Subaru Almost Jumped on the Retro Bandwagon Back in the Late '90s But Didn't

If you like somewhat cartoonish, retro-inspired designs for your cars, then the late 1990s was a wonderful time to be alive. While hindsight hasn’t always been kind to this design trend, I’ll admit that I’m oddly fond of the cars that came from this school, especially the vintage cars re-born into modernity, like the Volkswagen New Beetle, the Mini, and the Fiat 500. Subaru also considered mining their history, but, for some reason, never pulled the trigger.


Subaru did build one concept, though: the Elten.

The Elten was a 1997 Subaru concept car, and was very clearly designed to look like a Subaru 360 translated into a modern design vocabulary, just like the new Mini or Fiat 500, Beetle or Dodge Challenger or Ford Mustang even, to get away from all overtly cute examples.

Design-wise, the Elten has lots of very direct 360 styling cues, the most notable detail of which may be the funny little grille-vents up front, which on the original car just served to channel that all-important cooling air right into the spare tire.


The curve of the hoodline is retained, the flowing side fender bulges, the inset roof panel that connects to the rear window, the taillight placement and rough shape—it’s a very clear homage to Subaru’s first mass-produced car.

It’s larger, it’s got four doors now, and it’s front-engined instead of rear, but those are all exactly the sorts of changes all these late ‘90s retro cars were making.


There’s not a whole lot of information about the Elten online (I’m not even sure if the name is a play on “L10,” which it sounds like, but I can’t find much relevance to the characters “L10" for Subaru) but there is an old brochure, and from that we can learn a good bit about the car.


The brochure explains that the Elten is a hybrid, with a small 46 horsepower 658cc inline four driving the front wheels via a CVT, and there also appears to be a motor at the rear axle, making the Elten an AWD car, which certainly fits with Subaru’s modus operandi.


The roof panel is said to be solar, and there’s two battery systems in the car: a manganese-lithium battery and a “condenser battery” which seems to be some sort of super-capacitor battery system. This would make the Elten a pretty advanced hybrid vehicle, though, it’s important to remember this was just a concept car, and there’s no proof any of it actually really worked.


It look like just one example was built for the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show, and that was pretty much it. Subaru never really dove into retro design like so many of their competitors, and while I respect that, I do think it’s sort of a shame, since the Elten seems to have had at least as much novelty and charm as any Fiat or Mini or Beetle of the era.

I suspect if it was priced right, it could have had a shot to fill a niche even here in America (small, fun AWD hybrid isn’t a crowded field here)—the U.S. didn’t have much experience with the original Fiat 500, but it’s found it’s niche in the U.S. market, at least to some degree.


Oh well. Maybe there’s an alternate universe where these things are zipping around everywhere. If you’re reading this from there, send me a picture of a few in a parking lot, okay? Thanks.

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About the author

Jason Torchinsky

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)