It goes without saying 2020 was a terrible year for everyone (except billionaires) — though it was especially bad for Subaru in the United Kingdom.
How bad? The company — which is franchised out to International Motors for distribution in the country — sold just 951 cars across 69 U.K. dealerships last year. Its 2019 performance was about three times better when it sold just under 3,000 cars. And the automaker’s U.K. managing director, John Hurtig, had some choice words to describe the phenomenon to Autocar in an interview published today:
“2020 was a horrible year,” admitted John Hurtig, who moved from heading up Subaru’s Nordic operation to become UK boss last summer. “What can you say? It’s just an embarrassing number. There’s no more context, to be honest.”
This is one of those refreshingly candid interviews with an executive you rarely see. Hurtig entirely rejected the temptation to go full corporate mouthpiece, instead electing for the much more relatable approach of (and I’m paraphrasing here) “yeah, I don’t know what the fuck happened back there.”
Overall, though, Hurtig is honest in admitting that no one area of the business is to blame. “I’m not defending [us]. The numbers are insane and ridiculous. There’s not just one thing; it actually boils down very much to our organisation, our aggressiveness, our way of working.
That’s certainly a way to put it. Hurtig touched on faults in a number of departments up and down the chain, from the dealer network — which he said requires rebuilding “from the roots” — to failed marketing and a management team that hasn’t been up to the task. He also said the fact Subaru had to pre-register many vehicles right before the start of last year to circumvent local emissions regulations that later went into effect made the numbers seem even worse.
All of that’s before we even get to the pandemic. Hurtig notes that the company’s relatively older demographic at particularly high risk for serious complications from COVID-19, coupled with those repeated lockdowns, haven’t helped it move product:
“Our target audience, is, to be honest, older people,” he said, “and those are the [biggest] risk group [for the disease]. So they have been very concerned about getting out there and doing business; that has been the feedback we get from customers. This might be one of the reasons it’s hit us more.”
But the other issue is one I wasn’t particularly aware of, as an American. Here, Subaru has a seemingly healthy image as an outdoorsy, recreational brand. The North American arm’s investments in progressive, inclusive marketing throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s earned it a reputation for vehicles built to support life’s greatest adventures, no matter who you are. Today, everyone you know entertains a Subaru for at least a minute when they’re in the market for some sure-footed utility, whether you’re talking Crosstrek or WRX.
I don’t know what perception Subaru has in the U.K. (perhaps some readers can fill me in), but apparently, it’s not as rosy:
“Subaru UK has made a lot of mistakes in the past, to build Subaru’s brand to be something it isn’t any more,” said Hurtig. “[The Impreza] was a performance car, a rally car. It was a good era in UK. But it’s history; it’s a long time ago now. It has nothing really to do with the Subaru brand as it is today.”
The Impreza hasn’t been offered in the U.K. for three years, and Autocar writes that during that time, Subaru has simultaneously leaned into its “core values as a crossover and SUV brand.”
The problem with that is, almost every brand is about crossovers and SUVs right now. You have to find some other way — some character — to stand apart with. Subaru’s international rally successes instilled the WRX with a pedigree as the fastest thing on any surface. Most Americans don’t follow rallying and never did, but many still conjure up images of wooded gravel roads, snowy lots, and showering water splashes when they visualize a WRX, along with a vape in the armrest storage and a Monster in the cupholder. (I kid, I kid.)
Look, fair enough if Subaru U.K. doesn’t want to be about that life anymore. National sporting heroes like Colin McRae and Richard Burns endeared the Pleiades insignia to a generation of fans, but I understand that was a long, long time ago. Still, you’ve got to dig deep and find something else to inspire people, lest you want some of what your old special stage sparring partner is having.