End of the road for the Turbo-Nutter?

As a lad growing up, I remember the pleasure that could be derived from the latest rally video game: whether it was the joy of executing the perfect hairpin on a dusty gravel track (one out of every 500 attempts you understand!), or the hair-raising excitement of blitzing through quaint French villages at unsociable speeds, it drew me in like a monkey to a car roof. Hell, even the frustration of stuffing the car into every single tree bordering a slippery snow course had a certain satisfaction to it.

But for me, the ultimate joy of these virtual certain-death-every-minute experiences came not from the driving experience itself (it was, after all, nothing more than pushing a few buttons); rather, it originated from the privilege of being able to pilot the equivalent of the very same cars that I used to see on the telly, normally being thrashed around by such rallying idols as Petter Solberg or the late Colin McRae. And there were two cars I was particularly fond of: the Subaru Impreza and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.

I wasn’t alone: the appeal of these two kings of the rally circuit to British buyers translated to remarkable numbers of grey imports of the road-going versions in the early days of their existence, which were such that Subaru and Mitsubishi eventually had no choice but to ship them over and sell them through official channels.

Emulating world-famous rally heroes such as Tommi Makinen and Colin McRae was central to the appeal of the Mitsubushi EVO and Subaru Impreza. 'Race on Sunday and sell on Monday', applied equally as well to these previously ordinary Japanese brands as it did to Ferrari.

Ever since then, both machines have gained serious cult followings by enthusiasts – not just in the UK, but the world over.

Indeed, if you mention the words ‘Subaru’ and ‘Mitsubishi’ to the average punter down the local and don’t immediately get a response involving the Impreza or Evo, then your local is obviously on the Moon – in which case this article probably holds little or no relevance for your good self.

There’s no doubt that the success of these road-going rally specials have carried the sales and appeal of both companies over the years. But how?

Well, consider for a second where Subaru would be if it didn’t have the Impreza. Its current line-up would consist of the Legacy wagon and Outback variants (no saloon any more of course), the Forester estate-cum-soft-roader, and the Justy, which is essentially a badge-engineered Daihatsu Sirion. Certainly not the most cutting-edge of ranges, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Mitsubishi’s range sans Evo is more coherent than that of its rival, though hardly dripping with desirability either. The Colt and Outlander are well thought-out, and the firm benefits from technology sharing with PSA – a relationship which has also spawned the i-MiEV and iOn electric cars. There’s the new ASX crossover, which I was fortunate enough to drive the other day, and can report that while it’s competent enough and certainly not a bad car, the Ford Kuga and Nissan Qashqai felt better all-round buys.

And this is the problem faced by these two brands. Other than the banzai versions of the Impreza and Lancer, there’s nothing to tempt you away from the more established names of Ford, Vauxhall et al – and if we’re on the Japanese theme, Toyota, Mazda and Nissan.

[blockquote type=”blockquote_quotes” align=”center”]Journalists and buyers alike were tripping over themselves to lavish praise on cars which could carry people and luggage in comfort in much the same way as a boggo Vectra would do, but went like Linford Christie coupled with a rocket pack when you so much as breathed on the accelerator.[/blockquote]

The fact is that Subaru and Mitsubishi are unique among Japanese car companies – any car company, come to think of it – because depending on which of its offspring you’re talking about, both are either a marque for the car enthusiast, or one for people who don’t know much about cars.

But the most worrying thing is surely that they could both soon be facing life without these halo cars.

Think about it. When the UK first played host to the Impreza in the early nineties and the Evo VI a few years later, the world was a different place. Journalists and buyers alike were tripping over themselves to lavish praise on cars which could carry people and luggage in comfort in much the same way as a boggo Vectra would do, but went like Linford Christie coupled with a rocket pack when you so much as breathed on the accelerator. They were, in essence, supercars in the skin of humdrum saloons, and you could enjoy them in near enough every situation without a care in the world.

But times have changed. You can no longer zoom about in your Japanese family car complete with a turbo so big it hoovers up unwitting pedestrians, for this is the stuff of people who care not a jot for the environment. No, everyone’s driving around in G-Wizes these days, and the days of the four-wheel-drive monster-saloon are inevitably numbered. And I’ve not even mentioned the dwindling interest in the World Rally Championship and its lessening effect on our choices in the showroom: does anyone buy a Peugeot 207 solely because of its WRC success? And no, Kris Meeke’s missus doesn’t count.

Of course, the two companies have reacted to the issues in recent years; the latest Impreza has been designed as a Focus-rivalling hatch first and B-road annihilator second, while Mitsubishi is now placing more emphasis on the more lowly versions of the Lancer.

But there’s a real issue at stake here, too. You see, taking the Evo-ness away from a Lancer is like serving cold korma to a curry aficionado – and it’s the same story when you remove the WRX STi badges from your Impreza. They’re suddenly competing directly against the likes of the Focus and Golf, and the cooking versions are simply too drab to present a reasonable case for themselves, the only real highlight being the thrummy boxer engines under the bonnet.

So it appears that Mitsubishi and Subaru need to find themselves a new USP, and sharpish. The aforementioned i-MiEV is perhaps a start for the former, but at £29,000 it’s too expensive, not to mention irrelevant to most buyers.

Subaru's new saloon-bodied Impreza WRX STi is a step in the right direction in recapturing some of the Impreza's giant-killing reputation, but is it a case of too little too late?

But it’s Subaru situation which is the more concerning. Why? Mainly because it still has essentially the same range of cars as it did a decade ago, albeit in updated form. And the horizon seems worryingly blank, save for its joint coupé project with Toyota – and we’re not expecting to see the fruits of that venture in dealerships until well after 2012.

I sincerely hope Subaru and Mitsubishi can rediscover their mojos sometime soon, and bring back some of the sparkle that made the brands so evocative in the past when we used to dream about owning hot Imprezas and Evos. Otherwise two great names could be lost from these shores, and all that will remain is some dusty old computer games like the one perched on my shelf. And that would be a great shame.