Once upon a time in a not-so-distant past, there once was a Japan-based star cluster that occupied a small niche among auto enthusiasts. Known for its storied (and relatively recent) rally racing heritage, this star cluster managed to wean its way into motorists' hearts, with sales registering every now and then.

But in a year or two, this star cluster fell rapidly from visibility, thanks to sluggish sales, mismanagement and little help from its mother star cluster in another part of the automobile world. Auto enthusiasts mourned this star cluster's fall from grace, making local motorists yearn for the days when this star cluster would return to its rightful place within the auto arena. Lo and behold, when the Year of the Dog began, rumors spread that the said star cluster would return with full backing from a "lionized" mother star cluster.

On the seventh month of the Year of the Dog, rumor gave way to reality as the aforementioned star cluster known as the Pleiades or (in Japanese) Subaru shone brightly once again on Philippine shores, with full support from the official distributor of Subaru in Asia.

The stars of Subaru

The constellation of Subaru is composed of stars that are visible to the naked eye; Subaru the auto company is also composed of stars that will soon be visible to motorists on Philippine roads in the immediate future.

The first star is known as the Outback 3.0L, Subaru's "flagship" entry into the terra incognito of crossover vehicles. It blends the refinement of a station wagon combined with the intelligence of an SUV. Its magnificent looks and sportiness can be seen in its styling with its rigid front grille, big fenders, majestic side cladding and 17-inch wheels. On the other hand, its interior features a fully ergonomic environment that includes upholstery in ivory leather, fully adjustable seat mechanisms, luxuriously finished surfaces, a large storage area that can fit four large pieces of travel luggage and an optional two-stage sunroof. Helping the Outback back up its panache is a six cylinder (horizontally opposed) boxer DOHC 24-valve engine that puts out 245 PS and 30.3 kg-m of torque, while making it hurdle through potholes is a ground clearance of over eight inches.

If the Outback is Subaru's corporate SUV, then the new Forester is Subaru's "rugged" SUV. Billed by Subaru Philippines as the "ultimate crossover concept,", the 2006 Forester is an amalgamation of several mixes, a commanding driving position with saloon car refinement, interior versatility with powerful performance, agile handling and rough road ability that no ordinary SUV can provide. Front, center and rear cupholders within the vehicle are big enough to hold one-liter bottles, while dual 12-volt power outlets (one in the centre console and one in the cargo area) provide electrical convenience.

The normally aspirated 2.0L Forester engine features a new variable valve-lift system that bumps horsepower from the previous model's 165 to 173, while the 2.5L turbo Forester has a higher compression ratio and redesigned intake and exhaust components for a 20-hp boost to 230 and cleaner tailpipe emissions. And if safety is a concern, one will be glad to know that the Forester is one of the only two vehicles in its class to have earned "Good" ratings in both the frontal offset and side-impact crash testing conducted by the US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It also earned a perfect five stars across the board in front- and side-impact testing by the US-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Known primarily as the wagon that spawned the Outback, the Legacy is the oldest nameplate in the Subaru lineup, dating back to 1990. In recent years, it has been living in the shadow of its armored-wagon offspring. Happily, Subaru gave buyers more reasons to consider its midsize sedan - the redesigned Legacy slimmed down, powered up and slipped into some more stylish threads. In fact the current model lost roughly 100 pounds in the redesign, thanks to the increased use of lighter, stronger materials like aluminum. Additionally, engineers fiddled with the gearing to improve the shift response of the automatic transmission.

Lastly, the crown jewel of the Subaru lineup the Impreza WRX is the perfect embodiment of Subaru's "triple A" credentials of all-wheel drive, active driving and active safety. The WRX's symmetrical all-wheel drive distributes power to all four wheels 24/7/365, reducing the load on each wheel and (in cooperation with its limited slip differential) helps with traction in slippery tarmac or dirt conditions by transferring power to the outside wheels during cornering. Link that to the 2.5L horizontally opposed 230 KW/32.6 kg-m boxer (so-called because the layout of the pistons when moving look like boxer's fists in motion) turbocharged engine and one will experience never-ending driving thrills.

A highlight of the WRX's active driving credentials is its vehicle dynamics control, an advanced stability system that helps enhance control under poor driving conditions. It monitors vehicle stability and automatically reacts to help the driver maintain directional stability at all times. If VDC senses a loss of control due to understeer, oversteer, drift conditions or wheel spin, it quickly takes corrective action and responds to the needs of the driver, no matter how demanding the road condition.

Active safety highlights include a bevy of safety aids that prevent occupants from serious or major injuries in unavoidable circumstances. One example is the layout of the WRX's horizontally-opposed boxer engine, which sits low in the engine bay. This gives the WRX a low center of gravity and prevents it from entering the cockpit at thigh level during head-on collisions.

Another example is Subaru's ring-shaped reinforcement frame design. First introduced with the Forester, it increases cabin rigidity and absorbing impact energy from any direction. The ring-shaped cross section frame design combines the A, B and C pillars (and D pillars on wagons) to create a series of rings around the passenger compartment. Combining the side roof rails and lower side sills with the A, B and C pillars forms another series of rings. Stronger rear floor frame rails increase side-impact and fuel tank protection, while sturdier roof cross rail support braces improve rigidity. Subaru strengthened the lower leg and ankle areas, which are at highest risk in offset collisions.

The Outback retails for P2.180M, while the Legacy sedan is pegged at P 1.495M. The Forester comes in two flavors a 2.5L turbo (P1.6M) and a naturally aspirated 2.0L variant (P1.250M). The 2.5L turbo Impreza WRX totes a P1.680M admission price.

Motor Image

All this would not be possible without the backing of Motor Image Pilipinas, a company under the Motor Image Enterprises Pte. Ltd. (the official distributor of Subaru in Asia) umbrella. Motor Image Pilipinas has constructed a five-level dealer facility within EDSA Greenhills, with a mirror-like ambience that complements the presence of the Subaru displays and the ten service bays equipped with the most advanced technology in auto repair and maintenance. Also, the service staff are frequently sent for training in Japan with Fuji Heavy Industries (the manufacturer of Subaru automobiles), a privilege extended to authorized distributors such as Motor Image.

Already Motor Image is confident of its quest to establish a niche in the country. Motor Image Enterprises group chief executive Glenn Tan said that the company has invested four million US dollars for its Greenhills showroom and will spend an additional P15M for a soon-to-be constructed outlet in Makati City. He also said that the company expects to sell around 150 units by year's end. "We want to be a mass market player in this country," added Tan.

The return of the Pleiades to Philippine shores with new and exciting models and factory backing to boot will definitely make Subaru shine bright in a crowded local auto theater of operations.