But when we got to Subaru's private testing track and facilities a couple hours outside of Tokyo, I found I had some new allies: the Japanese engineers. Here's how I knew— when I asked one of the engineers about the Sambar pickup they had on the lot, this previously very reserved engineer's face lit up as he exclaimed, in slightly broken English, "It like little 911!"
And you know what? I completely agree. Well, if a 911 was cheap, and extremely useful. And, okay, maybe a little slower.
Every chance I get to talk to engineers or product people from an auto maker, I always push my great idea that there needs to be new small pickup trucks available in the US. There's a big hole in the small truck market here, and someone should fill it. At best, I get a brush-off where they pleasantly lie to me and tell me they're considering it, at worst they give me looks of genuine disgust and dismay and thinly veiled threats.
Finally, however, a company let me actually drive a really tiny truck.
(Full Disclosure: Subaru wanted me to drive this entirely other vehicle so bad they flew me out to Tokyo and fed me all kinds of delicious and unidentifiable fish. They didn't however, fly me out to drive this little truck. None of the other journalists drove it or were even interested. I think they just let me do it to shut me up and maybe to make up for the fact that I couldn't take pictures in their amazing little museum.)
They may have been hoping a drive would get me to shut up, already. If that's the case, they failed, because I loved this little truck and I have no shutting up plans anytime soon. So even if the numerical points don't add up to something spectacular here, make no mistake: driving this tiny little no-nonsense machine was an absolute joy.
This car is a perfect object-lesson in form following function. While there is some half-hearted attempt at styling the front end, almost all of this little truck looks the way it does because it's a tool to get a job done. And I love that. Personally, I like the way the total package looks, though I'd rather see the front end more like previous generations, simpler, with big round lights. It's not bad now, but compared to the rest of the car it feels overstyled, with those grooves and indentations that try and stand in for a grille. I would have just embraced a smoother upper front face, but, that said, it hardly matters.
This little guy looks like a piece of functional equipment, and is handsome in the same way a really nice socket wrench is handsome. It's strikingly small to American eyes as well, which to me just kind of makes it charming. I'd be happy to be seen driving this around.
The bed, which is mounted over the engine, is a surprisingly usable size and can be loaded from either side or the back. It can also be converted to a flatbed by just dropping all three sides. It's so damn useful, I have no idea why no trucks sold in the US offer anything like this. It's basically like a scaled-down VW Type II pickup.
The sides seem weirdly short, though. This may be so you can safely drive with them down, but to me it always looked like they should be about twice as high to look right.
Make no mistake— this is the interior of a work vehicle, and as such it's pretty minimal. It's clearly inexpensive, but it doesn't feel cheap, and that's an important distinction. Plastics are picked for how hard-wearing they are as opposed to feeling soft and supple to the touch. The dash has what you need, and that's about it. But it is legible and functional. I like the strange gear selector for the CVT, mounted on the dash like a weird robot cobra just popped out of one of the a/c vents.
Oh, and the gas pedal is by far the strangest gas pedal I've used— I've had cars with bottom-hinged pedals, and pedals suspended from above, but this is the first side-suspended accelerator I've seen. It's in the normal place, it's just strangely stumpy and mounted on a bar that sprouts from the right driver's side doorframe. It's weird.
Oh, and the oddly skinny steering column that springs down from the lower dash— that's a bit odd, too.
This shouldn't feel as good as it does. The engine's smaller than many motorcycles (658 cc) and has only about as much HP as a 70s-era Beetle (about 57 HP). But it doesn't feel that way.
It's likely because the truck weighs about 400 lbs less than a Smart Car. Those roughly 60 horses just don't have much weight to drag around, and as a result the acceleration felt downright peppy. The CVT is also a decent box to get the power to the wheels, possibly even better than a normal manual. On paper it doesn't look like much, but in practice, it's surprisingly good.
Another plus about a light, rear-engine car is that the brakes have an easier job. The fronts, where most of the load goes, is spared the weight of the engine, and there's not that much weight all-around. The result is it stops quickly and without much drama. Since it's a truck, my guess is most stopping is carefully considered, so you don't launch that bedfull of grandfather clocks out over the front like many expensive javelins.
Unladen pickups can often have a jarring ride, especially on lower-end, working truck models. But not the Sambar! The seemingly illogical beauty of a rear-engine pickup really helps here, keeping the front/rear weight distribution good when the bed's empty. The ride's surprisingly calm, with the little four coupled to the stepless CVT providing smooth changes of speed, and the suspension isn't too bouncy.
The hoodless view out the windshield gives a sort of magic-carpet feel when driving. If you've ever driven an old VW Bus or an old cab-over Econoline you'll know what I mean.
I am a bit biased here, as I've spent most of my driving life in rear-engined cars, so that ass-heavy oversteering layout just feels like home.
They let me drive the Sambar on the big, flat oval part of the track, and it was a blast. It handles with a bit of oversteer, like you'd expect, but not so much that it feels dangerous— just enough to keep things more fun than a work truck has any rational right to be. The unassisted steering is very light and direct, and there's good feel through the wheel.
The engineer driving with me had to yell at me to slow down, as I was getting caught up in the joy of hooning the little truck and didn't notice the track patrol cars. He was understanding, explaining that I'm not the first to get overzealous behind the Sambar wheel. Lots of the engineers like to drive it around for fun.
My heart wants to give this more points, but I know realistically, it can't be on par with expensive performance-designed offerings. Plus, I'm not exactly sure how much of the fun I was having was due to the novel driving experience and dynamics and how much was genuine handling fun. On some level, though, fun's just fun.
I'm giving the CVT transmission high marks because I think it has a lot to do with the decent acceleration and ride quality of the car.
When I first got in the car I was really surprised to see an auto shifter in there, assuming that something this small and simple would have a 5-speed at best. In hindsight, I should have figured Subaru would have a CVT in the Sambar. They've been working on the CVT/small displacement engine combination since the Justy was the first to bring CVTs to America in the 80s. It's a combination they seem to have worked out quite well. The transmission makes the most out of the engine's admittedly meager power, and without gears the overall effect is a smooth application of power. Why Smart's engineers didn't look to this solution is baffling.
As a work truck, I don't think much attention was given to the auditory characteristics of the car. Even so, it does have a few inherent advantages over most of its competition.
Most of the other Kei vans and trucks position the engine under the driver, which can make cabin noise a bit much. The Sambar's engine, way out in the backyard, keeps the driver well separated from the engine, and what sound you do hear is actually not a bad engine note at all. I doubt anyone actually tuned the note of the motor, but by chance I think it turned out pretty well. So I'll give points there.
I probably won't give any points for the audio-entertainment aspects, though, except maybe for a certain nostalgic quality. From what I could tell, the in-dash radio (no CD or anything) actually had a single speaker built into the unit, something I haven't seen on any car built since, what, the early 70s? It's about as basic as you can get short of just including a tethered harmonica on the dash.
Okay, in our reviews this category is normally Toys, but come on. This thing has no toys. The closest thing to a "toy" on the Sambar are the wipers. I could have tried the route of describing the whole car as a toy but I'm not going to disrespect the Sambar like that. So I'm changing this to UTILITY.
And holy crap is this thing useful. Most Americans, when seeing a truck this size, dismiss it immediately. They usually say "you can't haul anything in something that size!" If that's true, then someone should tell Japan, because from what I can tell, everything in Japan gets moved around in one of these things. I think the Japanese characters on the sticker that give the weight and size maximum capacity warning must just say something like "HAUL ANYTHING AS LONG AS YOU PUT LOTS OF ROPE ON IT."
Seriously, I saw these things laden with insane loads while in Tokyo. In fact, I saw one waiting at a stop light, next to a median. It appeared to be in front of a very tall tree that I didn't remember seeing on the median earlier. Of course, when the light turned green, the tree I thought was on the median took off as well, stuffed into the bed of that other Sambar.
Subaru actually stopped building these Sambars last year or so, and now rebadge a Daihatsu. There's two main reasons for this. The first is that they needed the factory to build BRZs and FR-Ss, which makes sense. The other is that it was very hard for Subaru to make much money on Sambars, since they were not expensive but they were built to a pretty high quality standard, leaving not much margin for profit.
As the engineer earnestly told me, "we don't build crap" (I'm paraphrasing a bit), and that's evident on the Sambar. It's tiny but not delicate. As I keep saying, this less of a car than a general-purpose motorized tool for getting shit done. And, keep in mind, this little tool starts at under $8000— at least for the new 2012 models. That's pretty damn good.
Subaru Sambar Truck