Subaru once built a wedge-shaped coupe with four-wheel drive, a flat-six engine, turbocharging, and most importantly: a bizarre, asymmetrical, dual-spoke steering wheel. The latter is important here. If a single design element has the ability to bridge the gaps between distances, cultures, and technological leanings, then a strange steering wheel may be it: we can count that as an indicator for further weirdness. Subaru willingly put avant-garde weirdness in the hands, literally, of its customers.
There was always another company that put avant-garde weirdness first. In 1970 Citroën developed a slippery, futuristic coupe that could transport four adults in fast-paced comfort. It was long and low and looked like nothing else on the road, and for its futurism it was deemed a sales disaster. In the early 1990s, Subaru did the same thing, too, with much the same results. One is celebrated, the other forgotten. But the template, effort, and optimism were the same. Was the Subaru SVX the modern-day Citroën SM?
A compelling case can be made. Both were far-flung luxury coupes that came from unexpected places. Subaru built dowdy boxes for park rangers; Citroën and its French brethren were still recovering from the ravages of war. The SM was an extension of the DS and the SVX was an extension of the XT, the aforementioned wedge that made the SVX look normal. The SM possessed the same shock and awe factor as its DS, but the Déesse was still, at its core, a family sedan churned out in the hundreds of thousands. When the SVX debuted in 1991, it sat in the showroom next to the Subaru BRAT. Think about that.
Yes, Citroën invented the hydropneumatic suspension, while Subaru made all-wheel drive a hallmark. Both cars used each feature to their full extent. Both cars used six-cylinder engines that were at the top of their lineup—just one was made by Maserati, of course. Both were heavy, comfortable, surprisingly quick. Both cars coddled their two--two occupants in leather-clad luxury.
Both cars resembled spaceships. The SM's design quirk? The hidden rear tires. The SVX's? That split window. Both cars came at boom times in their respective countries: France was rebuilding, Japan was in a bubble, and for a while—in their respective eras, separated by so many decades—it looked like the future was finally here.
Both the Subaru SVX and the Citroën SM were too weird to live and too rare to die. Subaru took a loss on each SVX sold—the rumor often quoted is that it lost a massive $3000 on each one sold, and the final tally at the end of its production run was the GDP of a small country: $75 million out the window. The bubble burst. The SM did one better: it straight-up bankrupted Citroën. Its best year saw it fail to break 5000 units. In 1974, the company became part of the Peugeot empire.
The Citroën SM is held in the utmost of esteem—a , with values skyrocketing ; it receives the red-carpet treatment at auctions both and ; it is a dreamboat, , a tour de force, a , both like all the world's best things.
Meanwhile, the SVX makes it to lists titled "" Final ham-fisted conclusion: "The SVX was a good car dragged down into floptastic floppiness by the hubris of its maker." Sheesh. If they had put the SVX in a movie with , it'd get a little more respect.
"More people paid to see Chumbawumba in concert than paid for an SVX," so sayeth the incomparable in his review above, eventually concluding: "the SVX is proof that through man's work we will reach a heaven of our own creation."
There have been ambitious cars, and there have been beautiful masterpieces of overreaching hubris, dreams deferred, marks missed, flops flopping. Engineering Icaruses flying too close to the sun of perfection. Framing the SVX in the domineering European context, against such a legendary car, only serves to bolster its own credentials. We all hear of Japanese cars being viewed in the narrow cultural framework of their Euro counterparts: the gorgeous Toyota 2000GT is a "Japanese E-Type." The Datsun Fairlady Roadster is a "poor man's MGB." (This despite the former being rarer and more expensive!) Was the Citroën SM merely an ur-SVX? Maybe Citroen was the French Subaru?
No, wait, hold on. That is a theory for another day.