Why the XT/Vortex/Alcyone?

Mechanical Design

I never knew anything mechanical about cars before I owned my XT6. In fact I didn’t know much about auto mechanics for 10 years after I owned my XT6. Sadly I didn’t even know about (or at least understand the importance of) changing my oil and once went well over 20,000 miles without an oil change. Shocking, but true - I was THAT naive. My XT6 changed all that eventually. When I paid over $300 to have my alternator replaced and later saw where it was and how easy it was to get to, I realized I could probably fix it myself the next time and that there were probably plenty of other things I could learn to do myself. That led me to then still new-ish internet forums and finally to creating this site. With an on-line community of fellow owners and enthusiasts I quickly learned many mechanical “basics”, and moved on to bigger “jobs” as my aging car began to need more attention. This was when I realized how brilliantly designed the XT is as a machine.

To begin with the basic “boxer” engine design has been a bullet-proof winner for decades. The horizontally opposed design allows for a low center of gravity and low hoodline, which in turn contributes to that wonderful aerodynamic exterior. In addition, the engine is placed in a conventional postion -logitudinally mounted- so everything is logically placed and phenomenally easy to reach. There is virtually no exterior part of the engine that can’t be reached with relative ease. Unless you need to rebuild the engine, or replace a clutch/flywheel, there is virtually no need to remove it from its place, even for “major” work. (I’m reminded of several years ago a friend lamenting the fact that his big V8 powered vehicle’s rear pair of spark plugs were located under the firewall of the car!)

Another great thing about the XT’s engine is that it’s exactly right on the cusp of when cars started to go from analog to digital. That is, yes it’s computer controlled to some degree but it’s largely “old school” in many other ways. A tune up is simple, adjusting the timing is simple, and you get the benefit of On Board Diagnostics (OBD) in a self contained unit. It’s still simple enough to dive right into with a simple set of hand tools, yet sophisticated enough to incorporate some modern touches (again, on a car more than a quarter century old!). Common maintenance items are easily reached and most servicing on the vehicle can be done with little more than a socket set and a screwdriver or two. Last, but certainly not least, is the fact that the EA and EZ series engines powering the early model Subarus are “non-interference” types, which saves potentially thousands of dollars in repairs or the junking of a vehicle due to a ruined engine as a result of a timing belt mishap. Such a common failure on most other cars of the era will render their engines in a catastrophic state, but the XT simply needs new timing belts.

detailed engine bay

Aspects of the car’s intelligent engineering come in other areas as well. Subaru’s use of the relatively short boxer engine has the benefit of positioning it ahead of the front axles, so there is no need for a transfer case. This keeps everything centered, low, and evenly powered. The computer controlled air suspension performs flawlessly - that is until unforseen rust issues cause the rubber airbags to spring leaks from rubbing on the rough oxidized metal. Kept free of rust and other abrasive surfaces, however, they work well, and are a testament to the design team’s thoughtful foresight. Air suspension was a feature offered on a select few luxury cars (Lincoln for one) at the time, and is seeing limited revival in a few cars today (Dodge trucks being an example).

For the 1988 model year Subaru stepped things up a notch with more industry standard 5 x 100 bolt hubs, beefier suspension, and “Cybrid” power steering that was both speed sensitive and electro-hydraulic. The speed sensitive aspect yielded confident steering whether in a parking garage, a twisty road, or a long stretch of highway. The fact that the Cybrid system was completely separate from the engine, meaning it wasn’t belt-driven, meant less “parasitic drag” on the engine and thus better power output. The Cybrid system proved phenomenally reliable (save routine, inexpensive maintenance at roughly 80Kmiles/130K km). Why it wasn’t seen in any other Subaru is something of a mystery. Once an owner has the “opportunity” to need to repair something on an aging XT or XT6, s/he will realize there are tons of little details that show just how well thought out the car was. It certainly had a couple of mechanical quirks. The emergency brake cable being attached to the front calipers, the difficult to match 4 x 140 bolt pattern of the 4 cylinder models’ wheel hubs, and the aforementioned rust prone air strut housings are all things that a current owner might need to deal with. Had the vehicle been a better selling model, however, these aspects likely would have been sorted.

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