Subaru is a major Japanese car manufacturer. It is the automotive branch of the Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. corporate group, but Subaru itself has been in business in various incarnations since 1917. The FHI group has only existed since 1953. "Subaru" is the Japanese name for the Pleiades constellation, and means "to govern" or "to gather together". Another name for this constellation is Mutsuraboshi, meaning "six stars". Subaru automobiles are traditionally known for all wheel drive and boxer engines, with very few exceptions (all modern Subarus are AWD).
The history of Subaru arguably begins in 1917 with the Aircraft Research Laboratory. The ARL was founded by Chikuhei Nakajima, a former member of the Japanese navy who had become entranced by early 20th century aircraft. Sometime before World War II, the ARL became Nakajima Aircraft Co., Ltd. and began producing aircraft for the Japanese armed forces. One of its more memorable contributions to war was in production of engines for the famed Zero fighter.
After World War II, Nakajima was faced with the reality of being banned from aircraft production. The company was renamed Fuji Sangyo Co., Ltd. and began a final effort to save itself from the dying economy. Their most popular new product was the Rabbit, a motor scooter built primarily from surplus aircraft parts and powered by a 2-horsepower engine. Fuji Sangyo recovered well enough that in 1950, anti-zaibatsu legislation forced it to split into 12 different companies. Only three years later, five of the companies came together to form Fuji Heavy Industries: Fuji Kogyo, a scooter manufacturer; Fuji Jidosha, a manufacturer of bus bodies; Omiya Fuji Kogyo, an engine manufacturer; Utsunomiya Sharyo, a manufacturer of chassis for various vehicles; and Tokyo Fuji Sangyo, a trading company.
1954 saw the unveiling of the new P-1, the first concept vehicle produced by FHI. After no suitable suggestions for a name were made, Kenji Kita (president of FHI) dubbed the new marque Subaru. The P-1 was later marketed as the Subaru 1500, but was unprofitable and quickly left production. Its replacement was the Subaru 360, which made almost 16 horsepower and an earth-shattering 3 pound-feet of torque. However, its light weight (less than half a ton) made it a respectable performer, and kept it on the Japanese domestic market for more than a decade.
The Subaru 1000, released in 1965, was the first Subaru to feature the horizontally opposed engine. It was also one of the first successful front wheel drive cars, as other models had suffered from various problems which Subaru overcame. Subaru began exporting cars to America in 1968 (a decade before Subaru would see any major success in the United States). Three years later, the Subaru Leone became one of the first modern Subaru vehicles, as it featured four wheel drive. The Leone's versatility made it their top-selling model, which inspired their later use of AWD. The Subaru Justy became another first. Three years after its 1984 release, the Justy became the first vehicle in the world to be fitted with a continuously variable transmission, the Subaru ECVT.
The Subaru Brat brought the company its first success in the American market. A two-seat sort-of-pickup, the Brat experienced a short period of popularity due to its relatively low cost and standard all wheel drive. The Subaru Baja, a spiritual descendant of the Brat, has seen more limited success in recent years. In 1989, the Subaru Legacy was released. This marked Subaru's first 2-liter engine, but still retained the trademark all wheel drive and boxer engine. The Legacy set the world's fastest 100,000 kilometer time, finishing just under 448 hours, almost 19 days after it began. Three years later, the Impreza was created to fill the gap in mid-sized cars below the Legacy. While the Legacy was the center of early Subaru motorsports, the Impreza would later become its flagship. Also released in this time period was the Subaru SVX, which had funny windows. The SVX's powerful flat-six engine made it a respectable luxury/performance car, despite a curb weight of 3500 lbs--shockingly heavy compared with its Japanese siblings.
Subaru has enjoyed more than a decade of the World Rally Champsionship as its leading motorsport. Their first rally--the 1990 Safari Rally--saw the new Subaru Legacy become the first ever Group N (almost-stock) car to complete the grueling course. Their first win did not come until 1993, when the Legacy won the Rally New Zealand. This was also the first victory for the car's driver, a young Colin McRae. In 1995, 1996, and 1997, the podium was covered with 555 Sonic Blue Mica as the familiar blue Impreza brought home three consecutive Manufacturer's titles, the first time a Japanese manufacturer had performed this feat. Subaru claims to compete in the WRC to demonstrate the safety advantages of AWD and collect data on the challenging conditions, not to attract buyers to its WRX STi model. Whether you believe them is up to you.
Subaru currently produces five models in varying trim levels, all powered by boxer engines with all wheel drive. The Subaru Baja is a four-door, pickup-bed 'ute, the spiritual descendant of the 1980s' Brat. The Legacy sedan and station wagon are now in their third generation. The Subaru Outback is a crossover, now technically classified as an SUV due to a ride-height change for the 2005 model year. The Subaru Forester is a mid-size SUV of little distinction. The Impreza is a sporty sedan or wagon and the basis for the company's WRC car, while the Impreza WRX is a turbocharged version of the same. The Subaru flagship is the Subaru Impreza WRX STi, a 300-horsepower sedan distantly related to that WRC car. Lamentably, General Motors has acquired a portion of Subaru, and is prosituting the WRX (though not yet the STi) to sell more Saab vehicles.