars around, though its form was fairly plain.

1981 Subaru Rex
Origin of the species: 1981 Subaru Rex (press photo).

Daihatsu, in the meantime, fitted a larger 612-cc engine to the Mira and began selling it in Europe as the Daihatsu Domino. Keen to export the Rex, Subaru followed suit in September of 1982 and fitted the Rex with a 665-cc twin, selling it abroad as the Subaru 700.

The 700 also got larger bumpers and wheels for European consumption, making it a physically larger and somewhat more capable vehicle than the Kei version, though most European buyers considered it very basic transportation, a rival of cars like the more familiar Fiat 126.

Subaru’s exports had grown to nearly 50% of its output by the end of the 1970s, so export markets were key and Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent company, was keen to see even more export action. But both at home and abroad it had nothing between the Rex and the much larger Leone.

If the 700 could sell, why not make a larger car out of the bones of the new Rex? To that end, in 1982 Subaru began engineering an enlarged Rex – stretched and widened but re-using some key stampings to keep costs down. In 1984, the “new” car arrived as the Justy. It looked exactly like what it was – a bigger, longer, wider Rex. At home, the cars were again aimed at Daihatsu, this time at the Charade.

Justy comes to America

The original Justy was nearly 6” (15cm) wider, 14” (36cm) longer overall, and rode a 2” (5cm) longer wheelbase than the Rex. In place of the little twin there was now a 997-cc triple, the EF10. 

This new engine was essentially the Rex engine with one more cylinder, but due to the unbalanced nature of triples, it had a chain-driven balance shaft to try and smooth out vibration. “Try” and “succeed” are two different things, but Subaru did make a real effort to tame the triple. The car came only with a five-speeder at first. In their original Japanese form, they were quite light – the top-spec RS 4WD weighed only 1,500-lbs. 

The reason really small 4WD cars are uncommon is that the running gear adds weight and complexity – which typically undercuts the purpose of a very small car (very good fuel mileage). The Justy’s 4WD setup made the car unique – only Fiat really offered something similar in the Panda 4×4, which had appeared before the Justy. 

The Panda 4×4 and the Justy were not competitors at first – exports of the Justy didn’t really start until 1987. Similarly, the Panda was offered in Japan but not very popular there, and Fiat had abandoned North America altogether in 1983.

Meanwhile, a wave of very small cars largely planned in the early 1980s when gas prices were high, began to appear in North America. New bargain-bin entries like the Yugo and the Hyundai Excel (Hyundai tested the waters in Canada before launching a U.S. operation) were soon selling in fair numbers based on price, as was Chevrolet’s Sprint – a captive import version of the Suzuki Cultus. Like the Justy, the Sprint used a one-liter triple. 

The parent company wanted to export the Justy to North America and Europe, and Subaru of America (perhaps reluctantly, based on later discussions) agreed. An 1,189-cc version of the EF triple, the EF12, was created for export markets (and offered as an option at home) to give the car a little more power. It also got a little structural reinforcement for U.S. crash tests. 

The little cars began arriving in August and September of 1987, with a base price higher than a Yugo but lower than a Sprint.

Growing the Justy

At first, all Justys were front-drivers, and all were manuals. It was nearly a year before the 4WD version arrived. 4WD added $1500 to the base price, but if you wanted such a vehicle, it was the only game in town. 

Generally speaking, the Justy was considered “better than walking” when it was new, and the kind of car you might buy only if you were on a slender budget and needed a warranty. The 4WD option greatly enhanced the overall package. It would never be a flashy car, but it offered something you couldn’t get anywhere else and which tied the car more closely to the other Subarus, which were well respected as capable and a good value.

Subaru buyers liked that it was the “4WD company” and Justy sales more than doubled from a rather anemic ~13,000 the first year to ~27,000 in 1988 – the car’s best year in America. In Europe, the slightly cheaper, slightly smaller Panda 4X4 was a much bigger seller – it was more of a known quantity and Fiat’s dealer network across Europe was far stronger than Subaru’s.

1991 Subaru Justy

Regardless of the excellent results in 1988, the Justy was three-and-a-half years old when it was launched in the USA and it was due for a refresh that fall. Subaru comprehensively updated the car with much more of an eye towards export markets than JDM consumption.

The car was stretched a further 6” (15cm) overall to give it more luggage space – though anybody who’s been in one can tell you it was still a very small car in back. The roof was raised to give taller drivers more headroom. The styling was refreshed to make it look more aerodynamic (actual aerodynamic efficiencies were mostly unchanged) and more up-to-date than the circa-1981 styling of the original.

The “new” Justy was mostly a skin-deep revise, but underneath there was yet another really new and unique feature. The 1989 Justy became only the second vehicle ever offered in America with a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). At the time, it was referred to primarily as a “constantly variable transmission.” 

Americans, of course, want automatics. Even in 1988, when many cars still offered manual transmissions, Automatics were king. Small cars that did not offer an automatic option were inherently not going to sell as well as those that did – a fate experience by Fiat and Yugo, though those brands had other issues. Subaru felt that putting a conventional automatic in the Justy would siphon far too much power, and indeed, Automatics in cars of less than 1,200-cc were very rare then. Instead, they chose a CVT – an automatic that theoretically never sapped any power.

Subaru and many industry sources listed it as the “first” CVT car in America, but in actuality that honor went to the Dutch DAF 600, officially sold in the USA in small numbers in the 1960s but long since forgotten. 

The “Rubber band” CVT, developed by Dutch engineer Hub Van Doorne,  was a central feature of DAF cars both before and after Volvo took over DAF in 1975. Today CVTs, created to generate fuel mileage and smooth operation, are common, but DAF (and by extension Volvo) were really the only proponents of this type of transmission for decades.

The Van Doorne transmission used a system of high-tensile strength pulleys to vary output depending on driver input. In theory, it always delivers optimum torque and it is entirely shiftless – there are no “gears,” the belt drive changes the ratio to suit.

Subaru licensed this technology for use in the Justy for the purpose of taking better advantage of the limited power available in the EF12 – if you could always get the optimum torque, that’d be better than swimming through the gears and certainly better than a torque converter. Subaru made some upgrades to how it used the technology and labeled the system the ECVT – “E” for electronically-controlled as it was informed by sensors.

The supply of transmissions was limited at first by how many Van Doorne could produce, but the Justy ECVT 4WD was definitely a unique car – there really wasn’t any other car anywhere quite like it. Unfortunately in America, the CVTs were often hard pressed on long highways and the system was almost totally alien to repair shops and even some dealers. CVTs did not tend to have a very long lifespan in American Justys. When there wasn’t sufficient demand for Justy CVTs, Subaru used the system on the Rex, itself having been redesigned in 1986.

The white Justy you see here is a rare ECVT survivor.

Curiously, for all this new technology, the Justy was laggard in one conspicuous area. While most cars had converted to standard fuel injection by 1989 because of emissions regulations, the Justy still used a carburetor. Even into 1991, the base Justy GL could still be seen with a carburetor, one of the last U.S.-spec cars to have one.

For all it’s unique features, the Justy couldn’t disguise its “econobox” nature, and after a brief flourish in the late 1980s such cars seemed to be very out of vogue in the early 1990s, despite high gas prices and a recession. If buyers were interested in a bargain-basement subcompact, they usually headed over to Geo, Chevrolet’s new captive, where the cheaper Metro (successor to the Sprint) was waiting, complete with fuel-saving three-cylinder engine.

The End Comes

Justy sales were very slim after 1990, just over 6,000 cars in 1991 and fewer than 3,000 in 1992 and 1993. Subaru of America wanted to phase the model out in 1992, but the parent company insisted it retain the Justy for a little longer – the model lingered into the end of 1994 (and 1995 in Canada). Though the ECVT wasn’t a huge success, the manual Justy was generally a hard-wearing car and durable – many survived and were cheap to buy for a long time. 

The same year it pulled the plug on the Justy, Subaru launched a new model in the USA, a lifted Legacy called the “Outback.” The company hasn’t imported any cars like the Justy since, and largely gave up making such vehicles. The gaps were filled by Subaru’s growing association with Toyota and former rival Daihatsu.

The Rex was redesigned in 1986 and then replaced by the Vivio in 1992, which would be Subaru’s last entirely in-house Kei, giving way to the Daihatsu-related Pleo in 1998.

The Justy’s original Japanese competitor, the Daihatsu Domino/Cuore, was built in other countries and paved the way for Daihatsu platforms to underpin many cars, particularly in China. The Justy, meanwhile, was only produced outside of Japan in Taiwan. 

There it was assembled by the fledgling Ta Ching Motor Co., local partner that was partially owned by Subaru’s parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries. Ta Ching briefly offered a reworked notchback 4-door Justy called the Subaru Tutto. It looked a bit like a Justy crossed with the rear-end styling of a Peugeot 309.

After the original Justy faded away, Subaru kept the name but not the vehicle. A lightly reworked Suzuki Cultus (better known to Americans as the Geo Metro, another Justy rival) was sold in some markets (primarily Europe) as the Justy in the late 1990s. Later generations of Justy bore no relation to the original and were based on the Suzuki Ignis and later the Daihatsu Boon and, currently, the Daihatsu Thor.

1 Comment

  1. M.Arif chakwal Pakistan 05/23/2020 at 9:03 pm

    I have a Subaru justy1993 with EF10 engine recently I restored engine totally but water leakage from engine at point waterbody seal is still a problem. Distributor is also leaking Mobil oil inner side….
    Need parts but no source in pakistan.kindly tell about….. I m not selling my Subaru because of LOVE…..

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